AFI Top 100: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The sixth in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.

“The people of my state need permanent relief from crooked men riding their backs!” – James Stewart as Senator Jefferson Smith


There’s a great scene early on in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where our naive, newly appointed Senator realizes that several newspaper writers have printed out-of-context pictures of him in his first few days in town, ascribing views to him he does not hold. There follows a montage of him storming the streets of DC, looking menacing and punching the offenders in their faces. It’s meant to be cathartic, and Dimitri Tiomkin‘s swirling, whimsical score that plays over the scene reinforces that we should vicariously enjoy Smith’s righteous anger. It was a scene that would be echoed decades later at the end of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (this time accompanied by Stroke 9′s ‘Kick Some Ass’), with one important piece missing. Jeff Smith eventually gets called down by members of the National Press Club who inform him, in no uncertain terms, that he is in fact a joke, a ceremonial appointment whose only purpose is serve out the two months left on his predecessor’s term and not make waves. It’s the first moment when the doe-eyed Smith realizes that not everything he’d been taught about how the government works was on the up and up. Throughout the rest of the film, he comes face to face with how corrupt the system really is, how biased lawmaking is toward wealthy contributors, and how little power our elected officials wield when they have to choose between getting reelected and following their consciences.

It was difficult watching this film, almost three-quarters of a century after its release, and realizing that so little has changed for the better. In fact, it seems as if things are much worse than they were back then. Once Smith realizes that graft is such a big problem in his state, he launches into a Quixotic crusade to try to fix the situation. He’s helped along the way by his lovely and politically astute secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), and together, they devise a way to foil his home state’s political machine and expose the corrupting influences for who they really are. It involves a marathon filibuster session, wherein all Smith has to do to keep the kickback-laden bill from passing is to keep talking, not yield the floor, and not sit down. It’s really quite up-lifting.

Until, that is, you realize that few if any of our elected officials would give enough of a damn to mount such a fight even if they were so inclined to today. For crying out loud, nobody even has to filibuster in the Senate anymore. All one has to do is announce one’s intent to filibuster, and the questionable legislation is tabled. No one seems to have the time to do the actual legislating we’ve sent them to Washington to do. Last year, Sen Dick Durbin told NPR’s Planet Money podcast, that the average Senator was spending three to four hours every day working the phone banks like a telemarketer, raising money for his or her next reelection campaign. Considering that’s what it takes to even keep one’s seat at the table, it’s no wonder Congress has passed fewer than twenty laws so far this year. Who’s got the time when re-election campaigns start from Day One…?



Up next in the queue, 1940′s The Philadelphia Story, in which our hero hopes to learn that back in the day, rom-coms had a more believable romances and funnier jokes. 

Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.

124 comments on “AFI Top 100: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

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