A Timeless American Tale: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

by Kevin Hopkins ’22

Source: Vox

Published Dec. 2nd, 2020

In this time of great political debacle over the future of the Nation which calls on both sides of the political aisle for greater unity, Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington represents to many the ideal fighter for fairness and equality.

The story follows Junior Senator Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) as he is appointed by his state’s governor to serve in Washington with fellow Senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) at his side. The naïve Senator Smith, seeking to help the boys of his state, introduces a bill to establish a national boys’ camp.

However, the land Senator Smith had planned to use for the camp has already been purchased by political boss James Taylor (Edward Arnold), who purchases the land in the hope of committing an honest graft and making millions. When Senator Smith announces his plans to expose Taylor’s corruption, the political forces of Washington enact a smear campaign against him, attempting to expel him from Washington.

In a Hail-Mary attempt to clear his name, Senator Smith goes on a one-man Filibuster, which is a prolonged speech that obstructs progress in a legal setting, to defend his reputation and his name against all charges of impropriety and corruption. He rouses millions of boys around the country to the causes of truth and justice.

The classic David vs Goliath story is embodied in the final stand of Senator Smith when he defends the American system of justice and freedom against the immense power of Washington corruption. When Senator Smith falls to the floor after speaking for nearly a full day, his colleagues are moved by his suffering and atone for the corruption they have accepted in Washington. The final scene puts the onus on all Americans to question the government and our elected officials.

In this classic film, the youthful Senator Smith declares that America is unique from virtually all other nations in that a citizen born in the United States has liberty, something that their ancestors didn’t have but whose children now do. The film thus represented the growing belief that America was an exceptional nation, which was something the film’s director, Frank Capra, knew to be true based on a comparison to his childhood in Italy. 

The legendary filmmaker Frank Capra, an Italian-American immigrant, focused on the unique qualities of the United States and his appreciation for the country that allowed him to succeed in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra continued delivering blockbuster hits with 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life, also featuring Jimmy Stewart in the lead role.

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