When the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington appeared in 1939, many intelligent observers were predicting that the age of Democracy was at an end and that the age of Fascism and Communism was dawning. Democracy, perhaps, was a lost cause. In the face of a tide of totalitarianism that seemed to be destined to engulf the globe, Frank Capra made this film celebrating Democracy.
It is a very odd sort of celebration. The film starkly presents one of the key problems in any Democracy: the political corruption that mocks the ability of the people to rule themselves.
Jefferson Smith, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in his first leading man role, is a grown-up boy scout. He has never surrendered his belief in this country and its ideals, because he has always lived in a sort of never-never land that he has created. He is the head of the Boy Rangers (the Boy Scouts foolishly refused to allow their name to be used in the film), and he looks at the world with the idealism of a boy who simply wants to do what is right. One of the senators from his state, Sam Foley, dies in office. The governor of his state, an indecisive man, decides to appoint Smith to the Senate based upon the recommendation of his children and because he realizes that he will not be criticized for appointing this do-gooder. The man who actually controls the state, political boss Jim Taylor, unforgettably portrayed by Edward Arnold, goes along with the choice after being assured that Smith is a babe in the woods and will be easy to manipulate.
The senior senator from the state, Joseph Paine, is surprised to learn that Smith is the son of an old friend of his, a crusading small town newspaper editor, who was murdered in the course of one of his crusades. Paine was a crusading attorney, but he has long since sold his soul to Jim Taylor: a senate seat in exchange for Paine serving as Taylor’s man in Washington.
Jefferson Smith does seem initially to be a very poor choice to fill a spot in the Senate. He is filled with idealism, but has almost no knowledge about what a senator does. He does have one big goal however: the establishment of a camp in his state where the Boy Rangers may have a camp. He drafts a bill to this effect with the help of his secretary, Clarissa Saunders, played by Jean Arthur in her finest role. Saunders is in many ways the opposite of Smith. She is a paid agent of the Taylor machine, and is filled with endless cynicism. However, she is also filled with practical knowledge about how the Senate operates. She finds herself, against her will, falling in love with Smith and his idealism.