Only a month and half after Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was released to over 4,000 people in Washington D.C., including senators, congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, and Cabinet members. While it was banned in Nazi Germany for fear that it proved that democracy worked, the premiere screening in D.C. caused these political members to leave in anger over the portrayal of the Senate and the U.S. political system. Obviously, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was more than just a movie.
After the Great Depression hit men and women across the nation in the 1930’s, many Americans blamed the government for their situation. Though never said outright in the film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington does play on those anti-government sentiments, addressing the corruption of Taylor’s “political machine” and Senior Senator John Paine’s crookedness and ability to be influenced in such important business. It is only too obvious the other senators’ complete indifference and disrespect towards Junior Senator Jefferson Smith. He’s new, sure, but he’s also democracy personified. In the filibuster scene where Sen. Smith is forced to loudly whistle to wake up the senators who are blatantly sleeping or reading the newspaper in front of him, it is painstakingly clear that these senators are determined not to let Sen. Smith ruin the status quo or have his way. Their silence and apathy is proof of their compliance with Taylor’s corrupt political machine.
The real-life senators who watched the film had one of two reactions: either they laughed along with the “absurd” portrayal of the Senate or they denounced the film altogether for its allegations that the U.S. government was corrupt in any way. In both cases, no one was willing to admit to any faults portrayed in the film holding a grain of truth. However, Sen. Smith’s declaration before he collapses rings true:
“Even if this room gets filled with lies like these. And the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.”
Thankfully, somebody did.
Countries across the world who were feeling the encroachment of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism used Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a beacon of hope for true freedom of speech and a rallying cry against their oppressors. Upon the announcement in 1942 that Nazi-occupied France was no longer to show American movies, the title theatres chose for the film to be the last one shown before the ban took effect, one theatre even showing it nonstop for thirty days prior to the ban. For all the perceived “anti-democratic” sentiment of American political viewers, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was truly the hope for the pure and honorable democracy of the past to continue on in the present and future.
Even after countless warnings by the production company to be extremely careful and to take great caution lest the movie anger politicians (oops), Frank Capra spearheaded the project forward, because he knew that lost causes “were the only causes worth fighting for.” To this day, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington continues to inspire people across the globe to realize that even a common man and a lost cause can change the world.