This is a far different point of view from that of former President Barack Obama, who called it a “relic of Jim Crow”, along with many other criticisms.
But an idealized view of systematic obstruction as a force for good is not an outlier; this is how many students, from generations past and even today, are exhibited there for the first time, via the classic Frank Capra from 1939 Mr. Smith travels to Washington.
As relic as the film is, the climatic scene, in which Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) features a nearly 24-hour filibuster against corruption and behind-the-scenes transactions between his colleagues, has endured. It is still used as an educational tool and, in the coverage of the last debate, emerges as a common point of reference in pop culture. It helped shape perceptions of what a filibuster is, and perhaps even helped him survive.
“I think he played a huge role in protecting the filibuster because he presented it in a favorable light,” says Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and former Deputy Chief of Staff to Senator Harry Reid. He says the film appears in just about every interview he does and “a lot of the current debate is, ‘That’s not what filibuster is anymore.'”
Ben Mankiewicz, host of Turner Classic Movies, says the film “probably had as big an impact on the public awareness of filibuster as anything, because he fictionalized it.” It’s Jimmy Stewart, for screaming out loud, and that’s his defining role.
While filibuster has at times proven to be helpful, says Mankiewicz, the filibuster that made history was from Strom Thurmond, who in 1957 spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes to try to block the landmark bill. on civil rights this year which, despite its obstruction, was ultimately passed. . “Jimmy Stewart takes a stand against the abuse of power and injustice, yet the systematic obstruction of history was to protect the abuse of power and to stand up for injustice,” says Mankiewicz.
Additionally, the type of obstruction of speech by Jefferson Smith or Strom Thurmond is rare, as it has evolved into the simple threat of one, with a 60-vote threshold needed to close or end debate.
“Nobody would be enthusiastic about this film where Jimmy Stewart fights the fence”, ironically Mankiewicz.
Former Senate historian Don Ritchie remembers many of the students who came on tour with their impressions of the Senate procedure formed by the film. But he said even new members of the Senate, aspiring Mr. Smiths, would have to face the reality of what it was.
“It’s a compelling movie, and Jimmy Stewart is just great as a naive senator, but we very rarely have these buccaneers, and they are very rarely as passionate as Jimmy Stewart,” Ritchie says. Ted Cruz’s 2013 almost 24-hour talk-a-thon is often cited as an example of recent filibustering, although technically it wasn’t. A remarkable memory is not so much what he said against Obamacare, the goal of his marathon speech, but his reading of Green eggs and ham.
When he was a senator from New York, Al D’Amato rose to prominence for his obstructionists, taking place during the years he was running for re-election, in which he read the DC phone book and sang South of the border (Down Mexico Way).
“There’s a lot of drama going on, but for the most part that doesn’t change the outcome,” says Ritchie.
The Senate itself adopted the film and featured it on a Legislative Tactics History page on its website. The Senate even has in its collection one of the replica desks that were used to recreate the chamber, as Capra was not authorized to shoot in it.
It’s not quite the film’s reception in DC in 1939, after its dazzling world premiere at Constitution Hall. One of the attendees, Harry Truman, complained in a letter to his wife Bess: “It makes donkeys out of all Senators who are not crooks. But it also shows the correspondents in their true drunken light. “
Other senators, including Majority Leader Alben Barkley, were enraged at the cynical way the film portrayed the Senate. As Joseph McBride recounts in his biography Frank Capra: the disaster of success, the controversy “helped rally those forces in Washington determined to bring antitrust lawsuits against the film industry,” although the full extent of the fallout may have been embellished a bit over the years.
The film was a success. What remains a bit murky, however, is how the obstruction became his climatic moment.
Officially, it’s based on an untold story, The gentleman of Montana, by Lewis R. Foster, who won the film’s only Oscar (it was a competitive year, to say the least). As McBride details, there are questions about the originality of the story. Shortly before the release of Mr. Smith, Columbia has reclaimed the rights to a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning Maxwell Anderson, Your two houses, after the studio found out it had a “remarkably similar plot”.
McBride said by email that Your two houses contains “the plot and the basic characters, but not the filibuster.” There are, however, as a suggestion of one, like when a senator says to the leader, a character similar to Mr. Smith, “Are you trying to filibuster all day?”
What is certain is that the systematic obstruction, even at the time when Mr. Smiththe release of, already had a history associated with blocking civil rights legislation. Despite a poll showing huge public support for anti-lynching legislation in 1937, southern senators managed to obstruct the bill and it was shelved the following year.
Survey data shows majorities did not support filibuster in the years after the film’s release, notes Gregory Wawro, a professor of political science at Columbia University, nor did they. during the epic battles of filibustering on civil rights law in the 1960s.
“Mr. Smith is certainly at the heart of the mythology of the Senate, ”he said via email. He showed it in his Congress lessons because he has a pretty accurate portrayal of “some of the finer points of procedural conflict in the Senate,” while still having a masterful narration.
“Presumably, when Mr. Smith is mentioned in the filibuster discussions, it brings more people who haven’t seen him to watch him, which helps keep him at the center of the filibuster debates.” , he said.
Sean Wilentz, professor of American history at Princeton, is a little more skeptical than others about the impact that real or celluloid filibusters have had on public perceptions. Via email, he notes that “For many if not most Americans, the picture of filibuster is probably pretty blurry. We are not a particular informed historical culture, as much as we can discuss history. What I can say is that neither Jimmy Stewart nor Strom Thurmond grasp the realities of a filibuster today when a senator just has to email and the obstruction is done. Hence, in part, the launch of the number of systematic obstructions in the stratosphere over the past fifteen years.
Since then, the battle lines have shifted, as supporters claim the filibuster has been abused as a tactic to block any consequential law.
People for the American Way, co-founded by Norman Lear, is one of the groups calling for the end of filibuster. In 2005, when Republicans controlled the Senate, he ran a $ 5 million advertising campaign to preserve it. Its then president, Ralph Neas, argued at the time that the filibuster “forces Republicans and Democrats to sit down and straighten things out.” This is actually one of Manchin’s points, while critics argue the opposite.
Unsurprisingly, a featured figure in the 2005 campaign was Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith, which in the last line of the spot recalls what a filibuster is, not how it was used. “I have a song to speak, and blow hot or cold, I’m going to speak it.”