Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Super Delegates: Jefferson Smith in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)

James Stewart
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Release Date: October 17, 1939
Directed By: Frank Capra
Written By: Sidney Buchman (Screenplay), Lewis R. Foster (Story)
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains
Oscar Wins: 1
-Best Original Story
Oscar Nominations: 10
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (James Stewart)
-Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains)
-Best Supporting Actor (Harry Carey)
-Best Screenplay
-Best Art Direction
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score
Delegates in Question:
-Junior Senator Jefferson Smith

If one were to take proper assessment of early American cinema, it would be criminal to ignore director Frank Capra. Not only was he a great director, but he is almost solely responsible for creating what the ideal version of Americana was. His films were like Norman Rockwell paintings brought to life with the sheer earnestness and ambitious attitude that the country could thrive on justice. Even after World War II where he returned to cinema downtrodden, his films like It's a Wonderful Life depicted hope within grief. No matter how well his track record actually was, his few shots at greatness are about as sublime as genuinely enthusiastic cinema can be without being overbearingly patriotic. Often with help from James Stewart, his chronicling of America during the 1930's and 40's remains the finest work that a director could do to make the country look the best that it could. Many have tried to be as earnest, but few have even come close.

It makes sense then that he would do an entire film based around the government's version of an American past time: the filibuster. To summarize: a filibuster is an event in which one person pleads before congress for an unlimited time with intent to get them to vote on a law change. To the average person not interested in the nitty gritty of politics, it's likely among the most boring sides of politics. However, Capra and Stewart managed to bring it to life with the familiar enthusiasm and a certain honesty about corrupt politicians that may at times seem comical, but are still reflective in far more sinister ways in the decades to follow. In fact, the filibuster in question during Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (the postponement of an appropriations bill) seems rather quaint by comparison of what has happened in the real world.

Much like Capra, Stewart was an actor who thrived on depicting the every man. It helped that he had the demeanor of a Midwestern citizen who could do anything. Having worked with Capra before, it made sense to cast Stewart as Jefferson Smith: a man who doesn't even start the film with politics in mind. He leads the Boy Scout-like troop called The Boy Rangers. It is only when the state's Governor Hopper (Guy Kibbee) fails to replace his deceased senator with a corrupt crone named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) that Smith gets his chance to, as the title suggests, go to Washington D.C. and becomes a Junior Senator. Considering his dedication to The Boy Rangers, he accepts the duty with the glimmer of hope in his eye that he will make the country a better place. He befriends staff members and is given mundane work to do. He is a little fish in a big pond, but he is happy to be swimming there.

The remaining story reflects Smith's transition to the big time politics and his inability to be taken seriously due to his humble beginnings. The famous filibuster in question eventually comes when Smith discovers that Senator Paine (Claude Rains) is planning to build a dam over a lot of land belonging to The Boy Rangers. This leads to the film's famous third act, where Smith participates in a filibuster lasting 24 hours. By the end, he is exhausted, sweaty, and looking through papers for ways to keep himself from surrendering the floor and risking defeat. While he manages to get senators on his side, the inevitable challenge of getting enough to swing a vote doesn't look easy. Paine has managed to buy or persuade voters, leaving Smith to plead until he collapses. It does help that The Boy Rangers are doing their part by spreading the word. While the story ends happily and paints Smith as the small town hero, it does paint a somewhat bad picture of politics, notably for Paine - who accepts to being fired.

It's a glorified version of filibustering for sure. However, it has less fiction than one could presume. For instance, there are still corrupt politicians who keep positive bills from being passed. There are those that participate in these events for almost 24 hours - though in American history only one has reached 24 hours. That honor belongs to Strom Thurmond, who fought against the Civil Rights Act in 1957. While not all of these filibusters end with assured victory, most are often seen as regressive for fighting against ideals that would seem progressive. In 2013, former 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz fought to repeal the Affordable Care Act for 21 hours. That remains the longest in recent history.

However, not all modern filibusters seem misguided if you're a progressive mindset. Just last week on June 15, Chris Murphy participated in a filibuster to create gun control measures. This was in response to the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida a few days prior. It wasn't the only mass shooting brought into question during the event, as he added personal stories throughout his defense that highlighted why gun restrictions were important. To say the least, it felt important following what is the biggest mass shooting in American history. Much like Mr. Smith's quest, it was met with an overwhelming rejection from the pro-gun side. Still, the filibuster garnered a lot of support from senators and online supporters thanks to a live broadcast on C-SPAN. The filibuster lasted 15 hours, making it the second longest this decade to Cruz's. While the measures were turned down, there's still hope that Murphy and his supporters will have their victory eventually.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains relevant today largely because it depicts what good government can do. Even if there's a few corrupt politicians in the mix, those with enough enthusiasm will be able to go above and beyond to make the world a better place. While most filibusters are seen as regressive thanks to fighting important bills, there are those few like Murphy's that actually fights for work that could better the country. It's the type of country that Capra and Stewart would want based on their filmography. If nothing else, the film shows the power of how the little man can make a big and significant difference to this country. It's the type of message that should be heard more often, but thankfully one of the few times it's been brought up has been in a masterpiece like this.

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