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An Evaluation of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

This is a story of how one man can make a difference when it seems as if all odds are against him. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, directed by Frank Capra, is a political comedy-drama released in 1939. In the same year, the New York Film Critics Circle named James Stewart as best actor for his performance in this film. Additionally, it won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Story and nominated for Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Score. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is worthy of being on the AFI Top 100 Films list because of its original storytelling and technical aspects.


Knowing the plot is crucial to understanding how the protagonist and antagonist develops. The film begins when Washington outsider and idealistic leader of the Boy Rangers, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), is appointed to the United States Senate under the mentorship of secretly corrupt Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). To keep Smith occupied, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith’s secretary, and himself formulate a bill allowing the federal government to buy land for a Boy Rangers campsite. However, political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) and Senator Paine are advocating for a bill to construct a dam (on the same land Smith intends to use) for their own personal gain. At first, Taylor tries to corrupt Smith but turns to Paine to expel him from the Senate by involving him in a scandal. To triumph over corruption and prove his innocence, Smith launches a twenty-three-hour filibuster. It is necessary to know the plot before analyzing the characters.


Capra’s characters have strong traits that clearly define the protagonist from the antagonist. Jefferson Smith is the patriotic protagonist that drives the film because the plot revolves around his unwavering goal to pass legislation for a national boy’s camp stemming from his belief in American freedoms. Throughout the film he endures external conflict such as public humiliation by the press and a scandal, yet he persists to better the youth. In a way, Smith is his own antagonist. To illustrate this, Smith speaks at the “star-spangled banquet” and says, “I don't think I'm gonna be much help to ya down there in Washington, Senator. I'll do my best.” Throughout the film, Smith struggles with an internal conflict, questioning his self-worth and position in office. Senator Joseph Paine is the antagonist because he stands in the way of Smith. He does this by ridiculing him, persuading Smith to forget about his bill, and plots the land ownership scandal against him. Although Paine does the right thing in the end by confessing the truth, the audience negatively identifies with this character and positively with Smith.


Smith is a well-developed character that the viewer can identify with. Smith, portrayed as naïve and an underdog, makes the audience want him to succeed because he is always trying his best. Smith possesses traits the audience can relate to such as being awkward, clumsy, inexperienced, underestimated, and not confident in public speaking. When he first introduces his bill to the Senate when he fumbles over his words and fiddles with his paper. As the film progresses, Smith gains self-confidence because he overcomes his internal conflict through his willingness to learn about the legislative process. At the climax of the film Smith “refuses to yield” to Paine and embarks on a filibuster. Although Paine is the antagonist, the audience can understand his motives for trying to expel Smith.


Paine is a puppet on John Taylor’s strings. He struggles with the internal conflict of whether he should sacrifice his political career by going against his boss or betray Smith. Demonstrated in the scene where Paine tries to object to Taylor’s corrupt Deficiency Bill, Taylor reminds him that corrupt ways got him into the respected position he’s currently at. The audience negatively identifies with Paine because he is selfish, lies to someone that looks up to him, and tries to commit suicide at the end before confessing to his crimes. The tension between the protagonist and antagonist create conflict and suspense throughout the film.


The script of Mr. Smith creates suspenseful moments. The first glimpse of suspense in the film is when secretary Saunders speaks about the Willet Crick Dam to a reporter, Diz Moore. This is suspenseful because the audience nor Smith knows the dam’s significance, but it will be a game changer. Another instance of tension is when Smith declares he is unwilling to surrender and compromise his starry-eyed belief in American ideals. when he says, “No sir. I yielded the floor once before, if you can remember, and I was practically never heard of again.” The tension and suspense escalate through the feeling of excitement the film creates by showing the characters in a chaotic frenzy of phone calls and speaking at a fast pace. Suspense and tension are apparent in the script, but technical elements also evoke emotion.


The use of editing and music in Frank Capra’s 1939 film elicit specific emotional responses from the audience. Montages set to music work together to convey powerful sequences. The first one is during Act I when Smith makes his way on a tour bus and visits several famous Washington D.C. landmarks. Many American symbols used in the scene are a ringing bell, the phrase “equal justice”, a statue of Thomas Jefferson, a waving flag, etc. This montage has famous American odes like “Yankee Doodle”, “America, My Country Tis of Thee”, and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the background. American symbols and music convey a sense of patriotism and emphasize Smith’s sense of wonder and excitement in Washington. Another montage displays a furious Smith punching reporters and people reading the newspaper after the press misquoted him. This scene reinforces Smith’s gullibility and how easy it is to manipulate him. These examples help drive the main plot, but this movie also has supporting subplots.


Jefferson Smith’s involvement with Clarissa Saunders and Susan Paine (Senator Paine’s daughter), is a subplot that better fleshed out the protagonist. Saunders reveals she no longer enjoys being in Washington. She tells Paine she wants to quit her job as Smith’s secretary unless she receives compensation for coaching him through the legislative process. Smith discloses he has a crush on Susan Paine, but after Saunders and Smith spend time together writing his bill, Susan becomes romantically interested in him. When Senator Paine’s daughter is instructed to distract Smith and keep him ignorant, it ignites jealousy within Saunders because she dislikes the fact he is taken advantage of. The subplot regarding Smith and Susan Paine drives the plot because it reinforces his awkward qualities and clumsiness because he constantly drops his hat around her. Saunders’ subplot advances the story because her love for Smith inspires her passion for democracy and motivates her to help Smith fight against corruption in Washington during Act III.


The major questions of the movie are not explicitly wrapped up. Because of an abrupt ending, the audience can only assume that Smith and Saunders end up together, Paine and Taylor suffer consequences for their selfish Willet Creek Dam bill, and Smith does not get expelled from the Senate. The viewer can come to this conclusion because of previous events. For instance, Saunders sends a note to Smith during his filibuster admitting she is in love with him, but the two are not seen physically reunited in the end. In Act II, Paine tries to back out of the deal with Taylor which reveals he still has morals and a conscience making his end confession believable. Although the resolution solves the major questions in an ambiguous way, there were symbols that expressed the overarching theme the audience can take away from this movie.


One theme in Mr. Smith is that the youth brings fresh perspectives to government. This theme is evident in the scene where Governor Hopper takes advice from his children to select Jefferson Smith as the replacement for recently deceased Senator Sam Foley. Furthermore, a young page-boy directed Smith to his seat in the Senate and teaches him about it’s organized. This proves that children are knowledgeable and informed about how the government works. The Boy Rangers organize parades, protest for change, and called upon to spread the only uncensored news about Smith’s filibuster. Additionally, Jefferson Smith is the youngest Senator compared to the others already in office. The Lincoln Memorial is a significant symbol. Full of patriotic pride, Smith visits the memorial during Act I and reads the words of the Gettysburg Address. In Act II, when he is on the verge of leaving Washington, Smith returns to the Lincoln Memorial with Saunders and gets inspired by the belief in liberty that the Founding Fathers intended. Youth empowerment towards government is not only a theme from this film, but also relevant to today’s society.


Capra directed a successful film that emphasizes self-confidence, determination, and the democratic process. Although, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a classic example of “capracorn”, its characters, conflict, and technical elements are all effective at making this a film worthy of being on the AFI Top 100 Films list. To quote Jefferson Smith, “liberty goes beyond the pages of history books” as themes from this film have held up over time and are still applicable to the modern day.

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