Don't look for much realism in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." But, at a basic level, the movie does show us how things have changed since 1939 when it was made -- and how some things never seem to change.
The movie was directed by Frank Capra, who also gave us such uplifting Americana as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." Much of his work fell under the category of "Capracorn," and "Mr. Smith" is about as corny as it gets.
Briefly, Jefferson Smith (played with typical skill by James Stewart), the idealistic leader of the Boy Rangers, an organization like the Boy Scouts, is appointed to fill the term of the recently expired U.S. senator from his state (which is unnamed). Smith is chosen because of his naivete; the ruthless leader of the state's political machine hopes Smith will be his unwitting stooge in Congress.
Eventually, Smith learns that he is being used and resolves to fight the boss of the machine, Jim Taylor, who, in turn, decides that it's time for Mr. Smith to take a fall. Smith, after consulting the spirit of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, decides to take on Taylor and his machine. With the help of a savvy, cynical secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), who has fallen in love with the lanky Mr. Smith, he launches a filibuster to get the truth out.
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(Spoiler alert for those who have not seen the movie! Do not read the next paragraph!)
Truth, justice and the American way prevail. The machine is exposed, and Mr. Smith is hailed as a hero.
As I watched the movie on TV the other night, one of the plot turns stood out. Sitting in the gallery as Smith reads from the Constitution on the Senate floor, his cohort, Ms. Saunders, tells a friend in the Washington press corps that the Taylor machine has muzzled all the papers in Smith's home state. The whole state!
"Not one word of what he's saying is being printed in that state," a worried Ms. Saunders says. "Taylor has practically every paper in the state lined up, and he's feeding them doctored-up junk."
She enlists the help of the Boy Rangers, who print a special edition of their paper, Boy's Stuff, telling the truth about the noble Mr. Smith. But Taylor's thugs viciously attack the boys and confiscate the papers.
Hey, I warned you not to look for much realism in this flick. Even in 1939, it would have been hard to control the output of every newspaper in the state, including Boy's Stuff.
Still, plausible or not, what struck me about this plot device was that it requires us to believe that people relied utterly on their newspapers for information from the outside world. Whoever controlled the papers -- in this case, the political machine -- controlled the news and, in an Orwellian sense, what readers thought.
Times have changed. If today's Mr. Smith can't reach his constituents through the newspapers, he has a multitude of other means at his disposal. Send them e-mails; get surrogates to spread the message on talk radio and cable TV news shows; create a video for YouTube; get a special-interest group to produce a political ad featuring the Boy Rangers.
And Mr. Smith wouldn't have to confine his message to the folks back home. He could send it nationwide or across the globe. People in China would know that Jim Taylor was a crook.
Of course, today's Mr. Taylor has access to the same media and Internet outlets Mr. Smith does. He can use all the means at his disposal to smear Mr. Smith and deflect attention from his machine.
Hired bloggers could float rumors that those camping trips with the Boy Rangers might not have been so innocent. What kind of favors did this alleged patriotic icon have to promise to get appointed to the U.S. Senate? And who controls the purse strings for the multimillion-dollar Boy's Stuff publishing empire?
Even with all the new ways to transmit and receive information, we sometimes can't be sure who to believe or whether the information is accurate or not. We still have to consider where the news comes from and whether the source is credible.
I guess, even 68 years after "Mr. Smith" debuted, some things haven't changed all that much.