Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is politically unknown when the governor of his state appoints him as a new senator. The governor’s powerful political backer Mr. Taylor(Edward Arnold) demands he appoint someone more amenable to their graft scheme, but Governor Hopper defies him at the behest of his sons, who sing Jeff’s praises. It turns out Jeff Smith is beloved, thanks to his work with the Boy Rangers and well respected by those who know him.
Jeff is honored and then humbled when he learns of his appointment. And even more so when he discovers that he will be working with his state’s other senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), an old and revered friend of his late father’s.
I can promise you one thing, I’ll do nothing to disgrace the office of – the United States Senate.
Senator Smith arrives in Washington, full of hope and naiveté, with complete confidence in the integrity of his country and its’ government. His new secretary Saunders(Jean Arthur) is not happy to be tasked with showing this wide-eyed newcomer the ropes. But his innocent optimism and pride in America slowly wins her over.
I-I-I don’t think I’ve ever been so thrilled in my whole life. And that Lincoln Memorial! Gee whiz. That Mr. Lincoln, there he is. He’s just lookin’ right straight at you as you come right up those steps. Just – just sitting there, like he was waiting for somebody to come along.
In order to keep him occupied and out of the way of an upcoming vote on Taylor’s graft plan, Senator Paine encourages Jeff Smith to propose a bill. With a lot of excitement and Saunders help, Jeff drafts a bill for a national boys camp which will teach young boys the lessons of democracy.
You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men 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.
But poor Jeff is in for a crushing blow when he learns that the site he has chosen for his camp is the same spot that is being used for Taylor’s graft scheme. He experiences an even more devastating blow when the man he admired and respected betrays him.
Well, as I said, this is a man’s world, Jeff, and you gotta check your ideals outside the door – like you do your rubbers.
JEFFERSON SMITH, HERO
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of my very favorite films. No matter how many times I watch it, it grabs my emotions every time. I end up cheering, laughing and crying as I watch Jeff Smith’s journey from innocent do-gooder to a determined defender of truth and morality.
Jeff is my favorite kind of underdog hero. He’s not an underdog because he is lacking in any way or because he starts out disadvantaged. No, he actually has a lot going for him. He is a man of integrity and ideals, taught by his late father and supported by his mother. Jeff isn’t looking for praise and attention, power or influence. He simply serves in small ways right where he is.
I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too.
When he is plucked from obscurity he takes that same attitude with him. Yes, he acts unwisely at times, even lashes out in anger when he is mocked. And yes, he gets caught up a bit in the glamour and prestige of Senator Paine and his daughter. But at heart, he retains his basic goodness and his belief in mankind and democracy.
When Jeff is finally hit with the truth of his senatorial appointment, the reasons he was chosen and why, he is understandably angered and demoralized. When his idol shows feet of clay and turns on him, Jeff acts as most people would. It’s not a betrayal that he can easily come to terms with and it almost destroys him. He descends into self-pity, expressing his hopelessness and newfound cynicism. I actually kind of love this about him. Often in movies, our heroes and heroines get knocked for a loop but don’t let it throw them. Not Jefferson Smith, he is as human as we all are.
I suppose, Mr. Paine, when a fellow bucks up against a big organization like that, that one man by himself can’t get very far, can he?
Heroes are born out of failure and often come from the bottom. And that is right where Saunders finds him when she stumbles uninvited to his pity party for one. Giving him a firm talking to, she is honest and doesn’t whitewash the facts. Saunders confronts him on his willingness to so easily give up on the ideals he espouses.
You had plain, decent, everyday, common rightness, and this country could use some of that. Yeah, so could the whole cockeyed world, a lot of it. Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there, waiting for someone to come along. You were right. He was waiting for a man who could see his job and sail into it, that’s what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and root them out into the open. I think he was waiting for you, Jeff. He knows you can do it, so do I.
That’s another thing I love about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Jeff Smith isn’t a hero who does it all on his own. It has been said that no man is an island. Many times it takes the support and encouragement of good friends to help us get back on our feet again and start fighting. And thanks to Clarissa Saunders, Jeff is fortified to take on the powerful corrupt political machine that is Jim Taylor.
Aah, he’ll never get started. I’ll make public opinion out there within five hours! I’ve done it all my life. I’ll blacken this punk so that he’ll – You leave public opinion to me. Now, Joe, I think you’d better go back into the Senate and keep those Senators lined up. -Taylor
As news reporter Diz Moore states, “This is the most titanic battle of modern times. A David without even a slingshot rises to do battle against the mighty Goliath, the Taylor machine, allegedly crooked inside and out.”
Jeff and Clarissa go to battle knowing that they very might well lose. But that doesn’t stop them from standing up for what’s right at great potential cost to themselves.
If there is a more inspiring, patriotic scene in any movie anywhere, other than Jeff Smith’s Senate filibuster, I would like to see it. Despite the condemnation of his fellow senators and his denunciation on the Senate floor by his idol, Jeff refuses to be swayed from his course. He’s not doing it to save his own seat. He wants to reveal of truth about government corruption to the people of his home state.
The amazing thing about his speeches in the Senate is they are not angry, nor revengeful and bitter about the “frame” job that has been done to remove him from his position as Senator. Even though he has every right to lambast and accuse those who have betrayed him, he doesn’t. Instead, he is humble, witty, self-aware, inspiring, kind and discreet. He leads his colleagues to the truth gently, with commitment and self-sacrifice until he earns their respect.
Finally, after almost twenty four hours on the floor, he receives the terrible news that his filibuster has been in vain. The truth he wants his constituents to hear has been squelched. He looks ready to crumble. There is such betrayal and agony on his face. However, Jeff Smith may be bloody and bowed, but he is not broken. Instead he remembers the words his father taught him about the value of fighting for lost causes. He straightens his spine, determined to continue the fight even though he believes it is lost.
The world needs more Jefferson Smiths. Men and women who aren’t out for themselves. People who are willing to sacrifice their time and reputation but not their integrity and honor. We need those who refuse to quit even when everyone else believes the worst about them. Men and women who keep speaking the truth even when others refuse to listen. We particularly need these types of people in positions of power and influence and in government who will respect and utilize their office for the benefit of those with less.
The best thing about the character of Mr. Smith is that he although he loses his naivete, he makes a choice to continue to believe the best of others, even his accusers. He gains a much better understanding of how government really works and the powers that influence it. But he doesn’t let it change him or turn him into a cynic. Jeff retains the wonder and trust that most of us seem to lose with disillusionment. That is why I love this film so much. Because, I want to believe that one person can stand up to enormous opposition and still retain the best parts of his character while making a difference. The world could use a hero like Jefferson Smith.