Frank Capra was an idealist for sure, but he certainly was clear-eyed in seeing some of the darkest problems with humanity and its institutions. At the beginning of this film, he shows us politicians who are firmly in the pocket of special interests, the degree to which is startling. A state governor (Guy Kibbee) is in charge of picking a new senator after one of the two serving for his state has passed away, but it's immediately clear that he operates as a puppet for a big businessman (Edward Arnold), a guy whose clout got the governor his position, and now who expects to call the shots as payback. We see it as one of the fundamental problems of representative government in 1939, just as it is today, so the film is highly, highly relevant.
Now it's laughable that the governor would go rogue and put the head of the Boy Rangers, Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), in there instead, based on the pleading of his children and a coin flip that lands on its edge, but that's the premise of the film. It's an obvious call to clean up Washington, and get decent, upright people in there as representatives, and in delivering this message, Capra does not attempt subtlety or realism. And I may as well say it now before I blab on, it's laughable how the kids play the role they do later in the film too, and how the other senator (Claude Rains) behaves in the end. Maybe the film is pointing out that progress will always depend more on the next generation, and that ultimately it will require those in power to summon their sense of decency and stand up for what's right.
One thing I love is just how reverentially Smith treats the job he's about to undertake. First of all, he knows it's not about him. He's also not sure how well he'll do, but says "I can promise you one thing: I'll do nothing to disgrace the office of United States Senator." After dropping off his crateful of pigeons (lol), we then see him wide-eyed as he tours the landmarks of Washington DC. The shot Capra gets of him beneath the giant statue of Lincoln perfectly captures his humility, and others the deep respect he has for the institution he's going to serve. We get a heavy dose of the ideals the country aspires to, with shots of Lincoln's second inaugural address ("With malice toward none, with charity for all") and a recitation of a part of the Gettysburg address by a young boy, while his grandfather and an African-American man look on. It's quite flowery and may have the lip curling of every cynic who sees the film, thinking of all of the times America has done evil in the world, but just about to head into WWII was not one of those times, and regardless, I can't help but admire this scene. If only all of America's representatives went with a reverence for these ideals, respected the institutions from their hearts, and felt real humility and a need to not let down his or her constituents, or the leaders who came before them.
Everyone else is aware of how the system in Washington actually works though, including the other senator (Rains), his handler (Eugene Pallette), and his secretary (Jean Arthur). Heck, even the young page who shows him to his seat is savvier. Smith says to the boy, "I'm just going to sit around and listen," meaning that he feels he has a lot to learn and shouldn't go in with guns blazing. The kid answers "That's the way to get re-elected," reflecting how deep the cynicism of the process runs. Later it's parenthetically said that "You can't count on people voting. Half the time they don't vote." These little bits are pointing out the same thing, that while we may decry the state of government, at the same time, to make it better we need to be active participants in it.
Stewart is fantastic in the film, with lots of memorable moments, such as when he nervously reads his proposal for a boys camp on the senate floor, and then later when his eyes are opened to deep corruption, which includes his father's friend and mentor, Rains's character. When he takes the Senate floor to filibuster and angrily yells "No, sir, I will not yield!" it's a fine, fiery moment, with palpable tension between the two men. I also love the softer scene with Arthur where he channels Walt Whitman in quoting his father, a man who died fighting for the little guy and the free press: "My dad had the right idea. He had it all worked out. He said: 'Son, don't miss the wonders that surround you. Every tree, every rock, every anthill, every star is filled with the wonders of nature.' He said, 'Have you ever noticed how grateful you are to see daylight after coming through a long dark tunnel? Well,' he said, 'always try to see life as if you'd just come out of a tunnel.'"
Arthur turns in a solid performance with her character, who is also inspiring. She knows how congress operates, giving Stewart (and the viewer) a little tutorial, and then coaching him from the balcony. We see that her character is jaded, but that there is still a glimmer of idealism in her, and also a healthy amount of disgust for politics. "You're half-way decent, you don't belong here," she tells Stewart. We see both of these characters go through the inevitable response to the ugliness of politics - considering leaving the aggravation and frustration of it all, because it's the fight of an underdog to try to change it, or to stay and fight, because that's the only way anything will ever change, and what great leaders have had to do too as well. As this is a Capra film, you can guess which one of these paths they take.
It's certainly an arduous path, as the political boss is incredibly powerful. There is real evil, greed, and corruption here, and Arnold plays his part perfectly. The scene where he tries to get Smith to play ball is reminiscent of Potter calling George Bailey into his office in 'It's a Wonderful Life,' and has a similar outcome. When Smith stands up in revulsion, the boss immediately turns to Plan B, which is crush him. He does what corrupt and deceitful people in politics have always done - he drums up charges of the very same things he is guilty of against those who oppose them. He also uses his power over the press to wage a misinformation and propaganda war. Maybe you'll recognize these patterns from the present day.
The ending is a little messy, and I would have liked it more had Smith somehow been shown swaying the other senators with arguments and reason. How does one reach across the aisle and bridge such a gap of disagreement and entrenched special interests? However, I have to give the film credit for shining a light on corruption in politics, and I loved how its truthful message was so powerful that many offended politicians branded the film as communist propaganda. As Smith says, what's needed in politics is "plain, ordinary, everyday kindness. And a little looking out for the other fellow too." Indeed.