Yesterday, after watching a number of college basketball games, I decided to put on the classic Frank Capra film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” I had not seen it in about 15 years and had forgotten most of its content. I did remember that I loved the movie and felt it was one of the most important movies ever made dealing with politics and patriotism. Well, my memory served me correctly!
“Mr. Smith” is not only one of the greatest films ever made, but it also shows the love that Mr. Capra had for his adopted country. For those of you that do not know, Frank Capra was an Italian immigrant. He came to this country with his family as a young man and somehow ended up in Los Angeles during the early years of the motion picture industry. He started in silent films as basically a gopher and eventually became one of the top five directors of the Golden Age of Motion Pictures. Some would even argue today that he is one of the top five directors of all time.
In addition to “Mr. Smith,” Capra is also responsible for some of the great motion pictures of all time. Among them are “It Happened One Night,” “Meet John Doe,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take it With You,” and, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” From 1933 to 1946, Capra was nominated for six Academy Awards for Best Director and won three. “It Happened One Night” was the first movie to sweep the Oscars in all five major categories. This did not happen again until “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” in 1975. It has only happened once since.
Capra single handedly kept Columbia Pictures afloat. He was the first of the star directors and one of the first to have his name about the title. His movies were not just movies, they were Frank Capra movies. And, they were basically all the same. It was the little man taking on the establishment and usually winning. Many of the current Hollywood stars love Capra and emulate him. In fact, Adam Sandler has already remade two of Capra’s films, one directly and one indirectly; “Mr. Deeds Goest to Town,” and “Click” was basically a remake of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
In “Mr. Smith,” Jefferson Smith, as portrayed by Jimmy Stewart, is appointed to the Senate from a small western state as a result of the death of the sitting Senator. He is appointed with the intent of the political machine in his home state to maintain the status quo and to protect the illicit dealing of those in charge. He is not supposed to upset the apple cart.
However, the machine in power underestimates Smith. They see him as a dumb patriotic man who could be manipulated and controlled. But, his patriotism and his love for the people create just the opposite. He believes in the “city on the hill,” as did Ronald Reagan. He believes that good will always triumph and that the evil and greedy will be defeated.
When he uncovers a scam within his state to further enrich the machine at the expense of young boys, he takes the machine on. The machine fights back with all its force and attempts to destroy Smith. But, Smith uses the rules of the Senate to his advantage and begins a 24 hour filibuster in an attempt to save himself and destroy the machine. This last 15-20 minutes of the movie contains some of the most patriotic speeches ever put on film. Smith quotes the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bible. And, each of these quotes and dialogue in between show both Smith (and Capra’s) love for this country and its ideals. It is without a doubt one of the most powerful 15 minutes in any movie ever made.
Another very poignant point of the film occurs when Smith first arrives in Washington. Instead of going to his office and being controlled by his handlers, Smith wonders off and begins a tour of historical Washington. The tour takes him to all of the major sites in the nation’s capital. This sequence reaches its climax at the Lincoln Memorial where Smith sees a little boy reading the Gettysburg Address out loud to his dad. During the sequence, Capra cuts to Smith and various other bystanders at the memorial including a black man. Every line of the Address takes on a new meaning and leads us to an emotional high. It is film making at its best.
In closing, I recommend that every one watch this movie and many of other Capra films. You should also look up the series of War Films that were made by Capra in response to WWII. These films, known as the “Why We Fight,” series, were made at the request of the War Department to educate the public on the reasons the US entered the conflict. They too are very patriotic and full of Capra’s love for his country.
I just wonder, “Why doesn’t Hollywood show it’s love for America anymore?” Why does the product coming out of my industry only show the bad and not the good? I just cannot answer that question!
© 2011 by Frank T. DeMartini. Permission to copy will be freely granted upon request.