Vintage Movies: “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’30s through the ’70s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939, 129 minutes)

U.S. Senator Sam Foley has died unexpectedly, leaving the senior senator from his unnamed Western state, Joe Paine (Claude Rains), in a pickle. “This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Paine informs political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), both knee-deep in a scheme to buy up property surrounding the federally funded Willet Creek Dam project. “With the vote on the dam coming up, the man who takes Sam Foley’s place can’t ask any questions,” asserts Taylor.

“Yes, Jim. Yes, Jim. Yes, Jim,” says Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper (Guy Kibbee) when awakened by Taylor with the urgent need to appoint a cooperative successor. “I suppose he’d drop dead, too, if you ever said no to him,” says the governor’s wife. When Hopper flips a quarter to decide which of two bad choices he must select, the coin lands on its edge. Even the governor’s eight children know the pair he’s considering are political hacks. “I suppose my children can make this appointment for me,” he says, exasperated, at the dinner table that night.

To his amazement, the kids have just the man for the job: Jefferson Smith, national leader of the Boy Rangers. “Oh, a boy, eh?” says Hopper. “Jeff’s a man, and the greatest hero we’ve ever had,” replies the oldest son. “He put out the Sweetwater forest fire all by himself,” adds another. “Jeff can tell you what George Washington said, by heart. All the kids in the state read Jeff’s newspaper, Boys’ Stuff.” Prompted by his children, Hopper does the math: Two parents for every member of the Boy Rangers make a solid bloc of 100 thousand voters. He visits Smith and finds him conducting a brass band playing “The Stars And Stripes Forever.”

Consulting no one, the governor appoints Smith, played by a babyfaced James Stewart. Though 31 at the time, Stewart looks young enough to have earned his last merit badges only a few years earlier. “I can’t help feeling like there’s been a mistake,” says an overwhelmed Smith at the press conference to announce his appointment. Remembering only the days when his dad and Paine specialized in “lost causes,” Smith declares he will be proud to serve alongside “the finest man my father ever knew.”

No sooner does Smith arrive in Washington, D.C., he goes missing. Afterward, he explains to his new personal secretary, Clarissa Saunders (a scene-stealing Jean Arthur) that he visited the Lincoln Memorial to “look Lincoln right in the eye” and soak up the stirring words of the Gettysburg Address.

This is all-American director Frank Capra at his finest, wading in against political corruption at the highest level. The starry-eyed new senator will need the steely reserve of the Great Emancipator himself once he learns what he’s up against in the United States Senate.