Claude Rains in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” from 1939 for the “Third Annual Claude Rains Blogathon” by Rebekah Brannan

In this time of political upheaval, what better film to review for the “Third Annual Claude Rains Blogathon” than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington from 1939. One of the things that makes this film so wonderful is the fact that, although it’s entirely centered around politics and corruption in government, it doesn’t mention political parties or name any real people or places. While the film focuses on one state which is entirely corrupted by Jim Taylor’s (Edward Arnold) political machine, the state is never named, thus leaving it as merely a fictional tale of corruption without pointing finger at any state or real person.

Idealism, Pragmatism, and the Relevance of 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' |  IndieWire
James Stewart and Claude Rains in a publicity shot for the film

While everyone in this film gives a great performance, I will mainly be focusing on the brilliant performance given by Claude Rains as Senator Joseph Paine. This performance earned him the first of his four Academy Award nominations, all of which he certainly deserved but never won. In this film, he plays a lawyer turned senator who fought lost causes until his friend and fellow crusader Clayton Smith was killed by the gangsters against whom he fought. This scarred him and eventually led to the decline of his morals and his surrender to Jim Taylor and his political corruption. However, when his old friend’s son, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is chosen to replace a deceased senator, Senator Paine is reminded of his old friend and his old cause. He mentors Mr. Smith in his new position until the young senator proposes a bill which interferes with Jim Taylor’s graft-built dam that has taken years to set up illegally. Although Senator Paine is initially unwilling to destroy Jeff, he soon succumbs to Taylor’s threats and helps ruin his young friend in the Senate by framing him for graft. However, after Jeff goes on a long filibuster to stop the passing of the corrupt relief bill which will put Taylor’s dam into action, Paine is overcome with guilt and tries to shoot himself. When he is stopped in the act, he rushes into the Senate and proclaims Jeff’s innocence and his own guilt.

Senator Paine grinning at Jim Taylor’s “obscure” ad for his campaign

The brilliancy of Mr. Rains’s acting in this film, as in all of his films, lies in the nuances of his performing. In the first scene between him and Jim Taylor, you can tell he is quite pleased with his cozy little arrangement. He has convinced himself that what he’s doing isn’t really wrong, since he has served the people of his state well despite Taylor keeping him in office with his corrupt influence. However, the moment he meets Jeff, he begins to change. He’s reminded of his old friend and his old cause and begins to realize how terrible his crimes are.

At first, it seems that he just enjoys tutoring Jeff like a surrogate father, but the change can be seen immediately. In one of their first scenes together, when they’re on a train bound for Washington, they talk about Jeff’s father, and Senator Paine is quite plainly moved by the old memories. At first, he’s happy as he remembers that they were the “twin champions of lost causes.” However, as he remembers his friend standing up to bribery and intimidation before finally being taken down by cold-blooded murder, it is clear that his own corruption hits him. After relating the story of Clayton’s death, Senator Paine recalls that he always had his hat on, so that he was “ready to do battle,” even when he found him slumped over on his desk, shot in the back. Jeff says, “I suppose, Mr. Paine, when a fellow bucks up against a big organization like that… One man by himself can’t get very far, can he?” “No,” Senator Paine responds, seeming to resume his old, calloused attitude with this statement.

For a while, Senator Paine is once again happy with his setup, even more so now that he has Jeff looking up to him as a mentor and hero. However, when the young senator begins asking questions he shouldn’t, Mr. Paine has to occupy him with something else. He suggests that he present a bill in the Senate. However, the bill Jeff writes turns out to interfere with a dam that Jim Taylor has been planning to build for years. When this happens, there’s panic amongst the senators, and Taylor comes to Washington to deal with the matter. It is then that Mr. Rains has another very significant scene. When he learns that Taylor plans to threaten Jeff into joining their setup or destroyed in the Senate, he says they can “count him out.” Taylor follows him into the next room and, with false friendliness asks him what he means. Senator Paine, showing some strength for the first time, tells him that his methods won’t work in Washington, and he will have no part in “crucifying this boy.” Taylor, still feigning urbanity, says that he can go ahead and leave. He reveals that he’s been behind Paine for twenty years, but says they can call that off. He says that Joe and “the boy ranger,” can go back home together, since he’ll be washed up in the Senate. He invites him to go into the next room and explain the dam and the graft behind it to Jeff. He also adds that, if Jeff doesn’t have enough facts to break him, he’ll give him a few extra. Then, he says he’s flying home and turns to leave. For a moment, you’re sure that Joe is going to make the first right decision he’s made in twenty years, but, just as Taylor reaches the door, he calls after him. Obviously surrendering to Taylor’s threats, he tells him that he’s fond of Jeff and just doesn’t want to see him being treated too roughly. Taylor laughingly congratulates him on “coming back to his senses” and sends him back to his office. Joe agrees and leaves the room, once again defeated and weak. This scene is one of my personal favorites in the film, although it’s difficult to watch, because Mr. Rains really gets a chance to show his wonderful acting skills in it.

Senator Paine telling Jeff “the facts”

When Taylor presents his ultimatum to Jeff, revealing to him that Senator Paine has been “taking his advice” for twenty years, Jeff calls him a liar and goes to see the senator. Senator Paine calmly and urbanely tells him the facts, saying that this is “a man’s world,” far more brutal than the “boy’s world” where he’s been living. He tells him that he had the same ideals thirty years ago, and he was presented the same ultimatum. He made the choice to compromise, but only so that he could stay in office and serve his state in many honest ways. He says he’s served his state well and been a good senator, but he compromised to stay in the Senate. “You can’t count on people voting,” he tells Jeff. “Half the time they don’t vote anyway.” He tells Jeff to stay away from the relief bill and not say a word when it comes up in the Senate the next day, since the powers behind it will destroy him before he starts. Crushed, Jeff leaves without a word. In this scene, Mr. Rains brilliantly shows the politician side of Senator Paine. He has put on his smooth front again and presents the supposed “facts” to Jeff in such a way that makes them sound much nicer than they truly are. While he knows as well as anyone what he’s done is wrong, he has convinced himself that he made the right decision and wants to convince Jeff, as well. However, you can still see the good in him, since his actions in this scene are largely caused by his fondness for Jeff and reluctance to see him get hurt.

Senator Paine denouncing Jeff before the Senate

After that, things happen quickly. When the bill comes up in the Senate, Jeff refuses to remain silent and tries to speak. However, when Senator Paine interrupts him, he foolishly yields to his colleague, thus allowing Mr. Paine to set the wheels of the political machine in motion. Taylor and his subordinates start in to prove Jeff guilty of their own crime.

Senator Paine plays his part well, testifying falsely against Jeff, all the while expressing his deep regret that this young man of whom he is so fond turned out to be dishonest. However, throughout all this, we can see him gradually starting to break down and be consumed by guilt and regret. This is illustrated by several particularly notable moments throughout the overview of Jeff’s ruin. After testifying against Jeff in a hearing, Senator Paine is shown in a side shot as he resumes his seat. All during his testimony, Jeff has been staring at him with an expression of utter disbelief and hurt. It is clear from his expression that Mr. Paine is aware of Jeff’s gaze on him as he sinks down in his chair, visibly weighed down by his guilt. When Jeff rises to take the stand, he even takes a few steps toward Mr. Paine, as though intending to speak to him, but his former friend refuses to even look toward him. Mr. Rains’s expression in the close-up profile shot of him is perfect, showing the guilt, sadness, and utter disappointment in himself. After Jeff leaves the room without even bothering to testify, Senator Paine is shown lowering his head into his hand, as though even he can’t believe what he’s done.

In the next scene, Taylor and the other members of his gang are having a wild party to celebrate Jeff’s apparent defeat. Taylor is in the midst of all this, obviously a bit intoxicated and offering to give away a large diamond bracelet to a group of giggling young women. In the background, Joe is sitting on a couch with a glass in his hand, obviously trying to drink himself into an unfeeling haze but failing to alleviate his guilty conscience. He looks at Taylor’s carrying on with disgust, then lowers his eyes as if thinking he has no right to be disgusted when he has done so many terrible things himself. Just this one shot tells everything you need to know.

Senator Paine refusing to listen his disgraced colleague

The climax of Mr. Rains’s performance comes when Jeff goes on a filibuster to stop the passing of the bill. He has several good scenes after this, in which he shows just about every aspect of the character. Senator Paine delivers a strong speech against Jeff, refusing to stay in the room while he has the floor, and then walks out indignantly.

In a scene after this, he is with Taylor in another room, discussing their plot. When Taylor tells him to go back in the Senate, he says, “I hit him from the floor with every I knew. I haven’t got the stomach for it anymore.” Taylor replies, “If he even starts to convince those senators, you might as well blow your brains out! You realize that, don’t you?” When Taylor makes this suggestion of suicide, Senator Paine turns his head slowly to look at him. It’s a very subtle movement, but it brilliantly sets up his later suicide attempt. As Taylor works out destroying Jeff on the radio and in the papers, Mr. Paine looks at him with obvious hate and horror, seeming as if he’s just realized how despicable this man is. After considerable urging from Taylor, he finally returns to the Senate.

Senator Paine indignantly rebuking his colleagues’ disloyalty

When the senators gather in another room to discuss Jeff’s filibuster, Senator Paine proves himself to be just as good an actor as the man playing him. All his defeat and guilt from the previous scene seem to be gone as he defends his honor to the other senators. However, his dramatic manner and rather wild offer to resign and thus end the whole matter betray that he is breaking under the guilt and strain.

Senator Paine inviting the Senate to read “the people’s answer to Jefferson Smith”

Senator Paine nearly holds out all the way through. When fifty thousand telegrams arrive from Jeff’s state telling him to yield the floor, he presents them in full theatrical style. He continues to speak out to the Senate grandly, the very picture of righteous indignation.

In the end, the memory of his friend Clayton Smith finally breaks Mr. Paine. After looking through the baskets of telegrams, an exhausted and tearful Jeff turns to his colleague and says, “I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes, but Mr. Paine does.” He stumbles over to Senator Paine’s desk and leans over it, talking right to him and pleading with him to remember the cause and ideals for which he fought with his friend. As Jeff talks to him, Mr. Paine seems to visibly sink down in his chair under the weight of his guilt until he finally can’t help raising his eyes to meet Jeff’s penetrating, sincere gaze.

Although Jeff pledges to keep fighting, exhaustion finally overcomes the young senator, and he collapses on the floor. Senator Paine rises from his seat, looks down at the young man lying on the floor, and then runs from the room.

As everyone is clustering around Jeff to see if he’s alright, a gunshot is heard, then another, before the camera cuts to Mr. Paine in the hallway being restrained by two men. Wildly trying to carry out his attempt at suicide, he shoots and breaks a light fixture, crying out, “Let me go! I’m not fit to be a senator! I’m not fit to live!” He then breaks away and runs into the Senate. He wildly proclaims Jeff’s innocence and reveals that everything he said was true, finishing off a perfect performance with a grand, dramatic climax.

File:Mr. Smith Goes to Washington deleted scene 3 (trailer).png - Wikimedia  Commons
One of the only existing shots from the film’s original ending

I read that there was originally a final scene in which Jeff and his new wife Clarissa went to see Mr. Paine, and Jeff forgave him. This scene was eventually cut due to the film’s length, but I think it’s a shame. I personally have always wondered what became of poor Senator Paine, if he went through with his plan of suicide or turned over a new leaf and became an honest man again. While I can’t actually see this scene, it’s comforting to know that the character did manage to have a happy ending. However, even without the final scene, this is one of Claude Rains’s best performances and a personal favorite film of mine

Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington...none better... | Claude rains,  Actors, Classic movie stars
A publicity shot of Claude Rains as Senator Joseph Paine

That’s all for this article, folks! Thank you for reading. Be sure to look at all the other articles written for this blogathon here. I would also like to thank everyone who joined our blogathon for contributing their wonderful articles! That’s all for this year’s blogathon, but I hope to see every one of our participants next November for the Fourth Annual Claude Rains Blogathon! Goodbye for now, and remember the greatest truth from this film, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for!

File:Mr. Smith Goes to Washington deleted scene 2 (trailer).png - Wikimedia  Commons
The title shot from the film’s trailer

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2 thoughts on “Claude Rains in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” from 1939 for the “Third Annual Claude Rains Blogathon” by Rebekah Brannan

  1. I’ve been looking all over the internet trying to find any information about that deleted ending. If it truly hasn’t been preserved that’s a shame.


  2. What a marvelous post. I’ve only seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington once, probably about 15 years ago so it’s been a while. You’ve renewed my interest in it and made me want to watch it again. Reading through your post, I was reminded of the brilliant performances by both Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart. I’ll have to track down a copy at my library. And like you said, your topic is very timely considering all of the political mayhem going on currently. Thanks for hosting!

    Liked by 1 person

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