The term “classic film” is thrown around so much these days, it’s impossible to know what that means, or if it, in fact, means anything at all. I’ve seen some classic films that deserve to have every existing copy thrown into a bus, and then driven off the side of a cliff. And I’ve seen some that stand the test of time so well, it’s hard to believe it was made so long ago. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is part of the latter.
Most people may recognize Jimmy Stewart from the widely loved Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which was released in 1946. The movie everybody has heard about, but surprisingly few have actually seen. Mr. Smith, which was released seven years earlier, stars Jimmy Stewart in a role that is by no means less emotional and heart wrenching than his Wonderful Life performance.
This film is also from the same director as Wonderful Life, the great Frank Capra, and the similarities are obvious. It is cheesy and ridiculous at times, but in the end a fantastic love letter to the ideals of America. If this film’s audience can hold themselves together through the somewhat slow, somewhat cheesy parts of this film, they will thank themselves later.
The film starts when the Governor of an unnamed state, Happy Hopper, is faced with the task of naming a new Senator to replace a recently deceased Senator. His boss, Jim Taylor (the main villain of the film), the leader of a massively powerful political machine, tells Hopper to choose his man, a “stooge”. The people of his state make it clear they want another man and are incensed at the idea that Hopper would pick “Taylor’s stooge”. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Hopper doesn’t know what to do until his children convince him to pick Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), head of the Boy Rangers (a fictional equivalent of the Boy Scouts). Smith, Hopper is convinced, is a universally loved but naïve young man, who can be easily manipulated to vote how he’s told for the next 2 years.
At first, Smith is more than willing to play along with the Taylor machine, and is content with basically doing nothing. But, as you’ve probably guessed, not for long.
He has an idea. A simple, innocent idea. And he introduces a bill to get federal funding to buy some land for a National Boys Camp.
But there’s a problem. That land is already spoken for, and as Smith soon finds out, by Jim Taylor himself. It is part of Taylor’s graft scheme in the Public Works bill about to go through.
Smith won’t back down, and therefore attempt to take on the full power of Taylor’s political machine.
I say all of this not because I want to spoil the movie for you, but because the main draw of the film is Smith’s epic fight against a giant political machine. It’s the main conflict of the film, and the intensity gets turned up to the max.
If you liked It’s a Wonderful Life, you’ll like this. If you like ‘taking down the man’, you’ll like this. If you like to see actors lay it all on the line, putting every ounce of emotion they have into their role, you’ll like this.
This is a movie for Republicans and Democrats. It’s a movie for those who believe in the principle American ideals.
It’s shocking how relevant this film, made 80 years ago, is today. It’s one, I’m afraid, that will always be relevant.
It’s a classic film in the purest sense of the word.