Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Columbia Pictures 1939.

Before watching the movie:

So, the underdog political fable. The everyday guy who comes to Congress and fixes corruption with dogged determination and fillibustering. What’s sad is that it seemed plausible then, but not anymore, and the fillibuster it hinges on is now a tool of the kind of problems this movie wants to fix.

That’s the reputation, anyway. The changed political landscape is why I’m not sure I’ll get out of this movie what was intended.

After watching the movie:

Mayor Hopper, faced with filling the seat of a suddenly dead senator, faces opposition to his political master Jim Taylor’s chosen stooge on on one side, and to the populist committee’s reformer on the other. Seeing an end to his career with either option, he ultimately chooses his sons’ recommendation: Boy Scout Ranger leader Jefferson Smith, in the expectation that such a clean-cut man would present a popular face while his inexperience would make him easy to control for the two months he has to keep the seat warm. On arriving at Washington, Smith quickly learns the fickle nature of the press, and is heckled by journalists into realizing that his appointment is worthless if he doesn’t stand up and get involved in the bills he’s being asked to vote on, and his colleagues suggest he write up one of his own ideas to stay out of their way. But it just so happens that his proposed national Boys’ Camp is in exactly the same place Jim Taylor has earmarked in a small section of an appropriations bill for a dam as a graft scheme. When Smith finds out what’s up, he brings his one-man righteous anger on the system, and Taylor’s political machine, through Smith’s senior senate partner and former personal hero, brings the wrath of the corrupt system down on him.

The prevailing theme of descriptions of this story is of the only honest person in Washington, but Smith isn’t as alone as is made out. He has the ear of the President of the Senate, and the support of his secretary Saunders, though she is inspired by his earnestness. Back home, his boys champion his cause over the Taylor media onslaught, and the press in Washington are trying to get his story told. They rally around him, but they inspire him too. He wouldn’t have the knowledge or the strength without them.

While government corruption is seen differently post-Watergate, it’s surprising there was so much insistence in its day that this movie is slanderous to even suggest that money night influence public officials. Not too long before, Roosevelt was battling trusts for wielding too much power. Anyone Insisting it doesn’t happen is naive or on the take.

Ultimately, special circumstances win the day. With such a small scale next to the big problems, I don’t believe a single person could make this kind of impact now. If anything will have lasting change, we must stack government with as many Jeff Smiths as we can find. Wherever they are.

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