Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

In Frank Capra's classic political-drama with a message about honesty and maintaining one's ideals in government:

  • the film's setup: rapid-fire telephone conversations reporting the hospital-bed death of a Western state Senator's death: "Senator Samuel Foley - dead, yeah, yeah, died a minute ago - here at St. Vincent's. At the bedside was state political sidekick Senator Joseph Paine. Yeah"
  • the duty of 'yes-man' Governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper (Guy Kibbee) to appoint a replacement for the recently-deceased US Senator, and his choice of naive and wholesome local youth leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the Head of the Boy Rangers
  • at a celebratory banquet, Smith tremulously spoke in his first speech: "I-I can't help feeling that there's been a big mistake somehow"
  • the distinguished Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) approved the selection in conversation with powerful media magnate Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), head of a political machine that was pushing for a pork barrel project to build an unneeded dam (the Willet Creek Dam project): ("A young patriot, recites Lincoln and Jefferson, turned loose in our nation's capital. Yeah. I think it's all right")
  • the scene of the two-day train ride of Jefferson Smith with Senator Paine to Washington, DC., when Smith remembered his crusading editor/publisher father Clayton Smith's motto: "Dad always used to say the only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes"
  • the initial sequence of Smith's initial reaction to being in DC, during a whirlwind sightseeing bus tour of the capital city's sites and monuments in a compiled montage of images - with the idealistic Smith beaming with patriotism and pride
Jefferson Smith's Naivete - His First Speech at Banquet
On Train: "...the only causes worth fighting for were lost causes"
At the Lincoln Memorial During Whirlwind Tour
  • the scene of the disillusioned, newly-elected Senator Jefferson Smith, now serving in Washington DC, and his disgust at the press corps (that had humiliated him in newspaper reports for his naivete), and the dishonest corruption: ("Why don't you tell the truth for a change?..People in this country pick up their papers and what do they read?... If you thought as much about being honest as you know about being smart") - Smith was cautioned about being too altruistic and idealistic
  • while drafting a boys' camp Senate bill to buy land in his home state, the scene of Senator Smith late at night in the Senate Office Building with his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), thinking about how to inject patriotic ideals into the words of the bill - and pointing at the Capitol Dome out the window: ("The Capitol Dome... I want to make that come to life for every boy in this land. Yes, and all lighted up like that too! You see, you see, boys forget what their country means by just reading 'the land of the free' in history books. And they get to be men - they forget even more. Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: 'I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't. I can. And my children will.' Boys want to grow up remembering that")
  • in his office, Senator Paine's explanation to Senator Smith about compromising and being less of an idealist, after Paine's Deficiency Bill on the projected site for a boys camp was discovered to be a front for party Boss Jim Taylor's own plans to fraudulently appropriate funds: ("This is a man's world. It's a brutal world, Jeff, and you've no place in it. You'll only get hurt. Now take my advice. Forget Taylor and what he said. Forget you ever heard of the Willet Creek Dam...I know it's tough to run head-on into facts but, well as I said, this is a man's world Jeff, and you've got to check your ideals outside the door, like you do your rubbers. Thirty years ago, I had your ideals. I was you. I had to make the same decision you were asked to make today. And I made it. I compromised - yes! So that all those years, I could sit in that Senate and serve the people in a thousand honest ways. You've gotta face facts, Jeff. I've served our state well, haven't I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants. But, well, I've had to compromise. I've had to play ball. You can't count on people voting. Half the time they don't vote anyway. That's how states and empires have been built since time began. Don't you understand?") - Paine begged Smith to avoid interfering with the Deficiency Bill on the Senate floor - but Smith was unwilling to compromise and sacrifice his principles for a scheme involving graft, and felt betrayed and let down by his sponsoring guide in the Senate
  • the scene the next day, when during the reading of the Deficiency Bill, Smith rose to question Section 40 regarding Willet Creek Dam, but the blame was shifted to Smith by Paine - to discredit and accuse him of their own crimes (it was interpreted as Smith's own pork barrel - introduced for his own profit)
  • the scene of betrayed Senator Smith's late-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial when he felt downtrodden and was ready to leave town: ("This is a whole new world to me. What are you gonna believe in? And a man like Paine, Senator Joseph Paine gets up and swears that I've been robbin' kids of nickels and dimes - a man I've admired and worshipped all my life. I don't know. There are a lot of fancy words around this town. Some of them are carved in stone. Some of 'em, I guess the Taylors and Paines have put 'em up there so suckers like me can read 'em. Then when you find out what men actually do - well, I'm gettin' out of this town so fast and away from all the words and the monuments and the whole rotten show") - and Saunders' encouragement for him to remain, go against the odds, and tell the truth: ("You can't quit now. Not you! They aren't all Taylors and Paines in Washington. Their kind just throw big shadows, that's all. You didn't just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, every day, common rightness. And this country could use some of that. Yeah - so could the whole cock-eyed world. A lot of it. Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there waiting for someone to come along. You were right! He was waiting for a man who could see his job and sail into it. That's what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and root 'em out into the open. I think he was waiting for you Jeff. He knows you can do it. So do I")
  • the classic, climactic scene of idealist Senator Smith's exhausting, desperate one-man filibuster (that was to last almost 24 hours) in the US Senate - when he was on the verge of being threatened with expulsion - at first, he refused to yield to Senator Paine, and then accused Paine (in cahoots with Taylor) of graft: ("I was ready to tell you that a certain man of my state, a Mr. James Taylor, wanted to put through this dam for his own profit. A man who controls a political machine! And controls everything else worth controlling in my state!") - he insisted on continuing to speak: "I've got a piece to speak, and blow hot or cold, I'm gonna speak it....The wild horses aren't gonna drag me off this floor until those people have heard everything I've got to say, even if it takes all winter" - the long filibuster caused Senator Smith to become increasingly exhausted
Smith's Exhausting One-Man Filibuster
  • Smith preached to the Senate and offered home-spun insight on democratic ideals: "I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a - a little lookin' out for the other fella, too...And I hate to stand here and try your patience like this, but EITHER I'M DEAD RIGHT OR I'M CRAZY"
  • after almost 24 hours, Smith exhorted the Senate: "Get up there with that lady, that's up on top of this Capitol Dome. That lady that stands for Liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see somethin'. And you won't just see scenery. You'll see the whole parade of what man's carved out for himself after centuries of fighting. And fighting for something better than just jungle law. Fighting so as he can stand on his own two feet free and decent, like he was created no matter what his race, color, or creed. That's what you'd see. There's no place out there for graft or greed or lies! ...this country is bigger than the Taylors or you or me or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here. You just have to see them again"
  • the sequence in which thousands of "Taylor-made" phony telegrams from constituents in his state were manufactured (at the direction of Taylor), and deposited in front of the Senate chamber; Senator Paine held up a fistful, telling Smith that they all demanded that he yield the floor and give up his filibuster: "The people's answer to Jefferson Smith"; Smith grabbed two fist fulls of the phony documents, and in a hoarse voice toward Senator Paine, he delivered an impassioned speech about "lost causes" - accusing Paine face-to-face of betraying his ideals this time around: ("I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule: 'Love thy neighbor'")
  • Smith spoke one more time directly to Paine: ("You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked, and I'm gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody'll listen to me. Some...") - and then Smith collapsed onto the floor

Smith Collapsing Onto the Senate Floor

Senator Paine's Admission of Dishonesty

The Senate Floor and Gallery Erupting With Joy
  • the exciting and triumphant conclusion, when a remorseful Senator Paine failed in an attempted suicide (gunshots were heard outside the Senate) as he admitted his dishonesty: ("I'm not fit to be a Senator. I'm not fit to live. Expel me! Expel me! Not him"); Paine then returned to the Senate floor to exonerate Smith: ("Every word that boy said is the truth! Every word about Taylor and me and graft and the rotten political corruption of our state. Every word of it is true. I'm not fit for office! I'm not fit for any place of honor or trust. Expel me!"); the Senate floor and gallery erupted with joy; Saunders danced up and down with Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) in the gallery and then shouted: "Yippee!"

Reports of a Senator's Death

Youth Leader Jefferson Smith Appointed by Governor to Serve in US Senate

Senator Paine's Approval of the Selection in Discussion with Scheming Jim Taylor

Smith Humiliated by the DC Press

Shattered Idealism: Senator Smith's Disgust with DC Press Corps and Corruption

Pointing at the Capitol Dome During Drafting of Boys' Camp Senate Bill

Senator Paine to Smith: "This is a man's world"

In the Senate, Paine's Denouncement of Smith's Boys' Camp Bill in the Senate - to Shift Blame

Late Night Visit with Saunders to the Lincoln Memorial

Paine Challenged Smith with 50,000 Telegrams

Smith Aghast at Phony Telegrams Sent to Senate Chamber

Smith's Final "Lost Causes" and "You Think I'm Licked" Speeches


Greatest Scenes: Intro | What Makes a Great Scene? | Scenes: Quiz
Scenes: Film Titles A - H | Scenes: Film Titles I - R | Scenes: Film Titles S - Z