Plot: Naive Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is sent to Washington to serve the remaining term of a Senator who has died. The governor (Guy Kibbee), and businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) believe that Smith, the leader of a Boy Scouts-type organization called the Boy Rangers, will do whatever he is told by senior senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of his late father, who was an idealistic newspaper editor. Paine approves of the appointment: “A young patriot turned loose in our nation’s capital — I can handle him.”
At first, Smith is such a hopeless rube that he is an embarassment. The cynical press ridicules him. He is daunted by jaded staffers Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) and Saunders (Jean Arthur), and reduced to stumbling incoherence by Paine’s sophisticated daughter (Astrid Allwyn). But a visit to the Lincoln memorial reminds him of what he hopes to accomplish, and he returns to the Senate to promote his dream, a national camp for boys. Saunders begins to soften when he tells her what he believes: “Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books.” She acknowledges her own idealistic roots as the daughter of a doctor who treated patients who could not pay, that idealism now buried under the practicality that resulted from her having to go to work at 16 because her family had no money. “Why don’t you go home?” she asks. “You’re halfway decent.”
Saunders warns him that Paine is corrupt, that he is promoting unnecessary legislation that will benefit Taylor. Smith goes to see Paine, and is crushed to learn that Saunders was right. Paine tries to explain that it is just a compromise. “It’s a question of give and take – – you have to play by the rules — compromise — you have to leave your ideals outside the door with your rubbers.” Smith promises to expose Paine, but Paine moves quickly and makes it appear that it is Smith who is corrupt. He presents a forged deed showing that Smith is the owner of the land for the proposed camp, and will therefore profit from the legislation.
Smith is ready to quit, but Saunders explains that he can filibuster — take the floor of the Senate and keep speaking — while his mother and friends get out the real story. While Smith holds the floor, his Boy Rangers print up and try to distribute their own newspaper. But Taylor’s henchmen stop them. After speaking for 23 hours, Smith sees that all of the letters and telegrams are against him. He looks over at Paine. “I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about the lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once that they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule, ‘Love thy neighbor.’ And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust.”
He vows to go on, but collapses from fatigue. Paine, overwhelmed with shame, runs into the cloakroom and tries to kill himself, confessing that he was the one who was corrupt.
Discussion: Frank Capra was to movies what Norman Rockwell was to illustration; he gave us a vision of our national identity that never ignored the challenges we face, although it was idealistic about our ability to meet them. This movie, made on the brink of World War II, was criticized for its portrayal of dishonesty and cynicism in Washington. But ultimately, it was recognized for the very patriotic and loyal statement that it is.
Questions for Kids:
· Paine tells Smith he has to learn to compromise. Is that wrong? How could Smith tell that this was not compromise, but corruption?
· Watch the scene where the press meets the new Senator for the first time.
· People today often criticize the press for being unfair or too mean to politicians. Do you think they were unfair? Were they too mean? Why does the press like to make fun of politicians?
· What makes Saunders change her mind about Smith?
Connections: It is hard to imagine a time when Jimmy Stewart was not a major star, but this is the movie that made him one. He was a perfect choice for the shy young idealist. Capra selected cowboy actor Harry Carey to play the Vice President, who presides over the Senate during Smith’s filibuster. His look of weatherbeaten integrity perfectly suited the part, and contrasted well with Rains’ suave urbanity.
Activities: Those families who visit the Washington locations featured in the movie, the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol building, might also want to stop by the local Planet Hollywood, which features the desk Smith stood at during his filibuster, autographed by Stewart. Those who can’t get to Washington might enjoy taking a look at today’s Congressional proceedings on C-SPAN and comparing them to those portrayed in the movie.