On ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ and the Power of Innocence

In Classic Film Throwback Series, Reviews, Sam Hendrian by Samuel Hendrian

This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series

– By Sam Hendrian –

 “My dad had the right idea. He had it all worked out. He used to say to me, ‘Son, don’t miss the wonders that surround you. Because every tree, every rock, every ant hill, every star is filled with the wonders of nature.’ And he used to say to me, ‘Have you ever noticed how grateful you are to see daylight again after coming through a long, dark tunnel?’ Well, he’d say, ‘Always try to see life around you as if you’d just come out of a tunnel.’”  

This beautiful wisdom imparted by the charmingly innocent and idealistic Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) to the sweet but helplessly cynical Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) forms the heart of Frank Capra’s timeless 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A hopeful and extremely relevant film about the power that childlike innocence has to defeat corruption of any sort, it transmits a sweet sense of optimism and a profound love for life that is much needed in today’s wild world.

As the film opens, the unexpected death of a senator creates a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, demanding that a replacement be found as soon as possible. The bumbling governor of the late senator’s state is convinced by his children to fill the vacancy with Jefferson Smith, a hard-working and idealistic young man who leads the local Boy Rangers troop. Honored but overwhelmed by this immense responsibility, Jeff is relieved that he will be taken under the guiding wings of Senator Paine (Claude Rains), a personal hero of his who was a good friend of his late father. Senator Paine is initially kind and fatherly towards Jeff as he helps him transition to Washington and shows him the ropes of Congress, but he has a dishonest side that Jeff will tragically soon discover.

On fire with patriotism and childlike excitement upon arriving in Washington, Jeff becomes thrilled by the idea of getting a bill passed through Congress. The bill he has in mind would enact the construction of a physically and mentally enriching Boys Camp to be located on Willet Creek Dam, a piece of land near where he grew up. This camp would be a place where boys could enjoy the great outdoors and be strengthened in character, and while Congress would initially fund it, the money would gradually be paid back by the donations of good citizens across the country. Jeff’s secretary, Miss Saunders, laughs good-naturedly at his innocent patriotism and naive belief that he could actually get such a bill passed through Congress, but she cannot help but listen with admiration as he explains why the nation needs his Boys Camp:

“You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading about the Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men, and they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: ‘I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will.’ Boys ought to grow up remembering that.”

Her cynical heart warmed and enchanted by Jeff’s glowing and inspiring patriotism, Miss Saunders tries her best to help Jeff prepare his bill and propose it to Congress. But little does Jeff know that his proposed site for the Boys Camp, Willet Creek Dam, is also the target of a scandalous graft scheme that has been planned by none other than his hero, Senator Paine, and several other dishonest senators who are part of a political machine run by the crooked Senator Taylor. When the unknowing Jeff presents his bill regarding Willet Creek Dam on the Senate floor, Senator Paine uses false evidence to accuse him of owning the land and therefore trying to profit off of it with his Boys Camp idea, turning the whole Senate against him and saving the scheming graft plan that is a part of a larger appropriations bill.

Discouraged by this shocking betrayal, Jeff packs his bags and prepares to go home, the purity of his innocent idealism stained by the discovery of terrible corruption in Congress and in the man he admired most. Fortunately, Miss Saunders becomes his ardent cheerleader, convincing him to stay and filibuster the appropriations bill with a moving speech outside the Lincoln Memorial:

“Your friend, Mr. Lincoln, had his Taylors and Paines. So did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against them didn’t stop those men. They were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools like that. You know that, Jeff. You can’t quit now.”

Yes, Jeff may be foolish for trying to take on a powerful and corrupt political machine all by himself, but sometimes naive foolishness is exactly what it takes to make a difference in the world. Still saddened by the betrayal of his hero but now inspired by Saunders’s words, Jeff unpacks his bags and heads back to Congress the next day, initiating the filibuster of a lifetime against the dishonest senators who have tried to frame him for corruption. While his naivete has been shaken, his patriotic idealism remains strong, and in the dramatic heights of his filibuster, he delivers one of the most moving and truly American speeches in cinema history:

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery. You’ll see the whole parade of what Man has carved out for himself after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what’s his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grownups have done with the world that was given to them, then we better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!”

These beautiful words nearly move me to tears every time I hear them, and while the stubbornly dishonest Senator Paine does not immediately repent upon hearing them, it is clear that they pierce his heart with guilt. Jeff is calling on his fellow senators to renounce the cynicism and greed that has come from the stress of adulthood and re-embrace the childlike optimism and nobility that is needed to keep America the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. He echoes Jesus, who said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Jeff’s innocent optimism and steadfast patriotism in the face of utter corruption proves to have the power to break down walls, as Senator Paine ultimately publicly repents and grants Jeff a glorious victory. Would this optimism and patriotism have the same power in real life? One can only be optimistic.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a tremendously inspiring and patriotic film that was extremely relevant in 1939 and is even more so today. In a country of vast political corruption, it is quite easy and perhaps even justifiable to be cynical, but we cannot be so if we truly want virtue to triumph in the hearts of our leaders. Like Jefferson Smith, we need to hold steady to our nobly innocent ideals and believe always in the goodness that lies within even the worst of human hearts. As long as we do not lose faith in the existence of human decency and the possibility of redemption for all people, there is hope for America.   

 About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.