Follow TV Tropes


Film / Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Go To
When someone asks you to write a letter to your Senator, do it. It works. They get really agitated.

"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, with an All-Star Cast that included James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, and Thomas Mitchell. One of Capra's greatest works, and maybe the best movie Stewart ever made.

A senator dies in the middle of his term, and the state Governor (Guy Kibbee) has to pick a replacement. The crooked political machine controlled by Jim Taylor (Arnold) has a candidate in mind, but this man is already known to take positions unpopular with the populace of that state. The reformers in the state are agitating for a radical to get the seat, but the crooked political machine won't stand for that.

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, Senator Joseph Paine. Sen. Paine did great things for the state many years ago and he was a personal friend of Smith's father. He's controlled by the machine now, unfortunately, 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.

However, despite the best efforts of Taylor and Paine, Smith finds out about the dam. Taylor and Paine try to buy Smith off, but not only does he refuse a payoff, he vows to expose their crooked deal. Backed into a corner, the Taylor machine turns on Smith—with a vengeance.

James Stewart was already a man on the rise in Hollywood after his turn in the previous year's You Can't Take It With You, but this movie made him one of the leading stars of his day.


  • Actually Pretty Funny: During his filibuster, Smith declares, "Either I'm dead right or I'm crazy!" Senator MacPherson promptly deadpans, "You wouldn't care to put that to a vote would you, Senator?" This gets a chuckle from everyone in the chamber, including Smith.
  • Affably Evil:
    • Senator Paine may be corrupt, but he isn't cruel.
    • Taylor too can be very generous to his employees. Cross him, however, and he'll throw you under a bus. Fight, and he'll smear your name with a massive media empire.
  • The All-American Boy: Mr. Smith is a perfect grown-up example, as well as all the Boy Rangers.
  • All There in the Script: H.B. Warner and Pierre Watkin's characters are, respectively, credited as Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader. In the script they also have names, respectively, Sen. Martin Agnew and Sen. John Barnes. Their party affiliations are presumably opposite, but it is never stated which is a Democrat and which a Republican.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: When Smith angrily confronts some cynical paparazzi, this exchange takes the wind out of his sails:
    Reporter: What do you know about laws or making laws or what the people need?
    Smith: I don't pretend to know.
    Diz: Then what are you doing in the Senate?
  • Artistic License – Politics:
    • Smith is able to order the entire Senate to be forced to attend his 24-hour filibuster because the entire assembly (save Smith) storms out in protest over him, making him the "majority party" and thereby able to order everyone else back inside. In reality, Senators are well-acquainted with this tactic and at least two others would stay behind and keep one from passing such singular motions.
    • Since none of the other Senators support Smith, they should be able to shut down his filibuster with a two-thirds vote (3/5ths after 1975).
    • 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 — they refer to "his state" or "that state". 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."
  • 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.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Jefferson Smith has a brief moment where he punches a group of men in sequence that comes out of nowhere, but those men had it coming, considering they made fun of Mr. Smith in the newspaper and mocked him.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Senator Joseph Paine and James Taylor are the Corrupt Politicians who control a vast political machine and want to dam a major river, which would destroy the natural attractions that Mr. Smith wants to preserve.
  • 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.
  • Break the Cutie: The Inherent in the System entrenched corruption, along with a personal betrayal from Senator Paine, gets very close to Smith, but a smile from the President of the Senate inspires him to go on until he faints. So the trope would be Subverted in this case.
  • 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.
  • Buffy Speak: When Diz asks Saunders where a particular drink is, she says, "It's in the thing... behind the thing."
  • Character Action Title
  • Character Filibuster: Literally. Never before has a political filibuster been so dramatic.
  • The Coats Are Off: When recieving crucial phone calls, Saunders became so agitated, that she promptly took her jacket off.
  • 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.
  • Darkest Hour: By the end of the movie, Jeff has been framed for corruption, betrayed by his former idol, the Senate is on the verge of expelling him, his newspaper has been shut down Taylor's thugs, he's barely conscious and dehydrated, and political opinion has largely been turned against him.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Saunders.
    "I don't mean to be complaining, Senator, but in all civilized countries, there's an institution called dinner."
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Saunders.
  • 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.
  • Disappeared Dad: Jefferson's dad, Clayton Smith got murdered while fighting a syndicate before the events of the film.
  • Dork Horse Candidate: While he was appointed rather than elected, Jeff was the original Dork Horse Candidate.
  • Double Take: Saunders does a beaut when Jeff shows up to the office for the first time hours late, and she yells at him to get out, only to finally recognize who he is.
    Saunders: (as she runs out to get him) That wouldn't be Daniel Boone!
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Jim Taylor's political influence is what keeps Senator Joseph Paine in power.
  • Driven to Suicide: Paine tries to do this after Smith collapses.
  • 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.
  • Endearingly Dorky: Jeff Smith naively stumbles and fumbles his way into the heart of a cynical Washington insider.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Clarissa Saunders. So embarrassing, it doesn't even get listed in the credits.
  • Expy: The "Boy Rangers", due to the Boy Scouts of America's fierce defense of the use of its protected name.
  • Fainting: Smith collapses of exhaustion after 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.
  • Foreshadowing: After administering the oath of office, the Vice President says to Smith, "Senator, you can talk all you want to now." Laughter ensues.
    • And when Taylor tells Paine, "If he convinces those senators, you might as well blow your brains out," Paine looks as if the words have inspired him to do just that. You'll see the same look on James Stewart's face in It's a Wonderful Life when Potter tells Bailey "You're worth more dead than alive."
  • 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.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Or colleague, in this case; none of the other reporters care much for Nosey (Diz calls him an ambulance chaser), but when Jeff, angry about the coverage he received from the press his first night in D.C., starts punching out every reporter he sees, they hold him off when he follows Nosey into the Press Club.
  • Glad I Thought of It: The Governor takes credit for appointing Jeff, which was suggested by his own children.
    • Inverted later by Jeff; while he was the one who had the idea for the boys camp, when Senator Paine suggests Jeff get to work on it (to put him off reading other bills he's not supposed to), Jeff acts as if the whole thing was Senator Paine's idea.
  • Good Is Not Dumb: Paine says "This boy's honest, not stupid."
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: "Horrrrseradish." Doubles as either a Last-Second Word Swap (for "whore") or an Unusual Euphemism (for "horses**t").
    • Our old friend "cockeyed", substituting for "God-damned" as in many films, is there too.
  • 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 BSoD: After the Frame-Up, Jeff goes back to the Lincoln Memorial, and breaks down in tears.
  • Heroic Resolve: By the end of the movie, Smith is barely standing, public opinion has been turned against him in his own state, his newspaper has been shut down by Taylor's goons, and he's about to face expulsion. But even then, he stands his ground.
  • 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.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Paine suggests that Smith compose a bill about that boys' camp he wanted to build to get him out of his hair momentarily. This bill proposal winds up inadvertently exposing Smith to Taylor and his political machine's plans to build a dam in the same area, which backfires on Paine in a big way.
  • 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.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: How Paine justifies his corruption to Smith, saying that it gave him a chance to do more good for the country.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Jefferson Smith, who rejects an offer from Taylor for whatever kind of payoff he'd like.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After meeting Jeff for the first time, Diz tells Saunders, "I need to go out and drink this over."
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Averted. When Smith tells the Senate about being offered bribes by Taylor, he tries to cover for Paine by saying he never said Paine was one of the senators in the room with him. Paine replies, "I was in that room!" (To make matters even more Zig-Zagged, Paine was in fact not in the room at the time, although he was aware of the meeting.)
  • 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 Willet Creek scam to Smith after she's had too much to drink, although she apparently doesn't regret it once she sobers up.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Martin Monroe. He looks down on Jeff, after reading about his shameless behavior at Mount Vernon, but comes to admire him after witnessing his hours-long filibuster.
    • Saunders herself. A truly cynical character who also looks down at Jeff, but she becomes enamored with his sunny idealism, and gives him the means to help him out.
    • Diz, one of the Paparazzi who is a real jerk to Jeff when he first arrives in Washington— helping publish derogatory stories about him and giving a "The Reason You Suck" Speech to his face— but when he sees Smith's fight against political corruption, he gets on Smith's side and tries to swing the papers to support him too.
  • Karma Houdini: James Taylor, much like the villain in another Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart, receives no on-screen comeuppance for falsely turning Smith's constituents against him and having his goons attempt to murder the Boy Rangers.
  • Lady in a Power Suit: Saunders wear one for the last third of the film.
  • The Last DJ:
    • Once Jeff gets wise, Taylor offers him a chance at being Senator for the rest of his life, as well as other favors, if he plays ball. Jeff refuses, at which point Taylor throws him under a bus.
    • Smith's father was also this, using his newspaper to fight against a criminal syndicate. It ended with him getting a bullet in the back.
  • Manchild: Jeff is accused of being this several times.
  • Maybe Ever After: Saunders and Jeff, although given how much she obviously adores him one might presume that they'll get together afterward.
  • 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.
  • Newscaster Cameo: H.V. Kaltenborn, a renowned CBS radio commentator from the era, appears to cover Smith's filibuster.
  • Nice Guy: Jeff Smith.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: To encourage Smith, who's dejected after his run-in with the reporters, Paine suggests he should introduce a bill to fund one of his dream projects. Unbeknownst to Paine, this project happens to be a boy's camp in Willet Creek, which leads directly to Smith blowing the lid off Paine and Taylor's graft scheme.
  • No Newspapers Were Harmed: The Boy Rangers put out a newspaper called Boys' Stuff, which some viewers may still recognize as Grit. There is a clear nod, not quite a Shout-Out, to the American amateur press as well.
  • 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.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Claude Rains' natural British accent comes through in several places, not helped by the fact that the "Mid-Atlantic" elocution that was standard for upper classes at the time sounds posh to modern audiences.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Congress itself is described like this.
  • Paparazzi: The D.C. press. Justified, because they are very cynical about politics.
  • Paper Tiger: The press corps call Jefferson Smith a "Christmas tiger" to his face, telling him that he was only appointed to fill a seat in the Senate and vote the way Senator Payne wants him to, which chafes the idealistic young senator. A Christmas tiger is a Japanese bobblehead toy, a hariko no tora. It's usually made of papier-mache. They were called that likely because they were popular in the U.S. as Christmas presents or decorations.note 
  • Pet the Dog: Diz clearly feels a little sorry for Smith after seeing how demoralized he is by "The Reason You Suck" Speech, and takes the time to escort him out of the club while reassuring him that in a hundred year nobody will know the difference.
  • The Plan: With the Senate moving to expel him, Jeff Smith will hold the floor and sway popular opinion against Paine and Taylor's machine.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Diz and Saunders, although Diz apparently wishes they could be more and at one low point Saunders proposes.
  • 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. And it's implied Taylor owned a lot more than two.
  • Quote Mine: When Smith first arrives in DC, the Paparazzi take advantage of his naiveté and goad him into making quotes and poses that they print out of context to make him look like a ridiculous rube. He is extremely upset by this.
  • Railroad Plot: Smith wants to turn a tract of land into a not-Boy Scout camp. The same land is bought by a corrupt businessman planning on grafting it to the government to build a hydroelectric dam proposed by his paid-off Senator.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Vice President, who is presiding over the Senate and gradually grows more sympathetic to Smith.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: When Smith confronts the reporters, they lay one on him by mercilessly explaining that his "honorary appointment" really makes him little more than a ceremonial seat filler who's just there to vote at his party's bidding.
    Diz: "You're not a Senator. You're an honorary stooge. You ought to be shown up."
  • Reconstruction: The first half of the movie shows the ugly realities of politics, tearing at Jeff's ideals. But the second shows Jeff, using the rules of Senate, taking a stand for those ideals.
  • 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
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: The cynical Saunders falls for the earnest, naive but ultimately forthright and honorable 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.
  • Slow Clap: Played with. When Smith presents his bill to the Senate, he has an obvious case of Performance Anxiety and the senators are chuckling patronizingly behind their hands. As soon as he finishes, however, he gets an uproarious ovation from a tour group of orphans who, unnoticed by anyone else, were observing from the gallery. Hearing this, the senators realize that Smith's bill is actually a pretty good idea and gradually join in the applause.
  • 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.
  • That Liar Lies: When Taylor tempts Smith to become part of his syndicate, he mentions that he's been telling Senator Paine what to do for 20 years. Smith's blunt response: "You're a liar." Unfortunately, Paine confesses that Taylor was telling the truth in that instance.
  • Throwing Out the Script: A Capra staple trope.
  • Token Good Teammate: Jefferson Smith is the nicest, greatest guy in the world, and everyone around him sucks. But by being around him, they start to get better. Ms. Saunders the secretary, the Corrupt Senator from Smith's home state, they all see the light.
  • 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 and his attempted suicide is averted.
    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"...)
  • Whole-Plot Reference: Supposedly the film was based on an unpublished short story called "The Gentleman From Montana". However, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play called Both Your Houses (1933) has very similar plot points. In the stage play, a neophyte congressman from out west comes to Washington. A gaggle of corrupt politicans are drafting a graft-laden appropriations bill for the construction of a dam in the neophyte congressman's district. The neophyte congressman is a paragon of Incorruptible Pure Pureness and as such resolves to fight the bill, with the help of his hypercompetent Girl Friday secretary. Columbia Pictures wound up buying the rights to Both Your Houses to stave off a lawsuit.
  • 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.
  • You're Insane!: A heroic version - when Diz finds out Saunders was the one who talked Smith into coming back to the Senate on the day Smith is set to be expelled from there, he asks Saunders, "Are you crazy?!" She merely nods her head in response.