The Senate's bitter dispute over whether to curb the filibuster brings to mind the most famous movie dramatization of a filibuster, in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). James Stewart's marathon is being invoked by the Democrats, as it is the textbook case of using the rules to protect minority rights against an abusive majority. (Whether that is truly the issue in today's debate is another matter.) Mr. Smith, however, is about much more than a Senate filibuster. In fact, it may be the most anti-Washington insider film ever made.
As many readers will recall, Stewart plays the young, aptly named Jefferson Smith, an overgrown Boy Scout from way out Westand right out of Norman Rockwell. He is placed in a Senate seat, which has become vacant due to the death of the incumbent, by the rotund tyrant running the state's political machine, Boss Taylor (the wonderful Edward Arnold, who specialized in such roles for Capra). Taylor's mouthpiece is the senior Senator, the august "Silver Knight," Joe Paine (Claude Rains, three years before his even more famous turn as Captain Renault in Casablanca). Taylor orders the feckless governor, "Happy" Hooper (Guy Kibbee), to choose Smith for the seat because they are pushing through a public works bill to line their pockets with "graft" (a great word replaced in our day by the bland "pork"), and they expect to have no difficulty keeping him in the dark. Eventually, however, Smith learns of their corrupt scheme, and resorts to a heroic but desperate one-man night-and-day filibuster to expose the corruption at the heart of our nation's government. One of the leading radio journalists of the day, Westbrook Pegler, does a cameo praising the filibuster as a great tool of democratic government. And of course Smith ultimately wins.
Many people do not remember the rest of the film, whose portrait of the capital, even after 65 years, seems pretty contemporary. Thus, on his arrival at Union Station, Smith is immediately set upon by ever-present hangers-on, who also besiege his office. He is taken in tow by Taylor's hatchet man, Chick McGann (an even more rotund character actor, with an unforgettable raspy voice, Eugene Pallette). Today, McGann would be played as a lobbyist (and the Taylor character would be the president of some big corporation). Capra's wonderful comic touch is seen later, in the Senate chamber, when Smith takes out his sandwiches as he launches his filibusterthe shocked McGann jumps out of his seat in the gallery to hurry and telephone Boss Taylor, only to take a wonderfully deflating pratfall climbing up the narrow stairs.
After his arrival, Smith falls victim to the shallow, cynical press, which is interested not in facts and truth, but its "story," what today we call spinhere it is the young naïf who does bird calls (humiliating front page photo) and who certainly doesn't belong among the titans of the Senate. His reverence for the nation's founders doesn't interest them. Earlier, on arriving in Washington, he had eluded McGann, hopping a tour bus to go worship at the Declaration of Independence and Constitution in the National Archives, before figures of Jefferson and Hamilton in the Capitol, at the Lincoln Memorial, and at Mount Vernon. As in most films in those days (in fact, as in many films before Watergate), the reporters generally are shown as a rather shabby lot of boozing, lazy, ignorant wise-guys.
Smith's initial visit to the Lincoln Memorial is the film's emotional high point. Nervous and humble, he ascends the long steps (filmed on location), stands before Lincoln's mammoth figure and the simple inscription above, then turns to read the immortal words engraved on the wall. Capra also shows an elderly man, obviously a European immigrant, listening as his grandson reads the Second Inaugural. Standing nearby is an elderly black gentleman, reading the words to himself. Later, facing destruction by the forces of the capital, Smith returns to the memorialhis cathedraland in a romantic night scene he is persuaded to stay and fight by his aide and love interest, Saunders (Jean Arthur).
Capra, born in Sicily in 1897, is famous for celebrating the common man and the American Dream, of which his life was such an outstanding example. He was unique in the thirties in trying to deal with the issues of the Depression in a number of his films, starting with American Madness (1932), about a run on a bank. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), like Mr. Smith, has as its hero the innocent man from the country (Gary Cooper) who here inherits $3 million and decides to give it away to the unemployed to purchase small farms (with a metaphor about cars' differing capacities to drive up a hill that President Reagan later used to explain his economic philosophy). You Can't Take It With You (1938) features an eccentric, individualistic family standing up to a munitions tycoon (played by Arnold). Meet John Doe (1941) has citizens independently founding small self-help organizations to fight the Depression, only to be threatened with takeover by a fascistic big businessman (Arnold again). Most famously, we have Capra's immortal masterpiece, It's A Wonderful Life (1946), which features another run on a bank during the Depression. His last political film was State of the Union (1948), which also premiered in Washington, with Capra joining President Truman in his box. (Truman liked it.) Capra was the most acclaimed director of the thirties, winning best direction Oscars for It Happened One Night (1934) as well as Mr. Deeds and You Can't Take It With You. Only John Ford has won more, with four.
Capra always used a comic formula and simple story, derided by critics as "Capra Corn," to present his complex ideas. The screenwriters changed, but the films consistently bear Capra's personal stamp, as is true of all great directors. Although he is seen as a populist, his view of the common man is more nuanced. He is behind the people, but recognizes their weaknesses and the dangers of mob action, as in the two bank runs he dramatizes. And his films devoutly favor private economic action as the answer for free people to the calamity that had engulfed so many of them. Big business, however, is scorned in favor of traditional entrepreneurship. Note, for example, in Wonderful Life, the contrast between the cold-hearted banker, Potter, and the democratic, small Bailey Building and Loan. Government is not seen as a beneficent force. Politics is seen as morally corrupt, and is contrasted with the spontaneous moral action of free people in society. Thus, in John Doe a mayor who wants to get involved in his local John Doe Society is told, "No politicians." For Capra, "compassion" is found in virtuous citizens spontaneously helping one another, person-to-person, not in coercive government programs. Senator Smith introduces a bill for the government to lend funds for the construction of a National Boys Camp to help get poor children off the streets, but they are to pay off the loan with their hard-earned nickels and dimes. This is a far cry from the Great Society.
Thus, in Mr. Smith the nation's ideals and principles are embodied in societyin Smith's home state, in Smith himself and the Boy Ranger clubs he has made his name organizing, and to which he turns for help in fighting the Taylor machine. America's ideals and principles are endangered in Washington, by the operations of a government peopled with politicians and the special interests who control them. When Smith learns the dishonest motive behind the public works bill Paine is pushing and refuses to play ball, Paine smears Smith, the son of his dear friend from his younger, honest days, and moves his expulsion. "I hit him from the floor with everything I know," the righteous fraud reports to Boss Taylor. And the entire Senate lines up behind their "Silver Knight." This is what prompts Smith's filibuster.
To Capra, the Senate is as far from the "world's greatest deliberative body" as Venus is from Mars. When Smith is escorted to his new desk by a page, he comments that he plans just to listen, to which the page cracks, "That's how you get reelected." And at one point Saunders tells the crestfallen young hero, "This isn't the place for you. You're halfway decent. You don't belong here." Capra employs a roll call of some of his favorite character actors (part of his "stock company" who appeared in many of his films) to present a superbly telling picture of Senators who, beneath their distinguished, self-important veneer, are as self-serving and smug as any ward politico. The best example is Senator Monroe (the reedy character actor Porter Hall), objecting to Smith's "frivolity" during his filibuster. Among the others, H.B. Warner, the weighty majority leaderSenator Agnewplays Mr. Gower, the druggist, in Wonderful Life. Only the Vice President (Harry Carey) who, improbably, presides over all the proceedings, is a good guy. Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley and his other colleagues who were present at the Constitution Hall premiere were livid at how they were portrayed. For pulling back the curtain to show the reality behind the appearances, Capra was figuratively ridden out of Washington on a rail the next day.
Mr. Smith is far richer than a simple paean to democracy. It is framed around political, social, and moral issues that are as pertinent today as they were in 1939. Further, the founders and especially Lincolnwho is the moral conscience of the filmare not mere generalized, sentimental figures, but guardians of living, timeless truths that still should be guiding us. And closing the ring on the issue of the filibuster, which liberals say is needed to keep religious zealots not to their liking off the courts, Capra begins Smith's first Senate session with a reverent scene of the daily opening prayer. These old films frequently demonstrate how radicalized American society has become today.