We’re recasting our second Jimmy Stewart movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, just in time for the 2016 Federal election!
Stewart made a lot of films, across a handful of well-trod genres. Mr. Smith though is his most civic-minded, outdoing his characters in Anatomy of a Murder, and Call Northside 777. It was very early in his career, and probably the first solid presentation of the babyface archetype he’d play most popularly over and over for the next 40+ years. While it was approvingly received by the public, press, and nominated for 11 Academy Awards, what’s forgotten today is that is was also hugely controversial among elected officials, Senator Alben W. Barkley of KY condemned it,
“Grotesque distortion [of the way the Senate is run]. As grotesque as anything I have ever seen! …It was so grotesque it was funny. It showed the Senate made up of crooks, led by crooks, listening to a crook… It was so vicious an idea it was a source of disgust and hilarity to every member of Congress who saw it.”
There were calls to ban the movie, Capra was denounced as anti-American, legislation against it was considered. Reaction like that could have killed Stewart’s career. Had it come a decade later, he might’ve wound up on the Blacklist. Looking back and discovering this controversy in 2016 is humorously shocking. Today the news and pop culture media churn politics for entertainment to a degree that might’ve caused a coronary in the elected officials of 1939.
The Simpsons have never shied away from political criticism. You could call it one of the four legs the show stood on, along with typical sitcom family dynamics, lampooning suburban culture, and media satire. Early landmark episodes include season two’s TWO CARS IN EVERY GARAGE AND THREE EYES ON EVERY FISH, MR. LISA GOES TO WASHINGTON in season 3, and of course, the perennial election year favorite from 1996’s TREEHOUSE OF HORROR VII’s CITIZEN KANG segment.
Lisa’s scorching tirade calling out Bob Arnold’s corruption at the end of “Mr. Lisa…” is an intentional homage to the filibuster Stewart’s Senator Smith gives at the end of “Mr. Smith…”. We could have possibly made her the lead in our recasting, but really she’s never been the naive idealist that Flanders is. Digging deeper into Ned’s characterization, you could attribute the hot temper Smith shows tearing into the DC press corp for embarrassing him, to Ned’s hyperactive childhood (uncovered in HURRICANE NEDDY). Casting Ned as Jefferson perfectly sets up Lovejoy as his Paine (Senator Joseph), a man who might’ve once been a caring dedicated community servant, now lost and numb after years of being ground down by the system. This face-off even provides conniving Jessica Lovejoy as the conspiratorial daughter called in to distract Ned from his duties—much more benignly in our edit.
Similarly well recast is Edna Krabappel, standing in as Jean Arthur’s acerbic Saunders. Edna knows the system but can be wooed into caring about her job and colleagues once in a while, for instance the way she found partial credit for Bart on his history test, allowing him to pass with a D grade. Of course, we can’t ever imagine Edna paired romantically with Ned, despite having a deeply buried heart of gold. When making these choices sometimes you have to overlook bizarre pairings that’d never make sense or show up on The Simpsons itself.
What’s also bizarre is that, despite the 11 Oscar nominations “Mr. Smith…” got, Jean Arthur, who had top billing above Jimmy Stewart even, wasn’t given a nod for her scene-stealing performance. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” may have a male title character, but as captured with Capra’s aware lens, you can see the dynamic lead is really Clarissa Saunders, who grows from a cynical bureaucrat into a cagey combatant in the halls of government, using her knowledge and experience to guide Jefferson Smith through the arcane machinations of public office. Stewart as Jefferson Smith cuts an attractive, sympathetic figure, but he doesn’t really change as the noose tightens around him.
Smith disappears for long stretches of the movie, leaving screen time for Clarissa’s concrete foundation of cynicism to crumble, as she commiserates and monologues while embracing Smith’s idea of goodness in government with newshound “Diz” Moore, the big, thirsty teddy bear we could only cast as Barney Gumble. In this way, Stewart’s Jeff Smith is a sort-of Manic-Pixie-Dream-Senator: He appears from nowhere, upsets the status quo, attracts followers like a pied piper, and in the end restores the lead’s passion for life while sacrificing himself.
Jefferson Smith is too honest, he’s not a leader and admits it several times, but he’s still more than a pawn … more like a white knight in the dirty chess game of Senate sausage making. Saunders is his White King than, directing the action against her dark, monied, equal across the board: Jim Taylor. Taylor is the greedy political boss who approves Smith for the open Senate seat, believing the scoutmaster’s naiveté will make him an easy puppet; then sets up him for a fall when the little guy altruistically sabotages a long-planned land grab. Early in casting, we thought the Rich Texan was going to play the Taylor role, both are wealthy and greedy, but the Texan is no more than a loud hick with a fat wallet. Sideshow Bob was also a candidate because of his instinctively devious mind. Finally though it struck me how Jim Taylor uses, more than any other weapon, his silver tongue to control and con people. He twice convinces Joe Paine to throw Smith under the bus, and manipulates the mass media to stamp out any voice opposing his malicious intentions. Controlling public opinion through lies, along with his symbolically corpulent body, make Birch Barlow the perfect stand-in.
The Simpsons has never disguised its contempt for politicians. HOMER’S ODYSSEY admits how easily our heroes and watchdogs can be bought off. Mary Bailey, for all her implied virtuousness, is just an idealized Mary Sue political candidate to measure Mr. Burns against; she disappears without mention for the rest of the show’s classic era. Justice catches up with Bob Arnold so swift as to be an absolute parody of congressional inaction, the lesson in “Mr. Lisa…” isn’t “the system works” but that honesty government demands constant watch from everyone at all times or, as Marge says in HOMER BADMAN, “…as long as everybody is videotaping everyone else justice will be done.” “Citizen Kang,” the shows most damning indictment of the failure of our electoral process and U.S. politics, condemns us for buying into an obviously rigged system. TRASH OF THE TITANS illustrates just how unplugged many voters are from reality, willing to buy into any sleazy lunatic who appeals to their laziest desires.
The Simpsons reinforces Joseph de Maistre’s belief that “In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve.” The show assures us that the residents of Springfield will survive on luck, but it never tells us that everything’s going to be alright. At best, things’ll get worse, but only so slowly that no one’ll notice.