News

Moments of Movie Wisdom: Appointing an Interim Senator in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ (1939)

Moments of Movie Wisdom: Appointing an Interim Senator in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ (1939)

Publicity still from the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." (MovieStillsDB)

Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

10/5/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

Commentary
On Sept. 29, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) died at age 90, leaving an empty seat in the Senate. Within two days, Gov. Gavin Newsom had announced the seat would be filled by interim replacement Laphonza Butler. Seeing the headlines about these events made me think about movies in which the governor must choose an interim replacement for a congressman who suddenly dies. There’s one film in particular in which this scenario sets a complicated plot in motion.
Today’s moment of movie wisdom is from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). The film begins with the death of a senator from an undisclosed state. The governor (Guy Kibbee) scrambles to fill the vacancy, receiving pressure from his political advisors, business tycoons, and even his children to appoint different men. He ultimately rebels against his political bosses by appointing an apolitical Boy Rangers leader, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart). The young man proves not to be an ignorant pawn, as hoped, but an inspired patriot who disturbs the state’s whole political setup.

The Story

Governor Hopper decides to appoint Jeff Smith to an empty Senate seat, against the advice of his political comrades and Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold)—the business tycoon who controls the state—after he is swayed by his children’s passionate endorsement of Mr. Smith, a young Boy Rangers’ leader who has become a local hero through his selfless service. The innocent young man is overwhelmed at his appointment, and he is elated to serve alongside his idol, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Paine was Jeff’s father’s best friend, and the two men fondly remember how the late Smith, a newspaperman, fought for lost causes before being shot in the back.
In Washington, the naïve but motivated Jeff is assigned smart political secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) to keep an eye on him. She and her reporter friend Diz (Thomas Mitchell) laugh at Jeff’s ignorance of what really goes on in Washington, particularly his admiration of Senator Paine. To keep Jeff occupied, Paine suggests that he write a bill about his idea for a boys’ camp in their state, but it proves less innocent when he announces in the Senate where it would be located: Willet Creek, the site of a graft-ridden bill Paine has presented. Jeff soon realizes that Paine and every other politician from his state has been bought by Jim Taylor, who soon offers him a secure political career at the expense of his honesty, as well. Jeff decides to fight, but he doesn’t realize what a huge fight he’s starting.
Promotional still from the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," published in National Board of Review Magazine in November 1939. (Public Domain)

Promotional still from the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," published in National Board of Review Magazine in November 1939. (Public Domain)

The Scene

Today’s scene is the opening of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The first thing that happens is a series of politicians’ worried telephone conversations about the vacancy a senator’s death has left. No one expresses grief over his death; in fact, they complain about his bad timing. While Governor Hopper nervously tries to keep the citizens’ committees at bay, Jim Taylor and Senator Paine discuss who would be the right man. It’s especially important to have someone who knows how to take orders and keep his mouth shut during this session of Congress, since they are trying to pass a corrupt bill for the Willet Creek dam project, which would benefit Jim Taylor.
They eventually decide on reliable stooge Horace Miller, but Hopper is terrified to see his constituents’ reaction to such an obviously political choice. When he announces the names to the committees, they erupt in angry shouting. Instead, they suggest Henry Hill, whom Taylor denounces as a crackpot.
While Governor Hopper is still deliberating, he has dinner with his wife (Ruth Donnelly) and their eight children. Although he clearly isn’t a man who discusses his business affairs with his family, his older sons bring up the Senate appointment and hint at his indebtedness to Taylor. One of them says that he should appoint Jeff Smith, and all the children enthusiastically endorse the Boy Rangers leader who became a hero when he put out a fire recently. They argue that he’ll earn the votes of every ranger’s parents, which makes 100,000 votes! The governor asks his wife why he must be ridiculed by his children in his own home, but she urges him to listen to them.
Publicity still from the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." (MovieStillsDB)

Publicity still from the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." (MovieStillsDB)

Its Significance

Much to his chagrin, this interaction impacts Hopper deeply. Later, he is alone, muttering to himself as he struggles to decide on his appointee. In desperation over whether to jeopardize his re-election by the people or his support from Jim Taylor, he flips a coin. It lands on its side, leaning against a newspaper with a prominent headline about Jeff Smith. “That’s good enough for me,” he says and appoints Smith without saying a word to Taylor, Paine, or anyone else.
Governor Hopper has a small role in this story, but his decision sets the plot in motion. This is his only moment of strength during his brief screen time. However, it’s also the only time one of Taylor’s paid political stooges defies his wishes and acts on his own instinct. He doesn’t back down when Taylor confronts him about the unlikely appointment and especially his not consulting him. He argues that Smith is the perfect choice for their needs, showing remarkable backbone.

The Mouths of Babes

Psalm 8:2 says, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.” This is very appropriate for Governor Hopper. His children’s honesty affects him very deeply, making him realize how obvious his corruption is, even to them. He decides to take their advice because they give him just what he needed, a third choice. Their boldness in speaking up enables him to do the right thing, for once in his political career, ultimately ending Jim Taylor’s control over the state.
Maybe Gavin Newsom should have asked his children about whom to appoint to the Senate seat.
Publicity still from the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." (MovieStillsDB)

Publicity still from the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." (MovieStillsDB)

Copy
facebooktwitterlinkedintelegram
Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

Author

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.

Author's Selected Articles
California Insider
Sign up here for our email newsletter!
©2024 California Insider All Rights Reserved. California Insider is a part of Epoch Media Group.