In an early episode of Dawson’s Creek, protagonist Dawson Leery is doing what he does best: watching an old movie from the comfort of his childhood bedroom. Dreamer Dawson is enthralled by what’s unfolding on the screen, but his more typically-teenage friend Pacey Witter voices his boredom. “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Dawson? Come on, it’s in black and white,” he says.
“It’s a Frank Capra classic,” Dawson replies, speaking of the film—which marks its 80th anniversary today, October 19th.
“There’s a bunch of dead people in it,” Pacey moans. “You know, we’ve got this whole section at the video store, it’s called ‘new releases.’ You should check it out,” he continues (showing Dawson’s Creek’s own aging status).
Dawson goes on to call the movie about an inexperienced young senator “a timeless tale about a man faced with his heroic nature,” while Pacey says only the extremely morally-grounded could possibly see the merit in watching it. Since it was released in 1939, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington has appealed to all of the Dawsons of the world while eliciting cynical groans from the Paceys—but either side would agree: at 80 years old, the film still has remarkable relevance in American culture.
Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed to the U.S. Senate by a governor who thinks he can’t possibly accomplish anything. He sets out for Washington, hopeful that he can make a difference and set an example for the young men he mentors. In a plot that could be pulled from today’s gridlocked Congress headlines, Smith quickly learns just how difficult that will be as his fellow senators turn against him.
Like many Frank Capra films that have unfairly been dubbed “Capra-corn,” the story has been accused of being overly sweet and cheesy. If Smith maintained his unwavering beliefs about liberty and justice, maybe it would be, but he doesn’t. His corrupt colleagues strip that naivete and hope away from him. “If it’s the truth you want, what are you doing in the Senate?” they ask him, literally jeering at his everyday honesty. He believes in the American dream and the beautiful country where he grew up, until he sees up close how ugly it can really be.
The characters in this 80-year-old film somehow understood what we have a difficult time grasping today. Maybe because, since then, we’ve lived through countless brutal wars, economic ups and downs, a polarizing lack of bipartisanship and extreme frustration with our elected officials. But even in 1939, going up against the established American government felt like an impossible task. The overwhelming obstacles of corruption, dishonesty and the perpetual value of corporate greed over human life were just as relevant back then as they are today. It’s almost laughable to imagine now that an intelligent, engaged man like Smith could achieve anything in the face of such a hideously divided Washington. But Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman don’t simply trade cynicism for hope—they show that Americans have always had good reason to be cynical, but persist in the hope that things can get better anyway.
Early trailers touted Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as “the most timely film to ever come out of Hollywood…a portrait of democracy in action.” Exaggerated marketing or not, it did pave the way for later depictions of caring public servants. The people who called it “Capra-corn” are probably the same ones who called Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing “wish fulfillment” in the 1990s—the ones who didn’t understand Leslie Knope’s unwavering enthusiasm for small-town public service in the television comedy Parks and Recreation. Hopeful depictions of government don’t sugarcoat how difficult it is to get things done—they simply allow us to imagine what it would be like to have elected officials who behave like human beings, who actually care—a concept that only seems possible now in fiction.
In a film that otherwise pushes women to the side (telling the audience that “boys” need to grow up believing in the American dream), Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) is the character who brings Smith back to life. She is a refreshingly smart and capable female lead when you consider the time in which Mr. Smith was written. Saunders is a knowledgeable government aide who sets aside her understandable skepticism and grows to believe in Smith right when he is ready to give up.
He realizes that he can’t win against such an immensely powerful body of men determined to watch him fail—a feeling to which many Americans today can relate. “A lot of fancy words around this town. Some of them are carved in stone…so suckers like me could read them,” he says, mentioning the particular stinging betrayal of a man he’d previously admired, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). “And then when you find out what men actually do…well I’m getting out of this town so fast, away from all the words and the monuments and the whole rotten show,” Stewart says in that signature heartbreaking cadence that made his most famous collaboration with Capra, It’s A Wonderful Life, such a beautiful classic. But before George Bailey, before Stewart himself served in World War II, there was the wide-eyed and determined Jefferson Smith—a character who acknowledges his own naive optimism and forges ahead.
Saunders invokes the names of Lincoln and the founding fathers to encourage Smith to carry on. “The odds against them didn’t stop those men, they were fools that way. All the difference in this world came from faith like that. You know that, Jeff. You can’t quit now. They aren’t all Paines in Washington. Their kind just throw big shadows, that’s all.”
At a time when our elected officials are throwing big, hideous shadows a year away from another presidential election, I’m with Saunders and Capra—and Dawson. “You didn’t just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, everyday common rightness. And this country could use some of that.” 80 years later, we still could.