Category Archives: Mr Smith Goes to Washington

The Grapes of Washington (Mr. Smith Goes to California)

Many interesting comparisons can be drawn from a side-by-side viewing of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Although both are populist films extolling the virtues of the “everyman” in place of the cruel sensibilities of the corrupt powers-at-be, there are stark contrasts immediately identifiable within the two works.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is populated almost exclusively with moral archetypes: its namesake, Jefferson Smith, is an honorable boy scout in Abe Lincoln’s body, whereas his nemesis, Jim Taylor, stands fattened by greed and willing to do anything in pursuit of self-interest (including sending minions to slap children). In comparison, the characters of The Grapes of Wrath seem much more nuanced.  As the hero, Tom Joad, enters the film, the audience immediately learns he has killed a man without apparent remorse; later, he will kill another.

Yet the situations of Jefferson Smith and the Joads are not entirely unlike each other, and I was reminded of a few key moments within Mr. Smith while watching The Grapes of Wrath.  Here, two examples from the beginning and end of both films:

Resistance, then Realization

Early in both films,  a strikingly similar scene unfolds.  Met by the callous reality of “business as usual,” the protagonists revolt– only to be educated in the futility of their actions by those opposing them.  This happens as Jefferson Smith realizes he has been duped by the press and launches into a vengeful rampage.  Barreling into a bar filled with reporters, he sits down to an unpleasant exchange:

                         What do *you* know about laws--and 
                         making laws--and what the people 

                              (tormentedly blurting)
                         I--I don't *pretend* to know!

                         Then what are you doing in the Senate?

A similar situation happens to Muley, who introduces the narrative in The Grapes of Wrath. As his home is about to be destroyed by the “cat”, he brandishes a gun and shouts heated threats, only to be silenced.

                         Have it your own way, son, but just 
                         as sure as you touch my house with 
                         that cat I'm gonna blow you plumb to 
                         kingdom come.

                         You ain't gonna blow nobody nowhere. 
                         First place, you'd get hung and you 
                         know it. For another, it wouldn't be 
                         two days before they'd have another 
                         guy here to take my place.

Both men– Jefferson Smith and Muley– emerge defeated and downtrodden.  But as Jefferson regains his unique energy to write a bill and take on the senate, Muley stays down: a haunting reminder of the brutal, unfeeling  and faceless oppression that colors the film.

Trust the System 


But another – perhaps more cheerful – similarity emerges toward the end of both films.  Both the Joads and Jefferson Smith are physically and emotionally exhausted, plodding towards a goal becoming steadily more unrecognizable in a barrage of adversity.  But in the midst of the chaos, Ford and Capra give the audience a symbol to latch onto: the federal government.  Within Mr. Smith, this is seen in the Vice President, whose knowing looks and nods provide tacit support to Jefferson Smith. His chair represents the order of the senate, and the fundamental laws ordering senate conduct are what propel Smith’s cause to its eventual victory – despite the attempts of other senators to derail them in their own favor.  

For the Joads, salvation comes in the form of a Department of Agriculture camp: a representation of the government in its best form, championed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Indeed, the camp is government by the people, for the people.  It offers a lasting light of optimism for both the Joads and for the audience.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – Significance of Paine’s Guilty Conscious?

I am not sure if I stand alone with this perspective, but I was a bit confused by the ending of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” I am not referring to Capra’s intentional ambiguity regarding the question of whether corrupt power or the common man essentially “wins” in the end, but rather Senator Paine’s role in determining the outcome of the movie. Paine only admits his false accusations against Jeff because of his desire to clear his conscious, but I am having difficulty understanding the significance behind his actions or if there is any significance at all. I understand why Capra would not want the truth revealed through any effort of the common man, as this would paint the common man as victorious. Similarly, it makes sense that the film did not end with the prosecution of Jeff, as this would mean that corrupt democracy prevailed. But, were Senator Paine’s actions simply chosen as a middle ground option to ensure there was no definite victor, or is there more symbolism involved?


I decided to explore this question by looking at the opinions of others online. To my surprise, I did not come across a substantial amount of discussion over Paine’s actions, as most chose to focus solely on the ambiguity of the battle between the corrupt and the common man and the emphasis Capra put on ensuring the audience left in positive spirits. I decided to provide my interpretation of Paine’s confession and would be interested to hear others’ opinions as well:

During our post-film discussion, we had reviewed the notion that anyone who goes to Washington is having his/her ideals tested. We saw Jeff go to Washington with a positive spirit and a firm belief in the ideals the country was founded upon. Unlike Jeff, Paine has fell subject to the corruption and has adopted the zeal for power over the common man that the rest of the government supports. However, as we discussed in class, Paine essentially restores the old version of himself when he admits his wrong-doings. He is in a sense leaving his corrupt ideals behind, empathizing with the common man, and ensuring justice is served — actions that would have made Jeff’s father proud. In a way, his actions show that the damage the capital has done to him is not permanent and can be reversed if he is simply reminded of morality and justice. Through Paine, Capra may have intended to provide a sense of hope that those who are corrupt may not be corrupt forever and that there is still a chance for true democracy to be restored.

Nevertheless, I still do not have a definite opinion of who truly wins at the end of the movie. I do think, however, that Paine’s actions have more meaning beneath the surface.



Democracy in Action: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Amy Poehler’s Modern Take on Capra

(AN: For any Parks and Recreation fans out there, I hope this post will do the show justice. For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, if you enjoy simultaneously witty and silly humor, and shows like The Office or 30 Rock, I am going to shamelessly suggest you watch it. Its take on modern politics is surprisingly profound.)

For those of you who don’t watch Parks and Rec, it’s a show about Leslie Knope, the deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Leslie is the Jefferson Smith of local government: she is an idealist, full of patriotism and over-zealous energy, and fueled by any and all challenges she faces. She embodies the populist ideals of the equality of men. Episode after episode, she is shown hosting public forums and treating even the smallest citizen complaint with the utmost dedication. One episode even shows her removing slugs from a citizen’s sidewalk. Another shows her single-handedly removing litter from the Pawnee river, because her cleanup proposal is being held up by bureaucratic red tape. To draw even more parallels to Jefferson Smith, Leslie totes around pictures of her role models (Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Madeleine Albright), and even has her own patriotic Washington, DC montage in season 5 (the episode title is “Ms. Knope Goes to Washington”). And yes, Leslie is even a girl scout.

The show follows Leslie’s advancement in local, and eventually, federal government. Episode plot lines typically follow the same structure: Leslie is faced with an issue that confronts her ideals, she tries compromising her ideals to solve the issue, and then ultimately turns to her idealism for a creative solution that resolves the conflict.

One episode, “Filibuster,” is surprisingly reminiscent of Jefferson Smith. Leslie, now a councilwoman, has just finished organizing a merger between the rival towns of Pawnee and Eagleton. The purpose of the merger was to bring Eagleton out of bankruptcy, though tensions between the towns have generated animosity, graffiti battles, drunken brawls, etc.

In response to this animosity, Pawneean councilman Jeremy Jamm tries pushing a bill through city council preventing Eagletonians from voting in the next election. Leslie finds out about this just as she is about to attend her husband’s birthday party. Instead of attending the party, she tries to kill the bill by filibustering until the council adjourns for the day. As she is filibustering, she learns that Eagletonians, who have rushed into the council room to support her, plan to vote against her in the election and elect their own representative to city council. Despite this, Leslie continues the filibuster, supporting her democratic ideals and the rights to suffrage. Because she needs to keep talking, Leslie thinks out loud:

“If Eagletonians vote for someone else, then it would be in my best interest to stop, right? So then they can’t vote… Or, I keep going. Because the right to vote is fundamental in any democracy. This is bigger than me, so I’m not going to stop. I don’t care if I lose.”

Leslie filibustering.

Leslie is making the ultimate sacrifice for her ideals. Representing Pawnee on City Council has been her dream job. She is eventually recalled and replaced with an Eagletonian representative. Like Jefferson Smith, this is an ambiguous ending to the conflict, not exactly happy, because she loses her job, but not exactly sad, because the filibuster works. Leslie spends the better part of the season struggling to find her purpose, before an employee in the National Parks Service approaches her with a job opportunity, with an almost deus ex machina ending. Still, she stands by her dedication and idealism, much like Jefferson did.

How Capra made “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” Timeless

As with all of Capra’s films, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sets forth his populist ideals of the championing of the everyman. However, the film goes even further to make the story applicable to anyone at anytime. Even now over 75 years later, the film’s themes still feel relevant. So what does Capra do to make the film appear to be timeless?



Sure there are some aspects of the film that are dated, but the overall message that it entails, the championing of the everyman, overcoming political corruption, are still valid today. In order to do this, Capra keeps nearly every aspect of the political scene in the film vague. The state from which Senator Paine and Jefferson Smith come from is never mentioned. Political parties are never mentioned either. Thus people watching the film could see as though whichever party they supported was the underdog, the Jefferson Smith. This also allows the film to appear timeless because by not aligning with a party it does not tie itself to particular party ideologies of a certain era. The issue centralizes on the appropriations bill that the Senate is trying to pass, but it isn’t even the entire bill that causes fraught just the line-item in the bill that would support the fat cats at the top. This signifies that the sole fight in politics is not between the two parties but rather between the corrupt and those with integrity.

The only real politicians that the film alludes to are the Founding Fathers’ and Abraham Lincoln. This is not to implicate political leanings but rather to show the basis of which the country was founded and the integrity that was intended.


What makes Capra’s films so relevant today is that he managed to put forth a political message without actually indicating any real political issues. He makes the battle of Washington not between parties but between honesty and corruption.



Populism and the Iowa State Fair

As Dr. Jordan mentioned in class, politicians frequently leverage populist methods to try and get votes.  This can be seen most obviously at the Iowa State Fair.  Being a resident of the Hawkeye State myself, I wanted to emphasize just how much this plays into the Iowa voters’ decisions.  Now that the caucuses are over, it’s very interesting to look back on the results and compare them to some of the candidate’s performance at the most populist venue of them all: the Iowa State Fair.

Let’s take a minute to appreciate what the Iowa State Fair means to Iowans.  The Iowa State Fair is the biggest, best fair in the world.  Don’t attempt to debate it, because you’re wrong.  We have (one of) the largest livestock show in the world, famous musicians coming to perform, literally everything you can imagine fried and served on a stick, and a life-size cow made of butter.  Everyone goes to the fair.  Everyone.  The governor and his family stand in line with Joe your neighboring farmer to buy pork chops on a stick.  As a result, reporters flock to report on how well the famous people fit in with us everyday folk.  When politicians are looking to connect with the layman in Iowa, they go to the State Fair.

Trump made the biggest mistake by showing up in a helicopter.  You simply don’t do that.  I saw jokes and memes and articles and all sorts of mockery about the incident for a solid three weeks after the fair had ended.  People saw it as the big businessman from New York City flaunting his big-city money.


He called Iowans “killjoys” for not letting him land in the Fair itself.

Clinton and Trump both made a mistake at the State Fair by not attending the Soapbox.  The Soapbox is a venue where candidates stand on a raised platform and deliver a 20-minute speech about their values and campaign.  It happens outside, unmoderated, in any weather.  Marco Rubio stood and delivered his address in the rain and did better in Iowa than expected with a close 3rd place.  Bernie Sanders stayed and talked with the Soapbox attendees after his speech, answering questions in a very informal setting.  Sanders had the best performance at the State Fair, with several news stations commenting on how he played the “one of the people” act to great advantage.

The big point here is that people want to associate with their politicians.  In Iowa, this is especially true.  People remember what happens at the State Fair because it represents the biggest opportunity for politicians to connect with the common man.  Those who are able to do so, do better, and those who ignore this aspect of voter decision making in Iowa tend to suffer as a result.  The populist appeal is as important today as it was in Capra’s era nearly 100 years ago.


Fun fact: there is an informal contest every year among newspaper journalists to see who can capture the most awkward picture of a politician eating a corndog.  As a result, none of the presidential candidates bought/ate corndogs at the 2015 Iowa State Fair.


Edward Arnold: The Tycoon of the Big Screen

edThough we know him as the big, bad Jim Taylor from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the actor Edward Arnold was actually well-known for his ability to play the ambitious, overpowering “bad guys” on screen. Born in New York to German immigrant parents, Arnold was actually orphaned at age 11. By 12, he started his career on stage and then became an extra in western films for Essnay Studio.

Though Arnold originally wanted to be the slender leading man on the big screen, he found his niche in character parts, commenting “The bigger I got, the better character roles I received!” After many years on Broadway, his talking picture debut was as Jake Dillion (a gangster) in the 1933 film Whistling in the Dark, a character he originated in the Broadway play the film was based on. He continued to play many supporting villains until his big role as James Buchanan Brady, the real life entrepreneur, in the 1935 biographical film Diamond Jim, which also starred Jean Arthur as his romantic interest. In fact, Arthur and Arnold were frequent collaborators, appearing in several films together, including the 1937 film Easy Living, where Arnold plays a rich, greedy banker and Arthur stars as his mistaken mistress.

                         Arnold and Arthur from the film Easy Living (1937)

Though Taylor appeared in over 150 films in his acting career, there are a few notable films that established his role in Hollywood as the powerful tycoon:

  1. Come and Get It (1936) where Arnold plays a ruthless man who rises from lowly lumberjack to head of the logging industry.
  2.  Sutter’s Gold (1936) a biographical film where he played John Sutter, a man who held a prominent role in the start of the California Gold Rush.
  3. Toast of New York (1937) where he partners with Cary Grant as a towering stockbroker whose greed goes beyond control. Fun fact: Arnold was billed above Grant in this film.
  4. You Can’t Take it With You (1938). Another Capra film starring James Stewart, Arthur and Arnold as a successful banker who aims for complete control and monopoly. Arnold also held a role in the Capra film Meet John Doe.
  5. Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) where the actor portrays Daniel Webster, a widely love senator who champions for the little guy. However, will Webster sell his soul to the devil to become President?

Additionally, Arnold was the first actor to portray Nero Wolfe, a large commanding “armchair detective” in the 1936 film Meet Nero Wolfe. Towards the end of his career, Arnold focused more on radio, playing the chief part of the President in the ABC radio program Mr. President (1947-1953), a weekly show that told an incident in the life of a President, only revealing who it was at the end of the show.

Though he passed away in 1956, Edward Arnold truly made his memorable mark as the greedy, controlling tycoon in cinematic history, giving new meaning to the phrase “It’s good to be bad.”



Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and its Impact On Headlines

So, for this week, I wanted to do a thing about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and use some grouping of articles to say that it still is an accurate criticism of American politics. To a sense, I still believe it to be true, especially considering how much the media is owned by a small few, and the people who do control it tend to be politically motivated. But, when looking for those sort of articles, I couldn’t find any by a reputable source, and those that were halfway reputable were such angry editorials that I knew I couldn’t use them in any way without drawing some sort of angry response.

But, you know what I did find out about this movie’s impact? Oh my god do people love using it as headlines. If you google something along the lines of “_____ Goes To Washington” or “Real Life Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” you’ll be inundated with articles who use the title of this movie, rather uncreatively, to say that whoever they’re supporting in their article is some political outsider who is trying to clean up Washington because “It’s a mess!” No joke, I found this article titled “Mr. Trump Goes To Washington.” Like Richard Nixon and Watergate, I think Capra’s legacy will be best remembered and lived through lazy news outlets.

But this goes a lot with what Professor Jordan was saying about populism and how it’s still everywhere. I thought he was making an unfair point about everyday appeal by politicians, but in all seriousness, this is crazy. Everyone wants their politician to be the new guy who will pull a Mr. Smith and make some miraculous change to Washington. All of these articles (many of them seem to be just blog posts except for that weird Trump one) are supporting some politician and saying that they will fix the country. I find it kind of weird. I would love to see some sort of analysis about this sort of headline and see if it confirms my suspicions.

Daddy Issues

Capra’s film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, has many interesting components that are still relevant in film today. One of these components is the role of the absent father. That is, the idea that the symbolic father, for example a father who has passed away or a father who just plain packed his bags and left, is more powerful than the living father. In both Saunders and Smiths lives, we are given the image of the absent father. I asked myself “why?” What’s the deal with the fatherless movies and how many other films have this same component?

Well, I did some research and discovered some surprising things about Disney and Pixar films in particular. One of my favorite Disney movies, aside from The Little Mermaid, is Toy Story. I never really thought about it, but in all three Toy Story movies, Andy’s father is never mentioned. I looked into this phenomenon. The conspirators say that Andy’s dad was a ‘deadbeat’ and they pick up a few subtle hints to prove this theory. This assumption explains why Andy is so attached to Woody and Buzz Lightyear. The absent father can be replaced though cowboy toys and astronaut toys, especially for a boy Andy’s age.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.04.23 AM

Alice does not have a father in Alice in Wonderland. She is inundated with ‘mad’ thoughts and curious ideas. We, as an audience, know that her father was supportive of her thinking creatively and being inquisitive about almost everything. He acts as her driving inspiration and ‘image of hope’ throughout her nightmare. It seemed as if he was her guiding light through the whole thing, and even though he had passed away, she knew that he would be supporting her and her inspired, curious thoughts. This heroic image that is given in Alice in Wonderland is just one way the absent father is powerful. As we find out the father in the film is deceased, a heroic symbol of hope is birthed.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.03.50 AM

UP is another example of a fathers absence. I believe that in this movie, the absence of a father in Russell’s life is the driving force of his ambitious personality and drive to do good in the world. For those of you who are not familiar with the movie, Carl is the ‘grandpa’ whose wife Ellie passed away. When Carl and Russell meet, the audience is convinced that it is destiny. When the two go on an adventure to Paradise Falls, we can see that Carl is filling the hole in Russell’s life that his father left when he left him. An absent father can also build other relationships in a sense that the role of the father can be filled by other characters, such as Carl, to build the story.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.03.14 AM

So, there might not be a concrete answer on “why?”. Why is the absent father such a common occurrence in film and television? Like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Disney and Pixar utilize the absent father to add to the story. Whether it be a vision of a hero, an inspiration, a drive to do better, or just a way to make a new friend, in film, the absent father is more powerful than the present father.

To read more about the ‘disappeared dad’ and why in film, “Deceased Parents are the Best”, check out these two articles on tvtropes!

The Acting of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Although the story behind Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is heartwarming, I did not find the writing too compelling. It paints a pretty straightforward picture of a complex issue. This might be my own taste, but I like movies most when their morals are complex and ambiguous rather than clearly defined. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we all know who the good guys and the bad guys are, and this sort of demarcation is not realistic. To me, it seems only Joseph Paine and possibly Saunders were complexly characterized. On the other hand, Jefferson Smith was pure and wholly “good” while Jim Taylor was a completely “bad” character. This type of characterization is common in most films such as the Star Wars trilogy but even that trilogy tried to humanize the villain.

You could argue that having the story be morally ambiguous would make it difficult to fulfill its purpose of populism. I would probably have to agree because when making a film with a moral goal makes it very difficult to keep it unbiased.

I wanted to make this post though to express some appreciation for the acting of this film because I think the acting is what truly carried the film and made it work. I can’t think of a single stale performance in this film. James Stewart is of course excellent in his portrayal of Jefferson Smith from his most timid moments to his power during the filibuster and then his final weakness near the end of the filibuster. James Stewart really captures the audience’s attention and you fall in love with his character by the end of the film. Even very minor characters had nice portrayals. Guy Kibbee captured Governor Hopper’s sycophantic fear pretty well, and it was fun to see the President of the Senate, acted by Harry Carey, hide his amusement. None of the performances were especially subtle but they conveyed the tone of the film well.