For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” could have gotten long winded and exhausting. Instead it is dramatic, uplifting and full of life. The film starts with the death of a senator, which means that Governor Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) must appoint a replacement. Senator Paine (Claude Rains) and Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a wealthy business and newspaper man, need the right man who will do as he is told and to keep quiet. They are nearly finished working on an inside deal that will provide the men huge kickbacks, and they are not about to let the appointment ruin their payday. When Hopper announces Miller as the replacement he gets opposition raining in from all sides- even from his children. Then his kids suggest that he appoint Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a local boy’s club leader. Hopper flips a coin to let fate decide, and thus Smith will go to Washington.
Smith (who is played brilliantly by Stewart), is naive and unexperienced, and arrives in Washington D.C. wide eyed, and enthusiastic to the point of showing just how inexperienced he is. Instead of going to his office, he disappears and goes sightseeing on a tour bus. Smith’s secretary, Saunders (Jean Arthur) and her press friend, Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell), await the junior senator’s arrival. Luckily Smith gets his knocks early and often, so he wises up pretty quickly. Jean Arthur is perfect as Saunders, giving her character enough edge to make her believable, and enough heart to make us want her to end up with Smith. She is arguably the smartest character in the film, and is the one responsible for guiding Smith and ultimately defeating Pain and Taylor. She is easily one of the best female characters on the list so far- made even more remarkable because she shows up in 1939.
Saunders takes us through a thrilling civic lesson to rival Schoolhouse Rock– her banter back and forth with Stewart is amazing. Smith is eager to make a difference, and comes up with a bill to authorize a federal loan to buy some land in his home state for a national boys’ camp, which would be paid back by youngsters across America. However, the proposed campsite is already part of the dam-building graft scheme included in an appropriations bill framed by the Taylor and supported by Senator Paine. Problems ahead. Saunders helps Smith craft his bill, distracts Smith from the Senate floor when Paine’s bill about the dam was being presented, and then reveals Paine and Taylor’s plan to Smith. Without Saunders there is no conflict and no story.
When Smith confronts Paine and Taylor- and tries to reveal their graft, they throw Smith under the metaphorical bus, and frame him for their crime. Paine brings a motion to remove Smith from the Senate, and it seems futile for Smith to fight. In steps good ole’ Saunders. She plans for Smith to filibuster the Senate- and he does so- holding the chambers captive while he waits for the opinions of the senators to shift in his favor. Back home the newspapers are even being skewed out of Smith’s favor- that darn Taylor. But they can’t keep Smith down, and we get a sincerely hopeful and romantic ending.
The director, Frank Capra wants us all to learn a lesson about how the government works, as well as the possibility of how it could work. Most of you have probably seen Smith, hoarse and completely exhausted on the floor of the Senate, berating the other senators for their complacency and willingness to accept the corruption around them. Capra shows his love of American democracy, while critiquing the problems that come with its practice.
In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns: