A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this classic gem from 1939 includes lots of smoking (cigarettes, pipes, cigars) consistent with the era and some drunkenness. Even though much of the movie takes place in Senate chambers, there are still a few violent moments including a gun shot, paper boys punched and nearly run down by goons, and the main character punching crooked reporters. Punching aside, the titular Mr. Smith is an otherwise great role model, holding onto his strong convictions even when it seems like everyone is against him. Kids will not only get to see the Lincoln Memorial but learn a bit about how the Senate operates and see a filibuster in action.
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What's the story?
Naive Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is sent to Washington to serve the remaining term of a senator who has died. At first, Smith is such a hopeless rube that he is an embarrassment. But a visit to the Lincoln memorial reminds him of what he hopes to accomplish, and he returns to the senate to promote his dream, a national camp for boys. Smith winds up in a battle with corrupt Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who sets out to destroy the young idealist and his dreams. Smith's friend Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells him to filibuster -- take the floor of the Senate and keep speaking -- while his mother and friends get out the real story. While Smith holds the floor, his Boy Rangers print up and try to distribute their own newspaper. But Taylor's henchmen stop them. After speaking for 23 hours, Smith sees that all of the letters and telegrams are against him. After an impassioned speech pointed at Paine, he vows to go on, but collapses from fatigue. Paine, overwhelmed with shame, runs into the cloakroom and tries to kill himself, confessing that he was the one who was corrupt.
Is it any good?
It is hard to imagine a time when Jimmy Stewart was not a major star, but this is the movie that made him one; he was a perfect choice for the shy young idealist. Capra selected cowboy actor Harry Carey to play the vice president, who presides over the senate during Smith's filibuster. His look of weather-beaten integrity perfectly suits the part, and contrasts well with Rains' suave urbanity.
Frank Capra was to movies what Norman Rockwell was to illustration; he gave us a vision of our national identity that never ignored the challenges we face, although it was idealistic about our ability to meet them. This movie, made on the brink of World War II, was criticized for its portrayal of dishonesty and cynicism in Washington. But ultimately, it was recognized for the very patriotic and loyal statement that it is.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the difference between compromise and corruption. Do politicians have to do some bad things to make other good things happen? Is Mr. Smith a realistic character?
Families can also talk about the difference between being honest and being smart -- and what's more important to them. Saunders says that "all the good that ever came from this world came from fools." What does this mean?
Jeff gets slammed by the unscrupulous press and fights back -- with his fist. Would the media treat him the same today? How is the press the same? How is it different now? How would CSPAN and the Internet have helped Jeff Smith's cause?
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