Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
An idealistic young man who is installed temporarily in the seat of a recently deceased U.S. senator attempts to defend his patriotic ideals against the attacks of a powerful political machine.
Writer(s): Sidney Buchman
Director: Frank Capra
Production Co.(s): Columbia Pictures Corporation
Story by: Lewis R. Foster
The Story on the Screen
In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the main character, Jefferson (Jeff) Smith, is an idealist who holds strongly to the principles upon which he believes the Unites States was founded—and to their companion virtues of honesty, truth, and justice. To support and advance those virtues, he dedicates his time to running a statewide organization (similar to the Boy Scouts of America) the purpose of which is to help boys grow into men (and future leaders) who are strong in body and mind and appreciate Nature.
When one of the U.S. senators from Jeff's (unnamed) home state dies suddenly, its governor is faced with the task of appointing a temporary replacement to fill the seat. One of his two front-running candidates is a man he is commanded to appoint by Jim Taylor, the leader of a corrupt and powerful statewide political machine that created and sustains the governor's political career. The other is a political reformer demanded by consensus of the citizen committees in his state.
When one of the U.S. senators from Jeff's state dies suddenly, its governor appoints Jeff to take his place.
Taylor's choice is a political "yes man" who will do his bidding, especially with regard to a graft-laden bill that will soon come up for a vote in the U.S. senate. The bill involves the building of an unnecessary dam on land that he and his associates have purchased under false names in anticipation of profiting when it is bought by the government. To ensure the success and secrecy of this corrupt enterprise, he needs the seat to be filled by someone who will vote as he is told to vote and will not ask the kinds of revealing questions the reformer would ask.
The choice puts the governor in a political bind, because if he goes against the wishes of the committees, he risks alienating the voters, but if he disobeys Taylor, he will be vilified in the media, much of which Taylor controls, and his political career will be over. To extract himself from the bind, he surprises everyone and appoints Jeff, whose name and reputation he learns of from his own children. Jeff is popular among children statewide (whose parents may vote), and his political naivete will render him ineffective during his brief time in office and certainly no threat to Taylor and his plans.
Jeff is introduced to Washington, D.C. by the state's other senator, whom he has long admired and does not know has become corrupt.
Jeff is introduced to his new post in Washington D.C. by the state's other senator, Joseph Paine, a man whom Jeff's father knew and worked with on "lost causes" when they were both very young—and whom Jeff has long admired because of father's glowing commendation of Paine's character as a fine man. Unbeknown to Jeff, however, Paine is no longer the man his father knew and now is completely allied with and beholden to Taylor, the man who helped put him in office and has kept him there for two decades.
When Jeff is mocked by the press for filling his honorary position as a "stooge," he appeals to Paine to help him be of some use during his brief time in the senate, whereupon Paine suggests that Jeff introduce a bill to build a patriotic boys' camp—his longtime dream. But when Jeff introduces the bill, Paine discovers that he intends to build the camp on the site planned for the unneeded dam—a complication that threatens not only the dam but exposure of the corruption involved in its planning.
When it becomes clear that Jeff will not compromise his principles, the battle lines are drawn.
Taylor and his forces are roused quickly for damage control, but when it becomes clear that Jeff cannot be persuaded to compromise his principles, even by Paine, the battle lines are drawn for a monumental political battle on the floor of the U.S. senate. It is a battle that subjects Jeff's reputation to vicious assault in his home-state mainstream media and in which he is helped only by his secretary, Clarissa Saunders, and the supporters who still believe in him back home.
Behind the Scenes
As with any reasonably complex story, the actions of the main character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington involve the expression of various types of intent—such as the gain intent involved in discovering and exposing secret dealings and the regain intent of attempting to restore justice to a political system that began with high notions but has gotten wildly off-track.The driving motivation for Jeff's actions lies in the realm of keeping. But the primary undercurrent that runs through the entire story—and the driving motivation for Jeff's actions when the final battle begins—lies in the realm of keeping. Specifically, he intends to keep faithful to his noble ideals in the face of attacks that would have him compromise or give up and abandon them forever. And the type of intent is reflected in the very action that he must take to win the day—that is, to staunchly keep "the floor" until he can persuade his fellow senators of his rightness and/or garner and build the support of those in his home state.
The primary undercurrent that runs through the entire story lies in the realm of keeping.
In this case, then, the issue at the heart of the story may be said to involve "maintaining virtuous principles against attack and pressure to compromise." And the issue is one that the storytellers appear to consider the basis of an advisable endeavor. Consequently, the proposition for the story can be stated:
- One should attempt to maintain (keep) his virtuous principles against the efforts of corrupt forces to weaken or destroy them, because success in the attempt will strengthen his character and expose the corrupt forces as dangers to honest society.
In the end, with Clarissa's help and support, Jeff succeeds in keeping his principles against all attempts to undermine them.Jeff succeeds and we-the-audience are pleased with the outcome. And the moral strength that he demonstrates in doing so tips the scales of Paine's conscience, causing him to admit his own corruption and extol the virtues for which Jeff stands. Because we-the-audience are rooting for Jeff to succeed, we are pleased with the outcome; therefore, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington lies firmly in the realm of succeed/pleased stories. And partly because he is rewarded with the finding of love in the course of his success, the ending may be said to be happy.
For More Information
For details regarding the concepts and terms used in this analysis, refer to the Discovering the Soul of Your Story overview video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Story Analyses page (or use the search tools in the sidebar).