Film: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Go ahead; write your Congressman. It really frustrates them.

"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."
Jefferson Smith, doing Eagleland proud

A film from 1939, directed by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains. One of Capra's greatest works, maybe the best movie Stewart ever made.

A senator dies in the middle of his term, and the state Governor has to pick a replacement. The crooked political machine would like one candidate, but this man is already known to take positions unpopular with the populace of that state; there are petitions to pick a radical for the office.

The Governor decides to Take a Third Option: He picks someone who is highly idealistic but inexperienced in politics, whom he thinks the political machine can keep under control. This person, this new senator, is Mr. Jefferson Smith, leader of the Boy Rangers.

Mr. Smith gets to meet his idol, the other senator for his state, who did great things for the state many years ago and who was a personal friend of Smith's father. He's controlled by the machine now, but Mr. Smith isn't really aware of the machine yet.

Once in Washington, he also meets his chief of staff/secretary—the very beautiful, intelligent Saunders. She does have a heart of gold, but she's an utter cynic.

Now, there is one problem the state machine has with Mr. Jefferson Smith. Mr. Smith has one issue he supports—building/improving a Boy Ranger camp by a major river in the state. But one of the main goals of this machine is to dam the river (to produce profit for the machine boss, who owns some of the land), which would wipe out many of the natural attractions Mr. Smith hopes to preserve. So, the senior senator and his secretary have to prevent Mr. Smith from voting against the dam, decoying him away from a session where a crucial preliminary vote on the issue is held by sending him on a date with the senior senator's daughter.

Mr. Smith tries to protest the decision within the Senate, but when he yields the floor to the senior senator of his state, he is framed for ethics violations and it is moved that the Senate should consider expelling him. He almost resigns, but his secretary begs him to fight, asking, what would the Boy Rangers think of politics if he quit now?

So, he doesn't quit. Instead, he holds a very long filibuster, never yielding the floor, never stopping, reading the Bible and the Constitution and the rules handbook, all to buy time for his supporters to send signs of his support. His supporters—many of them too young to vote—do try to show their support, but the machine is actively fighting them...

Eventually, Bags of Letters do flood in, but the machine has successfully swayed public opinion through the media, and the most of the public is against Smith. He declares his intention to keep on fighting in an impassioned speech about how sometimes lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for, then collapses from exhaustion. Overcome by guilt, the senior senator has a Villainous Breakdown. Smith is vindicated.

Fun fact: Jean Arthur had an imbalanced profile. She believed that she was much prettier from her left side than her right, and a lot of Hollywood people agreed. Watch her scenes in this movie and note how she's almost always shot from the left.


  • Adorkable: Mr. Smith himself. Especially when he's around Susan Paine, who he has a crush on at first.
  • Affably Evil: Taylor
  • The All-American Boy: Mr. Smith is a perfect grown-up example, as well as all the Boy Rangers.
  • All-Star Cast: Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Thomas Mitchell, Harry Carey, Eugene Pallette, Beaulah Bondi, and H.B. Warner.
  • Artistic License – Law:
    • The filibuster scene. The film makes it perfectly clear that no one in the Senate supports Smith—all of them walk out and he has to issue a quorum call to bring them back. Between 1919 and 1975, a filibuster could be stopped by a vote of two-thirds majority of all senators present (after 1975, it was changed to three-fifths of all total senators: 60).
    • Expulsion of a United States Senator has not happened since the Civil War, mainly because senators faced with an expulsion threat have often chosen to resign. Like anything else in American politics it's a laborious process, and it certainly would not be as lightning-quick as in the movie, especially with a senator as determined to fight as Smith is.
  • As You Know: Early in the movie Taylor and Paine have a talk explaining things that both of them know, about the Willet Creek Dam graft scheme.
  • Bags of Letters: Mr. Smith expects his filibuster to sway public opinion in his favor, but he is presented with bags of letters that reveal public opinion has turned against him. The mass of letters almost makes Smith lose hope.
  • Ban on Politics: Despite being a film about politics, it studiously avoids any potentially polarizing details such as party affiliations, hot-button issues, or even what state the senators are from. The words "Republican" or "Democrat" are never so much as alluded to; the most we get is a glimpse of "the majority leaders" and "the minority leaders." (As for applicability... let's not go there.)
  • Bastardly Speech:
    • Paine's speech near the end is one of the best.
    • Taylor criminalizing Mr. Smith using his media machine is basically this trope on a enormous level
  • Big Bad Friend: Paine is this to Smith, hoping to spare him from the crooked realities of the Taylor machine.
  • Blood on the Debate Floor: Sort of, at the end, when Sen. Smith is dizzy with exhaustion and dehydration after having talked on the floor of the Senate for 24 hours.
  • Broken Pedestal: Smith is deeply shocked when he finds out that Paine, a man he had admired, an old friend of his father, is in cahoots with Taylor.
  • Character Filibuster: Literally. Never before has a political filibuster been so dramatic.
  • Collapsed Mid Speech: Mr. Smith does this at the climax of the film.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Taylor is a newspaper magnate by trade.
  • Corrupt Politician: Paine is conspiring with Taylor to get the Willet Creek dam approved in order to line the pockets of Taylor and his cronies.
  • Country Mouse: Jeff Smith. Many Frank Capra protagonists are in this mold.
  • The Determinator:
    Jefferson Smith: 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 the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place.
  • Eagleland: At first glance a Flavor 1, with the idealistic Jefferson Smith visiting the Lincoln Memorial and saying things like the page quote. However, the movie also shows bosses like Taylor owning senators like Paine and manipulating them for their corrupt ends. This pushes the movie closer to the Mixed type.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Clarissa Saunders.
  • Expy: The "Boy Rangers", due to the Boy Scouts of America's fierce defense of the use its copyrighted name.
  • Fainting: Smith collapses of exhaustion during his filibuster
  • Fallen Hero: Paine, who was once a crusading reformer like Smith's father but at some point in the past sold out to the Taylor machine.
  • Femme Fatale: Susan Paine uses her attractiveness and feminine wiles to keep Jeff's eye off the ball.
  • Frame-Up: After Smith starts investigating the Willet Creek dam and then refuses to play ball with Taylor, Taylor and his flunkies then frame Smith as the man behind the graft scheme, complete with fake documents, forged signatures, and perjured testimony.
  • Good Is Not Dumb: Paine says "This boy's honest, not stupid."
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: "Horrrrseradish."
  • The Government
  • Government Conspiracy: Sen. Paine is conspiring with Taylor to get a bill passed to build a dam on land Taylor owns. Taylor will make a mint when the feds buy the land.
  • Government Procedural
  • Guile Hero: Smith...thanks mainly to Saunders' working as the Man Behind the Man.
  • Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee: Mr. Smith, thanks to Taylor's attempt at character assassination. However, when he sees that Sen. Paine is willing to perjure himself, he storms out of the room without saying anything.
  • Heads Tails Edge: The governor is being pressured to pick a party stooge by Taylor, while reform groups are pushing for a crusading outsider. He flips a coin, which lands on its edge, propped up by a newspaper open to a story about Boy Ranger leader Jefferson Smith.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Sen. Paine; see Villainous Breakdown below. Paine, ridden with guilt and shame both over selling out to Taylor decades ago and framing Smith now, and horrified when the young man he liked so much collapses on the Senate floor, admits to the whole chamber that everything Smith said was true.
  • Heroic RROD: One of the most epic examples. In the climax he speaks his heart out, over the course of it his voice gets fainter, he grows stubble, and his face gets paler than even Black and White movie standards. He never gives up, but his body does when he passes out.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Smith's approval ratings drop heavily in his home state during the filibuster, thanks to Taylor's machinations in mobilizing his Propaganda Machine and using force to break up pro-Smith protests.
  • Holding the Floor: Maybe the most iconic example in fiction, as Jeff Smith stands on his feet and talks for nearly 24 hours. Articles about filibuster reform in the United States feature pictures of James Stewart a lot.
  • Hot And Cold: Saunders. She warms up to Mr. Smith over the course of the story.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Jefferson Smith, who rejects an offer from Taylor for whatever kind of payoff he'd like.
  • I Did Not Say That Mr. Paine Was One Of The Men In That Room
    • "I was in that room!"
  • Interrupted Suicide: Offscreen with Sen. Paine—we hear a gunshot and cut to Paine, who is having a gun wrested from his hands.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Diz, who, much like Saunders, starts off quite cynical but is won over by Smith.
  • In Vino Veritas: Saunders spills the truth about the Willitt Creek scam to Smith after she's had too much to drink, although she apparently doesn't regret it once she sobers up.
  • Maybe Ever After: Saunders and Jeff, although given how much she obviously adores him one might presume that They Do.
  • Meaningful Name: Jefferson Smith is named after a founding father, Paine is morally conflicted, and Taylor shapes politics to his own designs. The latter gets lampshaded:
    Saunders: Public opinion made to order.
    Diz: Yeah, Taylor-made.
  • The Mole: Saunders, sort of, when she conspires to get Smith out of the Capitol on the day the deficiency bill is being read out.
  • Nice Guy: Jeff Smith.
  • Noble Demon: Sen. Joseph Harrison Paine, who obviously feels guilty about selling out years ago, and feels even more guilty when Jeff Smith arrives and reminds him of times past.
  • Nobody Poops: Smith's filibuster lasts 24 consecutive hours, during which he cannot sit down or leave the room. There are certain bodily functions that cannot be delayed for 24 hours. In Real Life, Strom Thurmond had to purposefully dehydrate himself for a full day in a sauna before his record-breaking filibuster (24 hours, 18 minutes against the 1957 Civil Rights Act) so that he would not have to go to the bathroom, and, at one point, even forced a page to hold a bucket outside the Senate while he pissed in it... one foot still on the Senate floor.
  • No Party Given: In Real Life FDR and the Democrats dominated the government at this time, but in the movie no parties are mentioned.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Congress itself is described like this.
  • Paparazzi: The D.C. press. Justified, because they are very cynical about politics.
  • The Plan: With the Senate moving to expel him, Jeff Smith will hold the floor and sway popular opinion against Taylor and Taylor's machine.
  • Platonic Life Partners: Diz and Saunders, although Diz apparently wishes they could be more.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: happens a little earlier than Jeff would have liked.
  • Propaganda Machine: Taylor has a fearsome one. It is easy to forget, in the modern media age, how owning a couple of radio stations and a newspaper or two could at one time allow an individual to control the public discourse in a rural area, at least for a little while.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Vice President, who is presiding over the Senate and gradually grows more sympathetic to Smith.
  • Red Baron: Paine is known as "The Silver Knight"
  • Scout Out: The "Boy Rangers" after the Boy Scouts of America refused to participate.
  • Sesquipedalian Smith: Jefferson Smith
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Ultimately mostly idealistic, although Smith has to lose a lot of his naiveté along the way. Or, to put it another way, idealistic about American values and cynical about American politicians.
  • Strawman News Media: Type 1!
  • Take a Third Option: The Governor's selection of Mr Smith, rather than one of Taylor's stooges or a popular insurgent.
  • Throwing Out The Script: A Capra staple trope.
  • Unwitting Pawn: The idea is that Smith will be a placeholder until the Taylor machine can elect one of its own people.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Paine, after Jeff collapses.
    Expel me! Not that boy! I'm not fit to be a Senator! I'm not fit to live!
  • We Need a Distraction: Susan Paine lures Smith out on a date so he misses a crucial vote on the dam.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The state represented by Senators Smith and Paine is not named. It's definitely somewhere in the western half of the country, and its capital is named Jackson City, which suggests that it might be intended to be Missouri (after all, it would be confusing for the capital to actually be "Jefferson City"...)
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Dear Wide Eyed Jefferson Smith.
  • Wingding Eyes: Mentioned by Saunders. "Look, when I came here, my eyes were big blue question marks. Now they're big green dollar marks."
  • Would Hurt a Child: Taylor's thugs. They deliberately crash into a car full of Boy Rangers trying to deliver their own newspaper in support of Smith.

Alternative Title(s):

Mr Smith Goes To Washington