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As a follow up to yesterday’s piece on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), there’s a notable democratic catch in the film. The film’s conceit is that the hero Jefferson Smith is a naïve patriot and completely honest man who is chewed up by the Washington machine (sinks in the swamp, we might say today) but triumphs in the end. His opponent says, as regards Smith, “He’s honest not stupid,” however the film does make Smith look stupid; partly, it’s because his office manager, the girl Saunders, has to be smarter than him (in a quasi-feminist way); and yet there’s also a contradiction at the heart of Smith.

For expositional reasons, Saunders has to explain to Smith how to write and present a bill to the Senate. This makes no sense because earlier we hear that Smith bores ignorant Washington hacks by recounting American history to them—so if Smith is not stupid and also is a patriot who knows his history backwards, it seems really unlikely he wouldn’t know the basics about how Congress works (he doesn’t even understand that there’s a committee stage). Aside from a feminist point, Saunders has to do this exposition for the audience’s benefit—it’s the audience who is ignorant about how Congress works, not the character Smith.

This shows up the naïve democratic logic behind Smith: the film is about how an American everyman who loves liberty can “beat city hall”—yet the film also admits, in its exposition, that Hollywood circa 1939 could not trust the average American cinema-goer to even understand the basics about Congress (how to write a bill, the existence of committees). In other words, the exposition belies the story’s logic—the real “Mr. Smith” doesn’t know his arm from his elbow as regards Congress, he doesn’t know basic facts let alone how it “really” works. Despite the film’s democratic message, its metacommunication reveals that the masses were ignorant in 1939—easily manipulated; and the standard has only dropped since then.


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