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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Movie review by
Nell Minow, Common Sense Media
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Movie Poster Image
Classic pits Jimmy Stewart against government corruption.
  • NR
  • 1939
  • 129 minutes
Popular with kids

Parents say

age 9+
Based on 3 reviews

Kids say

age 9+
Based on 15 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Viewers will learn about how the U.S. Senate operates, what a filibuster is, and even see old printing presses in action. Parts of the Declaration of Independence are read during the filibuster and the main character frequents the Lincoln Memorial.

Positive Messages

Loaded with reminders of the importance of honesty, believing in yourself, standing up for what's right, knowing the difference between compromise and corruption, and that liberty and the freedom of speech are precious. It's also worth noting that African Americans are seen as porters and paper boys in this classic movie, but a black man is also seen standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, hat off and deeply moved by where he is.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jefferson Smith stays true to who he is -- an idealistic and honest man, and quite a patriot. When he's faced with corruption he calls a man a liar to his face, gets almost everyone against him, and is saved by his strong character and force of will.

Violence & Scariness

A light shatters after a gun is fired and there's a struggle -- gun not shown. Jeff punches a bunch of crooked reporters. Mentions of past death and violence. In a montage, young boys distributing papers are hit by goons, a car with boys in it and a wagon carrying papers are hit by trucks on purpose, and marchers are hosed down by police.

Sexy Stuff

Flirting, declarations of love, and a drunken "let's get married."


Just dated and innocent exclamations like, "Great saints!" "You're all wet," and "Stop having kittens."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Lots of smoking -- cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and chewing tobacco -- by members of Congress and the press. Saunders gets drunk and almost gets married in the same night. More drinking in bars and in Senator Paine's home.

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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byschmosa33 April 9, 2008
Adult Written bymike.carey April 9, 2008
Teen, 13 years old Written byAnnieC January 23, 2013

A great Frank Capra film

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is about a senator, Mr. Smith, who is tormented by a newspaper tycoon. He fights for what is right and ends up winning. This movie... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byyankswonalot January 16, 2011
When my eighth grade civics class viewed this, every one sighed because of the fact it was in black and white. I, however, love classic movies and found this on... Continue reading

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?

Movie details

For kids who love dramas

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