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Capra's populist classic still rings true today

Kupferberg shows how she used to splice films.
Kupferberg shows how she used to splice movie films.

Eighty-five years ago, populist movie director made a feature that spoke to political corruption in the United States. If, indeed, it is true that 1939 is the finest year for Hollywood filmmaking, then Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is among the finest movies of that outstanding year. 

Frank Capra directed. He was called a populist film director because his films often feature stories of average people who turned out to be heroic, good and true. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith. He is the son of a highly-principled journalist father, and he has inherited all his father’s values. The screenplay is written by Sidney Buchman from a story by Lewis R. Foster. Buchman was the son of a Russian immigrant who ran a store. During his career in Hollywood he was an Oscar nominee for several screenplays, including Mr. Smith, and won the esteemed statuette for writing the fantasy-comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan in 1941. 

Capra, too, was an immigrant, from a family of Italian immigrants. Writing and bringing to life Mr. Smith has many trademarks of an early Twentieth Century immigrant mentality. It’s a film that exposes evil and corruption in American politics, while looking to the future with optimism and a love of country. It’s clear that neither Capra nor Buchman could foresee an end to American democracy. 

Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith has the lead role, and he really hits his stride in this motion picture as the starry-eyed youth leader who is appointed to fill out the term of a senator who has died suddenly. The state, unnamed, is run by a crooked political machine. It only is through the “yes man” governor’s young sons that Smith is chosen as the newly appointed Senator. 

Jeff Smith is a youngish man, a student of American history, a dreamer who agrees to the appointment because he believes he can do good. “I’ll do nothing to disgrace the office of United States Senate,” he vows. There are thousands of young boys in his state who know him as leader of the Boy Rangers and editor of the Boy Stuff newspaper. A generation of young boys worships him, and rightly so. He is an honest man, willing to work for the greater good. All the while, the DC bunch suppose that “they have a dope in place for a couple months.” 

The movie really mirrors 1939. Young girls do not play a part. Women wear housedresses and aprons or frilly dinner dresses and keep quiet, with one exception – the woman assigned by the corrupt machine to be Smith’s secretary. She is the savvy Saunders, (not Miss Saunders) played by Jean Arthur. She’s the exception to the female of 1939. She’s ambitious so she does what the machine tells her. Of course, she would leave if she found the right husband. As for blacks, they are Pullman porters. One man of color is seen worshipping at the Lincoln Memorial. 

The bad guy politicos do everything to squelch Jefferson Smith’s good intentions. Smith discovers the self-serving crimes of many Senators (who are all old white men), so they try to ruin him, disgrace him. In one of the strongest scenes of Jimmy Stewart’s brilliant screen career, Jefferson Smith filibusters till he faints to uphold all that is honest. 

Will democracy survive? Eighty-five years later, we are asking the same question.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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