Last night, I was pleased to see that KQED, my local PBS affiliate, was showing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for their weekly Saturday night movie program. I have always loved this film, and deeply respect the emotional integrity and intelligence it brings to the screen.
It’s hard to imagine that at one time, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was very subversive and controversial. Today, its message of resilience is so universal that any overt political message is overshadowed to the modern eye. But when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered at the National Press Club in Washington, many senators were present and a large group of them walked out, offended at the governmental corruption the film depicted. Joseph P. Kennedy tried to prevent the film’s release in Europe, as he felt it would encourage the Axis powers. At the time of the film’s release, government had not yet acquired the reputation of corruption that we now take so for granted. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington changed that to a large extent.
The film’s influence on the decline of the studio system is well-documented. United States v. Paramount Pictures et al struck down the studios’ practice of block booking (wherein a theater had to purchase 5 films to show 1), because so many theaters opposed to purchasing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Its foreshadowing of the McCarthy era, and the political control of media outlets and the information they disseminate to the public, has, deservedly, been analyzed many times. This is part of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘s lasting legacy. What I want to talk about is something that is not often discussed–the complex and subtle commentaries on women in politics that exist within the film.
In the Roosevelt era, women were just beginning to gain a foothold in American political life. The film’s references to “96 men” when referring to the makeup of the Senate (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states), is not an accurate picture of the Senate in 1939. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was conceived in an election year where a number of high profile races were taking place, one of which was an Arkansas race between Republican C.D. Atkinson and Democrat Hattie Caraway. Caraway, the incumbent, had been the first woman ever elected to the Senate. Much like the fictional Jefferson Smith, she had been appointed to the Senate (following her husband’s death), then was reelected in her own right the next year. In spite of tough opposition in 1938, she won another reelection with a landslide 89.6% victory over Atkinson.
Senator Caraway’s presence is ignored in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, perhaps for several reasons. While the movie was filmed in early 1939 after Caraway’s victory, the script was written prior to the election. The screenwriters, Sidney Buchman and Myles Connolly, likely did not want to predict the outcome. And even after her victory, pointing out a woman in the Senate may have felt too political, regardless of the fact that Caraway was indeed in the Senate. Or, perhaps, they were trying to create a completely unrecognizable governmental body.
Whatever the reason for leaving Senator Caraway out of the picture, a true female political force is indeed revealed in the movie, through the character of Saunders, played to perfection by Jean Arthur.
Saunders, whose first name we learn is Clarissa, is Jefferson Smith’s fast-talking legal secretary. She is a bit cynical and jaded, a true Washington insider, but maintains a sense of humor. Whip-smart and experienced, she scoffs at the newbie Jefferson Smith, who has been appointed from some unnamed western state when the previous senator died, and she lectures him on congressional procedure when he gets too optimistic about his bill to open a boys camp at Willet Creek. Saunders is respected by men, and is considered their equal. At one point, Smith pries her first name out of her and he lets it sit for a moment, repeats it, then goes back to calling her Saunders. When he mounts his famous filibuster against the Willet Creek Dam Project at the end, she coaches him from the gallery, walking him through the entire process. She is smarter than anyone else in the room, and more strategic. It is clear that in a just world, she would have been the one named replacement senator.
In Jean Arthur’s gutsy characterization of Saunders, we see a strong, intelligent woman whose gender relegates her to work as a political secretary rather than a politician, and who directs a marathon filibuster from the balcony to which she is relegated as a bystander. The characterization can be read not only as a commentary on the general situation of women in the United States, but also as a call for women to be accepted as full and participating members of public life.
The film ends ambiguously, with Jefferson Smith taken out of the Senate chamber after fainting, and the corrupt Senator Paine confessing to his crimes. I like to think that perhaps following this ambiguous ending, for Saunders too, there is a political future.
This last midterm election, the United States elected a congressional body with the highest percentage of women in history. Somewhere, Hattie Caraway is cheering, and Saunders is finally no longer on the sidelines.