My review of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

In a strange coincidence with Thingy’s post, there was some kind of Jimmy Stewart marathon on TV yesterday. I saw the end of Anatomy of a Murder and then Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I won’t comment much on Anatomy, since I didn’t see the whole thing, but what I did see was superbly acted.

The same was true of Mr. Smith. I knew the basic plot going in: A naive everyman goes to Washington and ends up fighting corruption in the Senate. The details are that the naive everyman is a Boy Scout Ranger leader who wants to establish a “Ranger”  camp on a piece of land in his state.  but the land is reserved for a graft scheme being run by Senator Joe Paine, Smith’s mentor, and the powerful political interests in his state.

As the political interest groups try to destroy Sen. Smith, Sen. Paine and the rest of the political machine fabricate evidence to have him expelled from the Senate.  It culminates in the famous filibuster scene, where Smith talks for nearly 24 hours to hold up the bill. (Aside: How different would the current political scene be if Senators had to abide by the strict filibuster rules that Mr. Smith did?)

Finally, Senator Paine is so overwhelmed by Mr. Smith’s last impassioned plea before collapsing on the Senate floor, that he admits to the whole corrupt scheme and Smith is vindicated.

As I said, the acting is excellent. Jimmy Stewart is naively earnest without ever being annoying, and his exhausted speech at the end and witty comments throughout his filibuster are quite good.  Jean Arthur is excellent as the cynical but  good-natured Senate secretary who helps Smith learn the inner-workings of Washington.

Harry Carey is very likeable in the minor role of the bemused President of the Senate.  Edward Arnold is excellent as the jolly-but-heartless corrupt political boss. (Interestingly, Wikipedia says Arnold was actually considered as a possible Republican Senate candidate in the 1940s.)

But the best performance I think is that of Claude Rains.  I’ve written before about what a great actor he was,  and he is excellent as Senator Paine. He does a great job being both a corrupt career man who tries to rationalize compromising his principle, while still showing some genuine fatherly affection for Mr. Smith, that sets up his admission a the end.

The Senate was apparently not terribly thrilled with the movie when it came out.  They felt it would cause people to lose faith in the institution.  I’m guessing the most stinging part for wasn’t the over-the-top villainy of Boss Taylor, but rather Paine’s melancholy speech to Smith about how, in order to serve and do good for their state, he had to “compromise” certain things.  It’s a good speech, because he clearly means it as honest advice, but at the same time, it’s almost like he’s trying to persuade himself.

Ever since the movie came out, various politicians tried to paint themselves as “the real-life Mr. Smith.”  The “earnest outsider” card has been played too many times to count.  But the thing is, the whole fantasy of the movie is that someone like Smith could ever get to Washington.  (It requires a coin flip landing on “edge”.)

But the truth is, there are no Mr. Smiths in Washington–just endless, competing Senator Paines.

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