“Dad used to say the only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes.”
Remember back in the old days when there were only about six television channels and you’d marvel at your middle of the night good fortune to find a great old movie on worth watching. I could never turn my back on a good late night view of a Frank Capra classic. Without doubt, when the four o’clock hour rolled around, I would wipe away my tears and pledge to myself that I would take Capra’s call to heart and become a better person. Of course, the next morning I would have to wake up for work, and my lack of sleep would make me cranky as a junkyard dog. We can’t always be Jefferson Smith, but at least we know where the high bar is.
This movie is very similar to the earlier Capra effort Mr Deeds Goes to Town, but in that movie the viewer can tell from the first frame that Deeds is the superior citizen. Mr Smith requires its hero to overcome his naivete, grasp on tighter to his beliefs and battle the real world. When this movie was first screened for Congress back in the day, many of the bigwigs walked out insulted, which is as good a review as this movie will ever need.
People tend to dismiss Capra’s work as corny hokum, but if you take a good look at his films they are much too smart for that. They recognize the cynical modern world for what it is, and use the system’s own myths against itself to tear down the status quo and propose a newer more honest future. There is often nothing more radical than a defense of one’s own discarded idealism. The script by Sidney Buchman is fast paced, clever, and carefully worded. One wrong turn with this material and you can wind up with a mopey after school special rather than a fine tuned crackling political expose that holds its own as a top flight heart stirring romantic comedy.
When the Senator of an unnamed state, Sam Foley, dies, it is a terribly inconvenient time for machine poss publisher Jim Taylor. He plans on making a fortune by building a dam on Willet Crick and needs a new boy who will play ball so his corrupt deficiency bill can go through. Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), is the Aww shucks true believer Boy Ranger leader they send as their unwitting stooge to the Capitol. There to see that he doesn’t cause trouble is the state’s other Senator, Joseph Paine, a man who has already sold his ideals to the Taylor machine. Smith is a pleasant rube. He stumbles and stutters in the presence of women, and he quotes Washington and Lincoln from the heart. He is a fat mackerel being sent into a den of piranhas.
When he finds little sympathy from a jaded and mocking press. He starts punching them out one by one demanding that they write the truth. They give it to him. “You’re not a Senator. You’re an honorary stooge. You deserve to be shown up. Have a drink it will taste a lot better than the truth.”
Undeterred Smith tries to do his job, but makes the mistake of proposing a boy’s camp where Taylor’s graft dam is scheduled to be built. When Smith refuses to be bought, learns that his idol Paine is crooked, and won’t play ball, they set out to destroy him with forged papers and nasty insinuations.
On Smith’s side is the wonderful Jean Arthur, who plays his seen it all assistant. She has been one of the boys for so long she has been robbed of her first name, and is simply referred to as Saunders. Despite herself, she falls in love with the simpleton and his outdated ideals and lofty ambitions. Together they wage a desperate last minute filibuster to restore honor to the Senate.
Jimmy Stewart, nervous, frayed, and exhausted. provides what for my money is the bravura performance of the twentieth century. I’ll never say a bad word about Spencer Tracy, but his Oscar win over Stewart should have been investigated by a Congressional committee. Harry Carey, not the drunk Cub’s broadcaster, provides endless charm as the sympathetic and amused President of the Senate.
It’s a key moment in one’s life when they have to affront the dangerous comfort of compromise. The truly strong never do, or at least we pray that they don’t. This film, coming as it did during Hitler’s and Mussolini’s fascist rise is a tribute the very best intentions of honorable men. It’s dramatic conclusion never fails to bring tear to my eye, a lump in my throat. Every citizen should be made to watch in exchange for the right to vote.