I am old enough to remember the days when, as an elementary school student, the wheeling in of a TV on a cart meant a change in mood for the day (and sometimes, the whole week). Sadly, most of those times were dedicated to very below the bar forms of entertainment focused on just learning certain material (unless it was The Magic School Bus TV series).
My first real encounter with watching an actual movie for educational purposes came at the age of 13 in Mr. Russell’s 7th grade Social Studies Class in Middle School. I can’t remember if I had seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington before then, but I had definetly heard of it. So much of this movie can seem lost on today’s youth, mostly that a political film can actually be entertaining (not to mention, as Mr. Russell let my peers know, that black and white movies are not all boring.)
Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, the title is bluntly straight forward. After the sudden death of a Senator, the (unspecified) State’s Governor (Guy Kibbee) seeks the selection of a new one to stand alongside Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). The corruption of the state, lead by the vile Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), eventually warms up to the idea of electing the young Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a leader of the Boy Rangers. Along with Paine (who knew Smith’s late father and was a hero to Smith growing up), the very naïve new Senator finds out more about the inner workings of politics, especially the darker side. He also meets Ms. Saunders (Jean Arthur), who, despite wanting out of the political arena, finds herself drawn to Smith’s ideals, and begins helping him with the idea of setting up a camp for young boys in his state despite the objection of Taylor and Paine.
Rewatching the film, I admit I forgot how much comedy was in the film. This is not necessarily laugh out loud material (as was the case in Capra’s It Happened One Night), but it definitely delivers moments that result in warm smiles. Much of this is in the scenes where Smith is either with Saunders or with Paine’s daughter, Susan (Astrid Allwyn), in which his hat never seems to stay off the ground.
There is always talk about movies that are considered “untouchable” when it comes to the question of remakes, and Mr. Smith goes to Washington is certainly one of those (although The Simpsons did do a wonderful episode with the film being remade as an action movie with Mel Gibson). As a general rule, I feel that a good amount of the films that came out in 1939 (which many, including myself, consider the best year for film) are such classics in their own right that they should not be touched. Would you go see a remake of The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, or Gone with the Wind?
If the film was remade, it would have to be modernized, meaning all the characters would have cell phones, and there would be tweets all over the place. There would also be the question of casting Mr. Smith. James Stewart is regarded to be not just one of the most beloved actors of all time, but also one of the nicest people in Hollywood history (it was he who Tom Hanks has been compared to many times). No one could have the “aw shucks” or “gee whiz” charm that Stewart brought to the screen, and it is that which we remember him the most for. It is because of him that we see the true inner core of Smith’s character emerge by the film’s end.
Parents, the film is totally fine for kids, since the movie came out in a time where swearing and sex was virtually nowhere on screen (one character does say the other term for “donkey” in the movie, but that is it). Middle school and up.
The true genius and miracle of the film is that it never once mentions a political party: we never find out who are conservatives and who are liberals (perhaps someone can tell if setting up a boys camp would be more liberal or more conservative, but they would be missing the point of the film). Everyone, regardless of their political beliefs, are in danger of compromising with the dark side to get what they feel is right.
The film leads to the now immortal filibuster scene in which Smith spends hours on his feet, taking his time to win over anyone who will listen to him. It does not take a genius to know that this is what truly shot James Stewart into the spotlight. It is as electric today as it was over eight decades ago.
The ending always used to make me feel a little upset: While it ends on the note we want, there was always the question of “Now what?”. What happened to the antagonists, something I always asked during the ending of the next (and more popular) Capra/Stewart picture, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Then it hit me. Capra did more than just leave the ending up for us to decide: He challenges us to do so in real life.
He challenges us to strive for the ideals of our country, straying away from corruption. He challenges us to fight for the lost causes. He challenges us to remember that one simple rule of “Love thy neighbor”, regardless of beliefs.
He challenges to not only take a stand, but to keep standing.