Every year as we study the Constitution, I show the students Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It is an amazing 1939 film with an incredible cast —Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Harry Carey, Claude Rains— directed by Frank Capra. The story is based on an innocent Mr. Smith who is appointed as a senator by the governor because of the death of a senator. This happens right when a bill is about to be passed by the Senate which includes a section about a damn to be built and the land it is to be built on (and sold to the United States) owned by a corrupt machine. Lots of greed and graft and profit to be made. Of course, the young innocent senator stumbles into the truth and tries to stand up to the political machine which very nearly destroys him. In the end of course, the truth comes out after a dramatic filibuster in the Senate and a passionate confession by one of the perpetrators of the graft.
Buried not too deeply within this drama is a powerful civics lesson. We learn about appointments for vacancies in the Senate, how a bill becomes a law, how senate committees function, how the process of expulsion works, and of course, the filibuster itself. The movie is further peppered with Senate rules, national monuments, and quotes from Abraham Lincoln and much of the movie takes place in a perfectly recreated Senate chamber (and the National Press Club too) on the studio lot. It also cleverly, adeptly, and effortlessly weaves this information into the dramatic story and romance — the words beautifully, wittily, smartly crafted by Sidney Buchman. By the end of this film the students are visibly hooked and riveted to its outcome.
When the film was screened in Constitution Hall in 1939, with 4000 guests invited including 45 senators, Capra reports in his autobiography that many senators walked out and many others screamed at the film. Many politicians and some media thought the film was anti-American, in fact, even pro-Communist and blasted it for the way it showed corruption in American government and politics. This is probably why the movie still holds up and feels just as true as ever. In fact, a bill was passed by the Senate as pure revenge for their negative portrayal, the Neely Anti-block Booking bill, a piece of anti-trust legislation, which effectively broke up the studio-owned theater chains in the late 40s when the bill was finally passed by both houses, proving the point Frank Capra was making in the first place.
This film works today because the corruption is not wiped out at the end . The truth comes out only because of the confession of Senator Paine. The democratic system remains poisoned. Mr. Smith is a hero, but not because he really affected the overall systemic injustice of the system.
The kids were moved. They understood its patriotic underpinnings, but they also were fully aware of how democracy had sold out to its highest bidder.
“Even democracy has a price doesn’t it?” EB said.
“I don’t think a real Mr. Smith could ever really battle it all,” CL responded.
“Of course he could. This is not how it is all supposed to work.”
“How is it all supposed to work?”
And then class was over.