Making the Grades
The thought of a movie like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington becoming a hot political issue today speaks volumes about how much our society has changed. Made by idealist director Frank Capra, Mr. Smith premiered in October 1939 at the dawn of Hitler's uprising. Minutes after the initial showing, Capra faced scorn and anger from many senators and National Press Club members who attended the Washington D.C. premiere.
The film opens with Montana Senator Sam Foley passing away just days before he and his colleagues, Governor Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) and Senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), were to railroad a bill through the senate. Carefully constructed under the direction of newspaper mogul and businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), this document that appears on the surface to have nothing but good intentions, contains a clause approving a new dam that will have financial benefits for Taylor and these politicians.
Both Paine and Hopper are guilty of harnessing their political careers to Taylor, who has a long history of using his public influence to manipulate the state's political process. Taylor now demands a "puppet" be chosen for Foley's replacement. At the toss of a coin, naively patriotic Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), leader of a prominent boys' organization, is chosen.
Unaware of the back office deals, Smith arrives in Washington D.C. where the local press makes him a laughing stock. But his greatest blunder is the camp for boys he proposes to build on the same piece of land Paine's bill has earmarked for the dam. The ensuing conflict will shake Smith's belief in democracy, and cause him to take a brave stand (with help from his secretary Clarissa Saunders played by Jean Arthur) to bring justice and truth back to the house.
A box office success for Columbia Pictures, Mr. Smith won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Writing and was nominated in nine other categories. However, the obvious disclaimer at the front of the film, declaring all characters to be fictitious, reflected the studio's concern over the political hot water the movie landed them in. With a war brewing in Europe, U.S. politicians, including Joseph P. Kennedy acting as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, fretted that the movie would only continue to promote "the impression [foreigners] have about our Country being run by gangsters and crooked politicians."
However, Mr. Smith's criticism appears minor in light of today's "accepted" political behavior. Oddly enough, the depiction of copious amounts of smoking (although typical for the period) is more likely to raise objections now. Except for frantic dialogue that may be difficult for young audiences to follow, drinking and drunken behavior, and some retaliating punches received by a few reporters, parents will find this film has the potential to open great discussions on morals and ethics.
This Capra classic is still able to awaken a reverence for liberties and freedoms in even the most jaded viewer. It also reminds us that we have a right to demand higher ethical and moral standards from our elected representatives, making this "Capra-Corn" message one that will never go out of style.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
Do you think political corruption is better or worse in light of our more modern media and communications efforts?
In this movie, media (Jim Taylor owned a chain of newspapers) is seen as having a great deal of influence on the political process and popular opinion. Are you surprised that the media would be depicted that way in 1939? Does the media have that kind of power today?
What kinds of traits do the political leaders of today posses? What kinds of traits should they have? Are morals and ethics valued today?
Would you want Mr. Smith to represent your state? Why?