U.S.A. Popcorn Adventure #112
February 17, 2010
KOTC Road Trip: (We Are) We the People
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington + DC Civics Trip
Jefferson Smith, the freshman senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was supposed to be a political stooge. Hand-picked to finish out the brief term of a dead senator, Jimmy Stewart's character is thrown into a lion's den with only his integrity for protection. He begins as the laughing stock of Washington when he writes a bill to start a camp for the boy guides from his home state. Turns out, the property he has targeted has secretly been bought up by several scheming senators who are trying pass a rival bill involving the same land. Stewart's aw-shucks belief in the power of the system melts away the cynicism of his seasoned secretary (the wonderful Jean Arthur), who coaches him to stand up to the corruption. In one of cinema's most famous scenes, Senator Smith holds forth on the Senate floor until an established statesman cops to being crooked. With political scandal making everyday news, the film's message that each citizen can make a difference is the type of power play we like our kids to remember.
Our kids don't always understand the theory of "checks and balances", but the visiting the seat of democracy provided ample opportunities to learn about each branch of government. We took a tour of the famous halls in the Capitol building, admiring 400 years of American history painted around the inside of the Capitol dome. The kids knew that each state in the Union is represented by its elected officials, but had fun learning that each is also represented by two statutes of native luminaries. We witnessed democracy in action in the viewing gallery of the Senate while picking out the historic desks: one where our greatest orator, Daniel Webster, sat and, more importantly, the candy desk where present Senators pick up a little energy. After visiting the Capitol, we went on a tour of the White House and wondered if Sasha and Malia play hide and seek in the East Room where Theodore Roosevelt's children rode a pony. At the Supreme Court, we chuckled when our docent sounded like a dying pig when he yelled "oyez, oyez, oyez," as if a court session was beginning. As the kids marveled at how the decisions in that small room with nine people could counter the riot of voices we experienced across the street at the Capitol, we realized the kids just might have gleaned an understanding of the vibrancy of our democracy -- and their role in it.
Film Title: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Directed By: Frank Capra
1938, Rated U, 129 minutes
Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
- Why It's Worth It: Our kids were glued to the screen for Mr. Smith, proving that some classic films stand the test of time just by being great. We found ourselves engaged in rewarding conversations about politics, politicians and the legislative process. The film actually provides an excellent lesson in how legislative bills make their way through Congress. Jimmy Stewart thinks that his idea for a boys' camp can be drafted and passed in a few hours, but Jean Arthur sets him straight with a hilarious explanation of the whole complex process.
- Virtual Tour of DC: When Mr. Smith first reaches D.C., he slips away from his handlers to see all the monuments. The seasoned pols laugh at his little boy wonder for the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, but this tour of the sites is one of the film's highlights.
- Some Stars Still Shine: Jimmy Stewart's performance really touched the kids. It is his character's dogged determinism that attracted them. His romance with the tough-talking Jean Arthur feels fresh and funny and they'll never forget the ultimate film finale - Mr. Smith's 24 hour filibuster on the Senate floor.
- Further Viewing: Director Frank Capra made some of the best loved, best written, feel-good films of all time. His signature is an affinity for the common man, a brilliant comedic touch and non-partisan, sentimental sense of patriotism -- factors that gave post-Depression Americans a much needed chuckle. Check out Capra's other films: It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life, Lost Horizons, Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, State of the Union and You Can't Take it With You.
- COOL FACT: This was the fifth film that Jimmy Stewart made in 1939.
Our Tips for Talking with your Kids about this Film:
- Cinema Savvy: This film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, but only took home an Oscar for best writing. It is on the AFI's list of Top 100 Films and thereby well worth an evening on the couch. Jimmy Stewart did receive the Oscar the following year, for his performance in The Philadelphia Story. Many felt it was because of his role as Jefferson Smith.
- Feminism Savvy: Jean Arthur is the smartest, savviest character in the film. She would have made a wonderful senator, yet she played a secretary. Talk to the kids about how women's roles have changed over the years.
- History Savvy: This film was made on the eve of World War II. Many protested Mr. Smith because the film portrayed our government as corrupt. Capra described the reaction to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as "the worst shellacking of my professional life." Beltway insiders criticized his cynical view of Washington and the press resented the portrayal of boozing lifestyle. Yet, Capra received numerous letters from people telling him that the movie inspired them to enter politics. When Nazi Germany forbid American movies, Mr. Smith showed around-the-clock to a packed theatre in a Paris for the final 30 days before the ban took effect. This story of an idealistic Boy Ranger troop leader gave encouragement to the ordinary man all around the world. Ironically, today the film feels shamelessly patriotic.
Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.
Want to know a few other great films about politics
? Click here to see all our film picks from the Kids Off the Couch store at Amazon.com.
These books give you a good tour of Washington, D.C. Click here
to see all our book picks at the Kids Off the Couch store at Amazon.com.