Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
|Mr. Smith Goes to Washington|
1939 movie poster
|Directed by||Frank Capra|
|Produced by||Frank Capra|
|Written by|| Sidney Buchman (script)|
Lewis R. Foster (outline)
|Starring|| James Stewart|
|Music by||Dmitri Tiomkin|
|Editing by|| Gene Havlick|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures Corporation|
|Release date(s)||October 19, 1939|
|Running time||130 min|
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a 1939 motion picture that illustrates, better than any other film in its genre, the strengths as well as the dysfunctions of the political system in the United States. It tells the story a down-to-earth, idealistic young man, Jefferson Smith, who is appointed to the Senate by the governor of a Midwestern State.
An Empty Senate Seat
Senator Sam Foley is dead—and as far as his colleague, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) and Paine's party boss, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), are concerned, his death couldn't have come at a worse time. Because at the time of his death, Senators Foley and Paine were seeking to extract a five-million-dollar Federal appropriation for the construction of a dam in their State, and they and their three colleagues in the House had recently managed to have their appropriation attached as a legislative rider to a pending "Deficiency Bill" when Foley died. Therefore, the dilemma for Mr. Taylor and Senator Paine was obvious: whoever replaced Mr. Foley in the Senate must ask no questions, and follow the voting instructions given by Senator Paine and, through him, Mr. Taylor.
Faced with this, Paine suggests to Taylor that the proposed Willett Creek Dam project be postponed to the next session of Congress, or scrapped altogether. Taylor refuses, saying that a cancellation might trigger an investigation, which would reveal that Taylor and his friends have been holding the land that would be sold to the government under false names. Best to go through with the project before anyone even thinks to question it, says Taylor. Taylor also takes offense at Paine's suggesting that Taylor would do anything to present a "risk" to Paine's career, especially when Taylor has already planned a campaign to promote Paine's name at the national party convention, in an effort to have Paine nominated for the office of President of the United States. So Paine gives his assent to the appointment of one Horace Miller, a "born stooge" who would gladly take orders.
However, Governor Hubert "Hap" Hopper (Guy Kibbee) has another problem: the citizens of his State have begun a raucous movement in protest to the corruption, the graft, and the political favoritism by which Jim Taylor controls virtually every industry, and government at every level except the Federal, in their State. So when Jim Taylor tries to order Hap to appoint Horace Miller as Sam Foley's replacement, the outraged citizens will not hear of it. They even have their own candidate to suggest: one Henry Hill, whom Taylor and his associates regard as a "crackpot" and a "longhair."
Hap Hopper cannot even escape the debate in his own home. His many sons, all of whom are members of the Boy Rangers youth group, tease him unmercifully about being Jim Taylor's puppet, and suggest yet a third candidate: Jefferson Smith, their senior adult leader. His recommendations, from the point of view of the boys, are unassailable: he runs a newspaper by and for boys (Boys' Stuff), and he recently singlehandedly extinguished a forest fire. That Hopper has not heard of Smith before this is probably because Smith is a retiring man, much more at home leading his Boy Ranger troops than engaging in self-promotion among adults, and has generally shunned all publicity since the fire.
Gov. Hopper sputters to the boys that he will have none of their endorsements of Smith or any other candidate. Yet that night he still has not made up his mind between Miller (Taylor's man) or Hill (the citizens' obvious choice). He decides to settle the question with a toss of a coin: heads for Hill and tails for Miller. But when he tosses the coin, it lands on its edge, propped against a folded newspaper that displays, on the exposed below-the-fold portion of the front page, the story of the Sweetwater forest fire and Jeff Smith's role in fighting the blaze. Hopper takes that as a hint and appoints Smith.
Jefferson Smith first receives news of his appointment from the Governor himself, who pays a visit to his home. Taylor, Paine, and Taylor's front man, Chick McGann (Eugene Pallette), are at first outraged—but then Senator Paine sees political wisdom in the appointment and expresses his complete confidence that he can manage Smith effectively in Washington.
Taylor orders his many newspapers to announce the appointment with a maximum of "hype" and "bally-hoo," and gives a sumptuous banquet in Smith's honor. Smith is moved nearly to tears when one of his Boy Rangers gives him a gift-wrapped briefcase and stumbles over his not-quite-memorized presentation speech. But Smith's own speech then causes another shock—a shock of recognition, this time by Joseph Paine. In point of fact, Jefferson Smith is the son of newspaper publisher Clayton Smith, who was murdered in his office while he and Paine were fighting for the interests of a miner against the corrupt mining syndicate that employed him. As Paine hears Clayton Smith's name mentioned, his face betrays a small amount of pain—but no one notices him, and no one calls on him to explain what is wrong with what he just heard. Smith, for his part, is effusive in his praise of Paine, relying as he does on the opinion that his father had of Paine before he was murdered.
Arrival in Washington
Smith and Paine travel together to Washington by rail. When Smith steps off the train, he is surprised to be greeted by a bevy of giggling young women, led by Miss Susan Paine (Astrid Allwyn), the senior Senator's daughter. But before Chick McGann can shepherd Smith to his offices in the Senate Office Building (which building, the script never says), Smith leaves Union Station on a tour bus and disappears. While he is spending the day touring Washington and all its monuments and memorials (including the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials), McGann frantically calls Smith's office (which was probably Sam Foley's old office).
Smith's appointed secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), finds the turn of events highly amusing. "Daniel Boone's lost!" she exclaims to her friend and persistent romantic suitor, "Diz" Moore (Thomas Mitchell). She then makes one of several announcements of her intention to quit the operation and leave Washington for good, saying that the only reason she stays is that she needs "money and a new suit of clothes." Still, she hates being appointed as
|“||Secretary to a leader of little squirts!||”|
As night is falling in Washington, a young, befuddled man knocks on the door and asks whether he has reached the offices of Senator Jefferson Smith. Saunders, who has never seen the man before, brusquely dismisses him before realizing that that man actually is the long-lost Smith!
Saunders hastily reports that Smith has reappeared (and is not inebriated, either), and drives him to the Madison Hotel, where Senator Paine has arranged for Smith to have some initial interviews. She then meets Diz in a bar (probably on K street) and says,
|“||I'm still trying to figure out whether he's animal, vegetable, or mineral!||”|
Smith's patriotic utterances offend her, because she cannot believe that anyone actually believes in American patriotism anymore. Accordingly, in order to ensure that she can quit in style, she agrees to grant access to Smith to several reporters hungry for any story that they can find or invent. Diz Moore is shocked at Saunders' behavior, at one point telling one of the men to
|“||Go chase an ambulance!||”|
But at length Smith finds himself interviewing several reporters, who encourage him to strike several "Boy Ranger"-type poses. They then proceed to write stories that make a mockery of the interview and the man.
Senator Paine, upon reading these articles, immediately calls Saunders on the carpet, obviously suspecting her of complicity in the affair. He gives Saunders a stern lecture, coupled by a promise of more lucrative positions to come if she will cooperate and keep Smith away from "anything that smacks of politics," including any mention of the Willett Creek Dam project.
And so, promptly at noon the next day, Smith appears in the Senate (after taking a trip to Mount Vernon "to get into the mood"), and as Paine presents his credentials, Senate Minority (Republican) Leader Barnes questions whether Smith is up to the job. Paine vouches for Smith's innocence in the matter, and the Vice President swears Smith in as a Senator without further delay. Immediately after the Senate ends the days session, however, Smith hunts down each of the reporters who interviewed him and punches him in the nose. Finally an angry Smith appears at the National Press Club, where several reporters tackle him and share with him a hard and uncomfortable truth: that he is an honorary appointee, and little more than an empty senatorial suit, expected to vote "Yes" when Paine tells him to.
Writing a bill
Smith goes to see Paine at his Washington residence and protests that he really would feel like an empty suit unless he receives more guidance on all the bills that are on the calendar. Paine is loath to explain any of this, saying,
|“||These bills have been put together by some of the greatest legal minds in the country. I don't understand half of them myself, and I used to be a lawyer.||”|
Paine then suggests that Smith make good on his desire, expressed in the atrocious interview (and actually printed), to have established a National Boys' Camp in their State. There Smith meets Susan Paine again, and is almost overcome with an emotion that he clearly cannot handle. After he stumbles out of the Paine home (knocking over a table lamp on the way out), Susan Paine bursts out laughing, and her father observes,
|“||At the expense of some of the furniture, you seem to have made another conquest.||”|
Smith then goes straight to his office and presses Saunders into service in helping him draft just such legislation. After giving Smith a brief and highly cynical lecture on how a bill becomes (or, more likely, does not become) a law, Saunders reluctantly agrees to help him draft his bill.
As Smith speaks, his down-to-earth style and earnestness begin to make an impression on Saunders, something entirely new in her experience. But when Smith mentions the location of his camp—specifically on and near the headwaters of Willett Creek—Saunders sees yet another opportunity to score a cheap point with the press. Without explaining the conflict that she knows exists between Smith's bill and Section 40 of the upcoming Deficiency Bill (see above), she helps Smith finish his draft, and then calls Diz and tells him to be sure to attend the Senate the next day to watch what happens when Smith presents his bill. Sure enough, as soon as Smith mentions the name "Willett Creek," Paine rises from his chair and gives a head signal to Chick McGann, who has been watching from another point in the gallery. Diz, who is very familiar with both men, thanks Saunders for the obviously juicy tip.
Outside, Paine and McGann realize that they have a very serious problem: Smith has proposed erecting a boys' camp on the very site of the proposed Willett Creek Dam, and when the Deficiency Bill is read out loud in the Senate the next day, Smith will hear about it and start to question it, something that neither man wants. McGann proposes to take Smith on yet another tour of the city, but Paine cautions that Smith is "not stupid." McGann then insists that Paine use his daughter, Susan, to distract Smith—and Paine, after first protesting, agrees.
The Glamor Queen, and a Revelation
So Susan Paine calls Saunders and asks her to take Smith shopping for a proper suit of clothes and pair of shoes, a haircut, and a manicure, and then asks Smith directly to "escort" her to a "ball" for visiting foreign princes (whether Arab or European, Miss Paine never says). Smith, like any high-school boy having a crush on a glamorous actress, agrees. This cuts Saunders to the quick. Saunders has nothing but the utmost contempt for "Susan Pain-in-the-neck," and in a heartfelt confession to Diz, expresses her fear that Susan Paine will use Smith unmercifully using the cruel weapons that only the most glamorous women possess (and know how to use). She and Diz go to a local bar and get drunk, and then Susan decides to go back to the office to clear out her desk.
To Saunders' horror, Smith is in the office, still dazed with what he thinks is his "triumph" at being the escort to such a beautiful woman as Susan Paine. "Horseradish!" cries Saunders, who finally tells Smith the real reason that Susan Paine asked him out on a pricey dinner date: to keep him out of the Senate when the Deficiency Bill was read. She points out the fateful Section Forty, describing the Willett Creek Dam, and then blurts out that Smith should simply go home, because he, a "halfway decent" man, does not belong in Washington.
Smith is shocked at Saunders' behavior, but even more shocked at Section Forty. So he goes directly to Paine's home, copy of the Deficiency Bill in hand, and protests to Paine that a dam could have been better built in any of "a hundred other places" in the State where a dam would be more useful, and that Kenneth Allen, who owns some of the land affected, denies any knowledge of any dam project. Paine tells Smith that he couldn't possibly understand the "benefits" of the bill, and Smith then asks, "Who's Taylor?" Then Smith says he has heard that the Willett Creek Dam was "Jim Taylor's idea to get graft."
Paine protests that Smith has insulted him by suggesting that he, Paine, was "involved in a scheme for graft." But Chick McGann does not wait for Smith's answer. He immediately calls Jim Taylor back in Jackson City (the capital of the unnamed State) to alert him that Smith now presents a problem that he, McGann, and Senator Paine can no longer handle.
Taylor comes to Washington at once and arranges to meet Smith, who in the meantime has been pestering the members of his State's House delegation for information about Section Forty. Paine at first tells Taylor to "count [him] out," and Taylor tells Paine that he, Taylor, could arrange that Paine and Smith go back home and forget about politics. Paine reluctantly allows Taylor to proceed, and makes himself scarce. Smith meets Taylor, who coolly informs Smith that if he's "smart," he can have any position in business or politics that he wants. Smith suddenly grasps that Taylor actually tells sitting Congressman, and Senator Paine, what to do. Smith coldly tells Taylor,
|“||You're a liar.||”|
But Paine has retreated to his Senate office, with instructions to tell any callers that he is out-of-town. Smith doesn't believe that, and barges in on Paine. Paine now confesses to Smith that, twenty years earlier, he "compromised" so that he could serve their State "in a hundred honest ways." As proof of his "success," he cites the statistics that their State has the lowest unemployment and the highest Federal grant receipts. Finally, Paine begs Smith not to talk about the Willett Creek Dam or make any protest against it.
Smith refuses to heed that advice. In the Senate the next day, Smith rises to protest Section Forty as "nothing but a scheme for graft." Immediately Paine rises for recognition, and Smith willingly yields the floor to his colleague. Whereupon Paine proceeds to tell the Senate that Smith has bought the land described in his National Boys' Camp bill, and is hoping to turn a profit on the sale of that land to the government for the establishment of that very camp!
A shocked Smith now finds himself hauled before the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, where Governor Hopper and businessman Kenneth Allen present a forged deed granting Smith ownership of the land, and an equally forged contract guaranteeing to Mr. Allen half the profits that Smith might realize from the sale of that land to the government. Smith protests that he never signed either instrument, and then competing handwriting experts, by a "vote" of two to one, conclude that those contracts were not forged, and that Smith had indeed signed both instruments.
Paine then testifies that he had pointed out to Smith the conflict between his boys' camp bill and Section Forty, and that Smith had angrily said, "Move the dam!" Paine states that he found Smith's attitude perplexing until he learned that Smith owned the land in question.
Smith, too overcome to speak, bolts from the Committee rather than give any testimony. The next evening, Taylor throws a celebratory party in Paine's home. Paine sits aloof, clearly distraught at the turn of events in which he has participated.
Inspiration from Lincoln
Smith packs his bags and is about to leave Washington, but first stops at the Lincoln Memorial to look into Lincoln's face for the last time. Saunders finds him there, saying that she couldn't leave, and was glad that she had not. She tells Smith that Lincoln was not reproaching Smith at all, but rather encouraging him to fight on—and Saunders believes that she knows how Smith can fight, and perhaps even win.
The next day, the press gallery is shocked to see Smith appearing in the Senate, when they know that the Committee on Privileges and Elections has already voted to recommend his expulsion from the Senate. Diz Moore clearly blames Saunders for the spectacle, but an unrepentant Saunders encourages Diz to pray harder than he ever prayed in his life.
The Committee chairman delivers his report, but before Senator Agnew can call for a vote, Smith stands and asks for recognition. The Vice President sternly tells Senator Agnew that, Committee report or no, Smith is still a Senator and has the same privileges as has any Senator until those privileges are revoked. Then, after further lecturing the people in the galleries to maintain a respectful silence, he makes the fateful decision to recognize Smith.
Smith begins to speak, and makes clear that he will not yield the floor, for anything but a question or a point of order or personal privilege, until he has said what he has now come to the Senate to say. As he takes out a vacuum bottle and several fresh fruits, vegetables, and rolls, the rest of the Senate, exhorted by Joseph Paine, walk out in protest. The press gallery is electrified as they realize that a filibuster has now begun.
Saunders continues to coach Smith from her position in the gallery, as Smith first directs the Senate Sergeant-at-arms to "call a quorum," and then reads one lengthy document after another, all carefully chosen: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and finally several key passages from the Bible. While this is happening, Diz Moore begins his own campaign of sympathetic coverage of Smith and his battle. Diz is outraged to learn that Taylor has effectively muzzled all the news organs in his State, so that not one word by Smith or in Smith's favor is being printed or heard.
Saunders has an idea: to use Jeff Smith's old newspaper, Boys' Stuff, to send the message. So while Taylor's controlled newspapers continue to print the "doctored-up junk" that so disgusts Diz, Boys' Stuff prints Smith's message and in detail, with the full background. Sadly, as soon as Taylor's men realize that Boys' Stuff is getting out, they move at once to steal the copies of Boys' Stuff by force, invade and shut down the press, and even run a group of boys off the road. And so, with rare exception, all that the people hear is Taylor's message, and they respond with thousands of telegrams effectively telling Smith to cease and desist.
Paine has those telegrams brought into the well of the Senate and invites Smith to read them. Smith, who now has been talking for twenty-four hours, does read them. Then he calmly tells Paine that now he is fighting "one of those lost causes" that Paine used to say were the only causes worth fighting for, and were even worth dying for, as Clayton Smith had done.
Then Smith challenges the Senate one more time:
|“||You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked! And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place! Somebody'll listen to me...somebody...||”|
Whereupon Smith loses consciousness and collapses. Saunders, watching from above, screams. Another Senator examines Smith and announces that he is still alive, and has merely fainted. A young Senate page whispers this news to Saunders.
Then three shots ring out from the door to the Senate cloakroom, after which Senator Paine rushes in, babbling in a barely coherent manner that Section Forty is indeed a fraud, that every word that Smith had spoken was the truth, and that he, Paine, was no longer fit to hold any position of honor, trust or profit, and thus he, not Smith, ought to be expelled from the Senate.
- James Stewart as Senator Jefferson Smith
- Guy Kibbee as Hubert "Hap" Hopper, governor of the State in question.
- Ruth Donnelly as Emma Hopper, his wife.
- Thomas Mitchell as "Diz" Moore, a "gentleman of the press."
- Harry Carey as the Vice President of the United States, shown in this film in his role as President of the Senate.
- Jack Carson as Sweeney, one of the jesting reporters in the National Press Club, a role for which he was uncredited.
Spoilers end here.
The primary themes of the film are high ideals, patriotism, having the courage to fight for what's right and the little guy making good against impossible odds. These themes are common in Capra's other films such as Meet John Doe and the perennial Christmas favorite It's a Wonderful Life. Jefferson Smith shows his devotion to those ideals in everything he does: standing at attention in the presence of the Governor, able to recite the words of Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson by heart, and falling into near-ecstasy on being told that he has been assigned the desk once used by Senator Daniel Webster. His most eloquent display of high ideals, aside from the filibuster, is his description of the purpose of his proposed National Boys' Camp: to make boys aware of their heritage of liberty, which all too many of his fellow citizens have forgotten—a most astute observation, even if made by a fictional character.
However, this film tragically demonstrates that the politicians of Frank Capra's day paid only lip service to these high ideals, while conducting themselves in a manner that the Founders would regard with disgust, prompting them to suggest loudly that all of them be removed from office for violation of the public trust. Whether modern politicians conduct themselves in any better fashion than did the characters in this film is an open question, and for many the answer is, "No." Thus Jefferson Smith is a type of any average citizen who, taught all his life to be respectful of those who enter into the noble calling of public service, discovered, to his horror, that public servants, with rare exception, behave in a manner that is most ignoble. Indeed, Senator Joseph Paine tells him,
|“||You've got to check your ideals at the door the way you check your rubbers.||”|
Paine further observes,
|“||You can't count on the people voting. Half the time they don't vote, anyway. That's how empires have been built since time began.||”|
Several other themes deserve mention in greater detail:
Frank Capra portrayed a highly dysfunctional American political system. In Frank Capra's vision, politicians are a venal lot, often under the control of corrupt political bosses who have amassed the power to control industry and the media, which in turn gives them the power to reward their friends, and punish their enemies, at will and with impunity. Capra's vision also portrayed ordinary citizens as willing, at least to some extent, to rise up in protest to these wrongs.
Many Americans today believe that American political institutions are even more dysfunctional today than Frank Capra portrayed them as being. They have formed the Tea Party Movement, and have made appearances in "town hall meetings" that have played out in a fashion quite similar to the scene in this film of the citizens loudly rejecting Governor Hopper's original choice of Horace Miller to replace the late Sam Foley in the Senate.
When Senator-designate Smith first appears in the Senate, the young page named Dick assures him that sitting and listening is "the way to get re-elected." He also sardonically observes, when describing the foreign dignitaries in the diplomatic section of the Senate gallery, that
|“||They and the page boys are the only class we have in the place!||”|
The prayers offered by the Senate chaplain seemed strained, forced, and little more than a script, especially since many, if not most, of the Senators give every indication of paying hypocritical lip service to that script.
Failure to read bills
When Senator Joseph Paine freely confesses that he doesn't understand half the bills he votes on, though he was once a practicing attorney, he might have been confessing far more than he intended. Today the spectacle of Senators and Representatives voting on bills that run to over a thousand pages, without even taking the trouble to read them, has become a national scandal.
"Yellow" journalism and drive-by media
When Rush Limbaugh coined the phrase "drive-by media" to describe the Mainstream Media, he might have had in mind conduct of the sort displayed by the reporters who write the first mocking stories about Senator Smith. Even Diz Moore recoils at the tactics of what he calls the "ambulance chasers" in his profession.
Media manipulation and alternative media
Jim Taylor's vast political machine also includes several newspapers, plus an unspecified power to "line up" other news organs in his State. He is a thoroughly unscrupulous man, not above using physical force to stall or prevent the delivery of any message that does not come from him, through any medium. His brutal suppression of Boys' Stuff, even to running a group of boys off the road, is a prize example.
Many commentators believe that the Mainstream Media today behave quite like the tame news organs under Jim Taylor's control. Boys' Stuff is a type of the Alternative Media, an outlet for the news that is beyond the control of the modern analogue of Jim Taylor. The definite threats now being made against the modern alternative media by Mark Lloyd and other "Czars" represent only a higher degree of brutality than that employed by Taylor and his men.
That Jim Taylor does not entirely succeed (and indeed has his reputation utterly destroyed by film's end) is a testament to the respect that at least some members of the press still retain for the ideals of their own profession. Diz Moore is offended to the point of mortification at the exercise of Jim Taylor's power, and that, even more than his loyalty to Clarissa Saunders, prompts him to assist Smith in any way within his power.
By far Jim Taylor's greatest threat is his ability to manipulate the institutions of government, even at the Federal level. He makes or breaks Governors, Representatives, and Senators. He suborns a sitting Governor to appear before a committee of the Senate and commit perjury. And when a number of adult citizens who know what is going on stage a rally to protest his actions, Jim Taylor's corrupt State police turn fire hoses on the demonstrators.
That this film was released at the peak of the power, in Europe, of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini should not be lost on any student of history. Jim Taylor, to be sure, does not go so far as to set fire to his State capitol, nor single out a particular demographic as the objects of any special hatred. But in every other way, he evokes Mussolini, if not Hitler, in his conduct, except that his methods are more those of an organized criminal than those of a true totalitarian dictator.
Yet in all his cold calculation, Jim Taylor makes a fatal miscalculation regarding the continued loyalty of Joseph Paine. He secures Paine's cooperation in a campaign to destroy Jeff Smith's reputation only by threatening to destroy Paine's own political career. At first Paine must only stand by, but then Taylor insists that he play a much more active role, one that begins with perjury and continues with the perpetuation of lie after lie on the floor of the Senate. As Paine watches Smith resist until he can resist no more, and then hears Smith remind Paine of the young man he once had been, the heightened cognitive dissonance between the ideals that Paine once upheld, and the deplorable things that he is now doing at Taylor's orders, finally breaks him. When Paine breaks, he breaks totally, and though Smith can't hear it (because he has by then lost consciousness), Smith has won a complete victory.
The Cocktail Circuit
Capra also displays his utter contempt for the "Washington Cocktail Circuit." Susan Paine moves in that circuit, and her own behavior is a prize example. In Capra's opinion, women like Susan Paine are little better than prostitutes, using their attractiveness as a weapon for political advancement, either their own or that of the men who keep them. But even Susan Paine is an excusable example; the bevy of female hangers-on to Jim Taylor behave in a manner that is almost laughable, as when they all squeal with delight after Jim Taylor shows them some flashy jewelry.
Clarissa Saunders is, of course, the opposite of Susan Paine. As the film begins, she is a cynical player. As she explains to Senator Paine:
|“||When I first came to this town, my eyes were big blue question marks. Now they're big green dollar marks.||”|
But by film's end, Jefferson Smith's simple decency has won her affection and her loyalty. Curiously, Susan Paine is absent from the second half of the film, as she has clearly gained nothing.
Senator Paine, in the heartbreaking session with Senator Smith in Paine's office, tells Smith that "thirty years ago, I had your ideals; I was you." This is inconsistent with the repeated assertions, elsewhere in the film, that Joseph Paine had been a Senator for twenty years, and that Jim Taylor had given him his start in politics by "pick[ing] [him] out of a hole in the wall and building [him] up to look like a Senator." (Thus Paine's career in politics began with his election to the Senate and not with any election, ten years earlier, to the House of Representatives.) This is also inconsistent with Smith's probable age, which was likely the same age as that of the actor, James Stewart, who portrayed him. This is most likely a script editing mistake, the one reference to the span of Paine's career that the editorial department did not catch before shooting.
In the scene in the Senate cloakroom in which Paine indignantly refuses to accede to a motion to recommit the Deficiency Bill to conference with instructions to excise the appropriation for the Willet Dam, Paine calls the Vice President "Henry" by mistake. The only "Henry" who served as Vice President during the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt was Henry Wallace. But Wallace served during Roosevelt's third term, not his second. The Vice President should have been addressed as "John," for John Nance Garner, who served as Vice President during Roosevelt's first eight years in office, including 1939—during which time Henry Wallace was serving as Secretary of Agriculture.
Likely true-life analogues
The party to which Senators Smith and Paine most likely belong is the Democratic Party. Senator Paine's fellow Senators frequently joke about "seeing him in the White House, and at the time, the Republican Party stood almost no chance of electing anyone President.
The State that Senators Smith and Paine represent is most likely either Colorado or Wyoming. Clarissa Saunders, on first meeting Smith, observes tartly that the "custom of the prairie" might or might not be "to take French leave." Smith also brings a flock of carrier pigeons to Washington, and he describes to Susan Paine that after he released one, it was "probably over Kentucky" by the time he gives that description. Kentucky lies in an almost direct line of flight between the District of Columbia and the State of Colorado, and Wyoming lies to Colorado's immediate north. In addition, Colorado and Wyoming both suit all the requirements that the story calls for: several mountainous regions, forests, and creeks, any one of which could have been the "Willett Creek" described in the film as the proposed location for a National Boys' Camp.
The name given to the capital city (Jackson City) provides no clue, except that Jackson Hole is the name of a prominent location in Wyoming.
The Boy Rangers are, of course, modeled loosely on the Boy Scouts of America, though as described in the film, the Boy Rangers are more likely to be an American-only movement and not the offshoot of an international youth movement that had its roots in the United Kingdom, as the Boy Scouts are.
The film's premier (October 17, 1939) took place in Washington, DC. Several politicians of both political parties attended. Halfway through the screening, all of them walked out in indignation. Ironically they thus imitated the mass walkout that Senator Paine leads after Smith declares his intent to filibuster his expulsion, and proved that nothing better legitimizes a stereotype than open conformance thereto.
Officials of the Soviet Union scornfully observed that the film was unrealistic, not on account of the disreputable behavior of the politicians in the film, but rather on account of the spectacle of Jefferson Smith surviving long enough to break Joseph Paine's spirit and cause him to attempt suicide and then to make a full confession.
Visitors to the actual galleries of the Senate have frequently commented that the actual Senate appears exactly as depicted in the film. Robert Osborne has frequently reminded viewers of Turner Classic Movies that Columbia Pictures Corporation built exact replicas of the Senate chamber, galleries, and cloakroom, correct to the last detail.
As of September 8, 2009, it is ranked #97 in the IMDb top 250 list. However, its overall popularity has advanced by 211 percent over the preceding week. The strength of the Tea Party Movement might be provoking this heightened interest.
Claude Rains received an Academy Award nomination, in the category of "Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role," for his performance in the role of Senator Joseph Paine.
Imitations of this work by other works
In 1977, American International Pictures released a film, Billy Jack Goes to Washington, in which a recurring character named Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) essentially reprised the Jefferson Smith role, while adding the theme of Native-American advocacy to the original themes of the 1939 film.
In 1947, H. C. Potter produced a film titled The Farmer's Daughter, in which a young Swedish girl challenged a corrupt political machine, ran for election to the House of Representatives, and won.
More recently, in 1993, Ivan Reitman produced a film, Dave, in which the President of the United States fell ill from a stroke, and his cold-hearted chief of staff selected an exact look-alike to replace him. Dave, the title character, surprises everyone by actually trying to govern, and in the end makes a climactic address to a joint session of Congress in which he denounces his thoroughly corrupt chief of staff and then simulates having a stroke of his own to end the imposture and force the country to select another President. Along the way, he wins the heart of the President's wife, and after he returns to his home town and announces his candidacy for the office of mayor, the former First Lady tracks him down with a clear object of matrimony.