The Shittiest Films Ever Made
No. 6: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
This film is considered a classic. On lists of the greatest American films, it almost invariably finds a spot, often near the top. To pick one list in particular, the American Film Institute ranked Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at #29 on its roll of the 100 greatest American films, ahead of such greatly honored works as The Godfather, Part II (#32), To Kill a Mockingbird (#34), The Third Man (#57), and City Lights (#76).
Which forces me to ask — why? Because now that I’ve seen it, I must say, it’s not all that great. It’s not all that good. It is, in fact, inescapably bad. It’s made by competent people, to be sure — director Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart, Claude Rains — but going in I hardly expected this to be the fruit of their talents. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is awkward, hammy and schmaltzy. And did I mention schmaltzy? Had I not already seen Love Story or Capra’s own It’s a Wonderful Life, I’d call this one the all-time World’s Heavyweight Champeen of Sentimentalism.
And yet this film is universally loved. I might be the only person in our film class who disliked it (at least to this degree). How is this possible? Is it affection for the creators and performers? Maybe, but I don’t think so; they’ve all done much better work. Do people cut the film too much slack for being a relic of a bygone era? Perhaps, but if that’s true I still have to wonder what it is about this film that entices people to regard it with such affection and admiration. Plenty of films made from this era, especially from this year, the holiest of all years in American film, 1939, still hold up just as well as the day they were released — Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Young Mr. Lincoln, no slack necessary. What makes Mr. Smith, maudlin mess that it is, so endearing?
The answer to the appeal of Mr. Smith may be Mr. Smith himself. As a hero, there’s little to dislike about the guy. He is a bit of a dope, a naïve “aw shucks” type, but Jimmy Stewart plays him so sincerely that he gets away with it. He stammers, he stutters, he gets choked-up standing in the Lincoln Memorial — and yet even I, who didn’t care for this movie at all, didn’t want to push him down a long flight of stairs. Jeff Smith is a good man, an honest man, a guy who just wants to represent the people of his state the best he can. When confronted with the reality of corruption and dishonesty in Washington, D.C., he is genuinely surprised and appalled. These people are elected to serve in their nation’s government, a sacred duty — how could they do this?
Like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jeff Smith is a non-physical hero. Mostly. There is that ridiculous scene where he storms through town punching out the reporters who wronged him by printing mocking photos and distorted headlines, which is hysterical but feels like a vignette unto itself, hardly mentioned again for the rest of the film, but that’s it for the physical side of Mr. Smith. His heroism lies in his ideals. Faced with defeat and expulsion from the Senate on false charges (which he is too heartbroken over to even dispute at first), he filibusters his way to redemption, earning the admiration of pretty much the entire world on the way. Claude Rains’s crooked Senator Paine is so moved by Smith’s display that he confesses his treachery right there on the Senate floor and exhorts his colleagues not to expel Smith, but himself instead.
The good guy wins. The honest guy, the guy everyone thought was a fool for his faith in democracy — he wins. The moral is good, it’s just the delivery that’s a little off. That this was nominated for 11 Oscars that year is bad enough; that the one Oscar it actually won was for writing — Best Original Story — is unfathomable. This film, with its one-dimensional supporting characters (pretty much everyone but Smith, Senator Paine and Smith’s assistant Saunders is flat as a board) and cornball speeches, won an Oscar for writing. Oscar has fucked up worse since, but still, this was a big one.
But as I said, I’m emphatically in the minority on this — inexplicably, it seems to me. Maybe it’s because this film reminds us of a simpler time, when a grown man could run an outfit called the Boy Rangers without raising eyebrows; before C-Span demonstrated definitively that the most accurate element of this film is its portrayal of Congress as an assembly of greedy, immoral assholes; when people, blissfully ignorant of what was to come, thought this was as sentimental and preachy as Frank Capra could possibly get (don’t the star-spangled montages that accompany Smith’s arrival and initial tour of the capital play like something you’d expect to watch in high school civics class?). Perhaps it’s that sense of nostalgia that, more than its objective merits as a film, earned Mr. Smith its place on the AFI list beside films like E.T., The Sound of Music, and Dances With Wolves.
Perhaps — but I hated those three too, so what the fuck do I know?