Time for another black and white classic film! Be warned, this contains spoilers.
One thing Hollywood loves is a good, stirring speech. You find them everywhere, from military movies to sci-fi films to political suspense thrillers to courtroom dramas, sometime around the climax of the film someone will step forward and remind us all what it’s all about. But interestingly enough, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a film where the speech is the climax.
The recap, in case you’ve never seen this film: Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is the leader of a small boy’s group called “The Boy Rangers” and something of a state hero, at least among young boys. When the state governor has to replace a recently deceased Senator he faces pressure from two lobbies – the state reformer committees and the political machine that got him elected. Each wants their man in the Senate. The governor’s children suggest a third alternative – their hero, Mr. Smith. When the governor tosses a coin to determine the outcome, heads for the machine’s candidate, tails for the reformer, the coin lands on it’s edge, balanced against a newspaper. Smith’s picture is on the front.
So Mr. Smith goes to Washington, D.C. He sees the sights and generally geeks out over being in the nation’s capitol. Then he meets the other senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Senator Paine knew Jeff’s father and gladly takes Jeff under his wing. Unfortunately, Paine is also corrupt, beholden to the same machine that the state governor is.
When Jeff drafts a bill that threatens a major piece of graft, intended to give the members of the state machine thousands of dollars of profit, Paine is forced to spearhead an effort to run Jeff out of the Senate. Jeff retaliates with one of the greatest weapons of American politics – the filibuster. Since he’s a newcomer to D.C., without political allies, Jeff will have to hold the floor of the US Senate alone and hopefully convince the jaded, politically minded men there that he’s not the crook he’s been painted as.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a great film. Not because of it’s themes per se, or even because Jeff Smith is a fantastic orator. He does have some nice speeches, and he earns our respect and the respect of the men of the Senate because of his good character and integrity. But one man standing against the machine has been done before, and there are other speeches more relevant to today in other movies out there. So why does this film deserve your consideration?
Because it acknowledges a simple fact: The truth is not enough to win.
Spoilers Start Here!
Even with all the facts on his side, Jeff cannot seem to make any headway against the forces of the political machine that are arrayed against him. In the end, his filibuster will drag to a close with the situation basically unchanged. It’s not until Jeff makes a direct appeal to Senator Paine that things change – Paine’s will breaks, and he gives away the game.
Jeff doesn’t win because he makes a speech, he doesn’t beat the machine because he has the right on his side. The right wins out because Jeff knew and reached out to a person who should have been his enemy. It’s not something that happens often, not a part of what we think of as taking a stand.
And it’s not a normal part of the classic movie speech. Paine was Jeff’s role model, a hero, someone he looked up to. Jeff calls him out, reminds him of what he was without bitterness or animosity, and gently asks him to be so again. It’s a kind of compassion that’s rare in film in general, and it makes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington unique and worth the watching.
This is one of my favorite classic films. It’s a great story, and a great performance.
The performances are definitely amazing. It’s a fine example of how even bit players can improve the quality of a movie. Even the “less important” senators who have few lines are played with lots of expression so we get a sense of who they are and what they think.