Day 30 of #CleanMovieMonth: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” from 1939

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Today is July 30, the second to the last day in #CleanMovieMonth. We have been reviewing one Code film every day during this month. Here at PEPS, we have dedicated July to celebrating and analyzing the Breen era of Hollywood (1934-1954), when movies were carefully self-regulated by the Production Code Administration. We have enjoyed reviewing and studying some of these movies to increase our appreciation of this wonderful time.

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Tomorrow’s article is going to be a summary of the entire project. Thus, today is the last day I will be writing a review of a Code film. As such, I wanted to write about a perfect Code film. After some thought, I decided on one of my favorite dramas from the Code era, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Made in 1939 with James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains, this Frank Capra classic has truths which are just as powerful today as they were eighty years ago.

Outline

Governor “Happy” Hopper is in a flurry because one of the senators in his state has just died suddenly. He must appoint a new senator immediately. He is controlled by Jim Taylor, a huge financier who practically owns this state. He and Joseph Paine, the state’s other well-respected senator of twenty years, decide on an appointment, but the state rejects him as a stooge, suggesting a candidate of whom Mr. Taylor doesn’t approve. Happy’s children advise him to appoint Jefferson Smith, the local hero and leader of the Boy Rangers. Happy doesn’t know what to do, so he decides to take his children’s suggestion. Much to Mr. Taylor’s chagrin, he appoints the naïve young man. At his appointment celebration, Jeff tells Mr. Paine that his father was his best friend, a brave newspaperman who was literally shot in the back for fighting for lost causes. Mr. Paine is shocked to realize that this is true, and he is happy to see his old friend’s widow and son. Jeff is honored and humbled, since he can’t believe he is being given this opportunity. He is thrilled to work with Joe Paine, who has been his idol for years. When they arrive in Washington, Jeff is filled with patriotic fervor. He is so excited to be there to serve his country, although he feels unworthy. Little does he know that his beloved Senator Paine is also a stooge of Jim Taylor, as is every other congressman from their state. He has been taking orders from Mr. Taylor for twenty years. Now, it is his duty to see that Jeff just decorates a chair and follows his example; he must take orders and question nothing. Mr. Paine appoints hardened, wise-cracking secretary Clarissa Saunders to supervise, guide, and assist Jeff during his office hours. She is very sarcastic about this assignment, but Jeff Smith is so honest and guileless that he scarcely notices her insincerity. She and her tippling reporter beau, Diz Moore, have some good laughs at Jeff’s expense, but there is something about the childlike enthusiasm of this young patriot that impacts every cynical Washingtonian he encounters. Jeff is elated to be a member of the magnificent body which is the Senate, but he quickly feels that he isn’t really doing anything. He thinks that he will just be imitating Mr. Paine if he only takes his advice. He wants to do more than decorate a chair. Mr. Paine is eager to keep his young protégé from thinking too much, since he and Mr. Taylor are currently trying to put through a bill which is full of graft. It involves the Willet Creek dam project, which is not going to benefit the public but is just going to profit the Taylor Machine. In order to give Jeff something to do, Joe Paine suggests that he begin to work on the idea he mentioned for a bill about a national boys’ camp. His idea is to build a camp which boys from all over the country can attend to explore nature, learn useful skills, and learn to understand their fellow men. The property will be bought with the nickels and dimes which boys contribute from throughout the country. Jeff eagerly begins to write the bill with the help of Miss Saunders. Joe thinks that he has cleverly diverted Jeff. He has no idea that the property he intends to buy for his camp is the area surrounding Willet Creek, the very property involved with the crooked dam project. When Jeff presents his bill to the Senate, Senator Paine is dumbfounded to hear his proposed location. Knowing that he must keep Jeff out of the Senate the next day, when the dam project is going to be discussed, Joe Paine removes Jeff by getting his attractive daughter, Susan, to invite him out. Due to her increasing fondness for him, Clarissa is disgusted by the ruthlessness of this move. Planning to quit, she tells Jeff about the graft involving Jim Taylor and the Willet Creek dam. Mr. Taylor happens to come to Washington around this time, and he meets with Jeff. He offers him any job in politics or back in their state if he will take orders from him, saying that Mr. Paine has been “taking his advice” for twenty years. Jeff calls him a liar and storms out. In disbelief, he confronts Senator Paine, who indirectly confirms Mr. Taylor’s statement but tries to justify his actions. He implores Jeff to leave the situation alone, since he doesn’t want to see the young man, of whom he has grown very fond, get crushed by the Taylor Machine. The next day, Jeff rises in the Senate and begins to address the issue of the Willet Creek dam. However, Joe Paine stops him before he can even get started, accusing him of unethical and fraudulent behavior. Before he knows what has happened, Jeff has been completely ensnared in a vicious, slanderous web of lies which has been woven by the Taylor Machine to defame his character and protect its crooked project. Jeff finds himself humiliated, despised, and betrayed by the man whom he so greatly admired. He can’t believe how terribly the American system is being abused before his very eyes. However, he has always believed in Americanism and the boys of the future. Will Jeff be able to survive the attempts to defame his character? Can he expose and defeat the Taylor Machine? Will he be able to convince people that he is honest and right? Will Joe Paine be able to watch his friend’s character be assassinated and aid in the process? Will Jeff’s boys’ camp and the ideals for which it stands ever become reality? Can Clarissa Saunders help him defeat tyranny? Watch this movie to find out!

Cast

Jefferson Smith is played by James Stewart. Clarissa Saunders is played by Jean Arthur. Joseph Paine is played by Claude Rains. Jim Taylor is played by Edward Arnold. Diz Moore is played by Thomas Mitchell. Governor “Happy” Hopper is played by Guy Kibbee. Susan Paine is played by Astrid Allwyn. Ma Smith, Jeff’s mother, is played by Beulah Bondi.

Additional Information

This movie has been revered as one of Frank Capra’s finest movies. It is a classic, being considered by many to be one of the best films ever made. However, it received considerable criticism at its original opening. A special premiere was given in Constitution Hall in Washington, D. C. Forty-five members of the four-thousand-member audience were senators. As might be expected, many of them felt attacked by the film, which depicted all the congressmen from an unnamed state as dishonest. Washington critics and politicians in Washington attacked the film. Many people accused the movie of being anti-American. Some were afraid of dangerous repercussions for our nation when the film was played overseas. Despite the fact that some Americans deemed it pro-Communist and anti-democratic, the movie was banned in fascist European nations because of its strong Americanism.

Despite the criticism, this film was a financial success. It had a budget of 1.5 million dollars, but it earned 9.6 million. In addition, it received acclaim within the industry. At the Academy Awards, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Claude Rains, Best Supporting Actor for Harry Carey (President of the Senate), Best Screenplay Writing, Best Art Direction, Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing, and Best Music Scoring. It won Best Original Story Writing. It was on the National Board of Review’s list of top ten films for 1939. It was nominated for Best Picture and won Best Actor for James Stewart at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. It seems that this movie, which was called “silly and stupid” by Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley, was very popular among less politically-sensitive Americans.

Code-Compliance

This is a perfect Code film. You may find that statement surprising after the governmental criticism which I mentioned in the previous section. After all, as I have often said, the PCA’s motto was to make films “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people.” Note the word reasonable. That word provides the disclaimer which allows for the displeasure of the senators. The reasonable people, namely the majority of American citizens, loved this film. Only a specialized group, sensitive politicians, were offended by it. They felt that they had been depicted as crooks and fools. I find myself wondering whether some senators were so insulted because the story was a little too close to home. After all, I’m sure that there were some Joseph Paines in the Senate in 1939.

This movie owes a lot to the Production Code Administration’s careful and brilliant self-regulation. That is one of the reasons why it is a perfect Code film. The original, unpublished story by Lewis R. Foster was called The Gentleman from Montana. The disturbing message which this story presented was that Congress is riddled with dishonesty and the whole American government is basically crooked. The whole system is corrupt to the core. Basically, the message was that the democratic process is flawed, since it allowed such dishonesty take place. This is a very dangerous message to present at any time. In 1939, it was especially dangerous. The Depression made many people question the current establishment in the United States. With Nazi Germany sparking the second World War in Europe, it was no time for democracy to be undermined.

In January of 1938, the story idea was presented to Joseph Breen by MGM and Paramount. He warned each studio that the story “might well be loaded with dynamite,” and I can’t say that he was wrong on that point. Nonetheless, it was the studios’ right to tamper with dynamite if they so chose, having been friendlily warned by Mr. Breen of the potential dangers. However, some things could not be permitted in PCA-Sealed films. The Code would not permit “the generally unflattering portrayal of our system of government, which might well lead to such a picture being considered, both here and more particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the democratic form of government.” When Columbia eventually bought the story, these problems had to be removed. The way it was accomplished is a glowing testimony to the PCA in its glory days.

While most of the Senators were dishonest in the original story, the crookedness was exclusively confined to Mr. Smith’s state in the film. Senator Paine and Governor Hopper are clearly bought by Jim Taylor. It is implied that he also controls the state’s Representatives from the House. That, in combination with his control of the state’s newspapers and his massive wealth, gives him horrifying control over the state. However, this machine is not something which is just ignored. It is unknown to the honest senators from other states. Everyone in the Senate besides Joseph Paine is upright and respectable, in compliance with Joe Breen’s request that it always be clear that “the Senate is made up of a group of fine, upstanding citizens, who labor long and tirelessly for the best interests of the nation.” Thus, the contrast between them and the Taylor Machine is even greater. This follows the Code’s requirement that it always be understood that “evil is wrong, and good is right.”

In the original story, the state was clearly identified. In most versions, it was Montana, but it was sometimes named as Wyoming. The decision to anonymize Jeff’s state was, I think, the best possible one. To openly declare that the state is Montana or any other state is to pointedly declare in your film that that state is run by a tyrant, even if it is only in the story. To do so is to plant a very large seed of doubt and fear in people’s minds. People take movies very seriously. Montanans might have begun to fear that such a political machine really existed in their state. The downside of not naming the state was a political one. Because the state was not identified, every senator probably felt that his state was being incriminated. It is called a Western state, but it isn’t clarified any more than that. I say that it is better to offend senators than to unnerve average Americans. All these delicate issues of public relations were matters which no censor could handle. They required the expertise of a man like Joe Breen, who had worked in public relations, the newspaper business, and even in the state department.

Public relations and goodwill were really Will Hays’s department, since he was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Naturally, Mr. Breen differed to him regarding company policy on matters like this. Mr. Hays had been a Postmaster General under President Harding, so he was well-acquainted with politics, and corrupt ones at that. Some have suggested that that is why he happily approved the story. Mr. Breen, however, had to do the work in scenario, scene, situation, and line to ensure that the dynamite was not instantly and irrevocably ignited. He suggested alterations and deletions of lines which were particularly pointed about the dishonesty of Washington folk. Thus, he diffused the sting of some dialogue. He removed only enough to lessen the offensiveness. He didn’t remove enough to lessen the effectiveness.

This story didn’t have problems about romantic morality or immorality. However, the treatment of the graft and corruption in this movie is very much like the treatment of amorous immorality in other perfect Code films. Although both are understood to be there, they are confined to certain characters. It is important to keep the audience from thinking that everything and everyone is corrupt and horrible. Although the respective evils are understood and perhaps even discussed, they are not the primary topic. We mustn’t dwell on them so much that we are hardened or contaminated by exposure to them. By not wallowing in the mire of these immoral elements in films, the filmmakers put their energy and attention into the positive elements, namely the good and hopeful characters and situations. Instead of being a story about the corrupt and inefficient democratic system as seen through the eyes of the gentleman from Montana, this movie told the story of a noble young American who fights corruption of the peerless democratic system of the United States. Now, the focus is on the need to save, protect, and defend something sacred which is being endangered and abused, our country’s freedom and ideals.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is so inspiring to me. Although it is over two hours long, it never drags for a moment. I love this movie for its acting, its direction, and its script, but especially for its message. Jeff discovers horrible things when he gets too close to a well-planned graft scheme. Despite warnings and threats, he tries to speak out against it. He is almost crushed in response. However, he doesn’t let that stop him. He risks everything to combat this evil which he has discovered. He doesn’t care what happens to himself. He just cares about what happens to the country which he loves. We can all learn from his fearless, selfless courage. He fights for a good future for the citizens of America through his idea for a boys’ camp. With the state of our country’s youth, I think such a camp would be a marvelous idea. This movie really inspires patriotism in me and, I hope, other Americans. It reminds us just how wonderful the United States of America is and why it needs to be protected. It encourages us to support our country more. If movies like this were still being made, I think this nation would have a lot more patriotic citizens.

I think my favorite thing about this movie is its message about fighting for lost causes. Senator Paine says that, when he was a young man, he and Jeff’s father were the twin fighters of lost causes. Mr. Smith died for his cause when he was shot in the back for fighting a big mining syndicate. Mr. Paine, on the other hand, was not willing to die for lost causes, so he turned his back on them after his friend’s death. However, he still remembers his late friend’s motto that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. Eventually, at the climax of the film, this becomes the penultimate theme. Jeff says that you fight the hardest for lost causes. Sometimes you even die for them.

That is the theme with which I want to leave you at the end of #CleanMovieMonth. I don’t need to tell you that PEPS is fighting for a lost cause, since you know we are. Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. If a cause has been won, why should you keep fighting? Like Jeff Smith, we need the help and support of our fellow citizens. We need you to join us in our cause by supporting PEPS through liking and sharing our website. We need you to spread the word. Perhaps someday, pure entertainment will no longer be a lost cause, and wonderful movies like this will not just be a beautiful shadow from the past.


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4 thoughts on “Day 30 of #CleanMovieMonth: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” from 1939

    • If you’ve never seen this movie before, you are in for a huge delight. This is one of James Stewart’s very finest performances. He really deserved a Best Actor Oscar for this performance, but he was just nominated. It has a fantastic supporting cast, a superb script, and an inspiring which is just as potent today as eighty years ago. If you don’t own it, you can follow the link at the bottom of the page to buy the DVD!

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan

      Like

  1. I had the pleasure of seeing this film on the big screen about a year ago, and it nearly made me cry. It is so powerful, and James Stewart’s character is so desperate and determined, that you can’t help but feel inspired to fight for the lost causes yourself.

    This film is a legend for a reason. People today still need some kind of reassurance that justice will prevail and decent people can triumph.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Ruth,

      Thank you so much for your comment. That must have been a very memorable experience. I’m glad that you like this film, too.

      I look forward to receiving your article about “I Remember Mama” whenever you ca provide it!

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan

      Liked by 1 person

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