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The untimely death of a junior Senator (from an unnamed American state) sends political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) into a momentary panic. Taylor needs the votes in the Senate to back a pork barrel project that will line his pockets. He controls the state's Governor, Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) and the state's beloved senior Senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who suggest a popular citizen and local Boy Ranger leader, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) to fill the empty position. Smith is humbled and proud to be under the wing of Paine, who had known Smith's late father, a crusading journalist. The patriotic Smith drinks in the sights in the nation's Capitol and reports to the Senate. He is hit hard upon his arrival by the Washington Press Corps, including reporter Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell), who paint him as a naive fool in the newspapers. With the encouragement of Paine and with help from his cynical assistant Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith begins to draft a bill to establish a Boy's Camp in his state. Unfortunately, Smith's bill conflicts with Taylor's plans for pork politics; Taylor turns all of his might against Smith, including Senator Paine. Smith sees the enormity of the forces against him, but he is determined to get the truth out to the people of his state. Saunders is falling in love with Smith, and she, Diz, and others sympathetic to the effort, including the President of the Senate (Harry Carey), help Smith in his last-ditch effort to clear his name.
Produced/Directed by: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, from the story by Lewis R. Foster
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Editors: Gene Havlick and Al Clark
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Principal Cast: James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Rains (Sen. Joseph Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Harry Carey (President of the Senate), H.B. Warner (Sen. Fuller), Guy Kibbee (Gov. Hubert Hopper), Thomas Mitchell (Diz Moore), Eugene Pallette (Chick McGann), Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith).
Why MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is Essential
Though it's now universally revered as an ode to democratic ideals, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) was originally denounced by many Washington power-brokers. That may come as a bit of a shock if you haven't seen this classic picture for several years. Jimmy Stewart's lead performance made him a star, and is justly remembered as the key component of a beautifully constructed narrative. But Capra, for all his flag-waving and sometimes naive moralizing, saved a great deal of bite for the hallowed halls of American government.
If not subversive, the movie is at least driven by a strong distaste for the misuse of power by our elected officials. This was an exceptionally gutsy message at a time when Americans were concerned with the rise of Nazism overseas, and Capra surely knew he would ruffle a few feathers. But he put his foot down and said exactly what he wanted to say, much like the film's patriotic lead character. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to light up a sparkler.
Capra nearly cast Gary Cooper, but finally settled on Stewart. "I knew he would make a hell of a Mr. Smith," he said. "He looked like the country kid, the idealist. It was very close to him." Stewart knew this was the role of a lifetime, one that could place him near the top of the Hollywood heap. Jean Arthur later remembered his mood at the time: "He was so serious when he was working on that picture, he used to get up at five o'clock in the morning and drive himself to the studio. He was so terrified something was going to happen to him, he wouldn't go faster."
Even in the classics-heavy year of 1939, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a major achievement, arguably the finest picture of Capra's storied career. It may wrap itself up a bit too easily, but you'd have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by the journey. Or, in lieu of that, you could be a U.S. Senator or Washington newspaper reporter circa 1939.
On October 17, 1939, the picture was previewed at Washington's Constitution Hall. The preview was a major production featuring searchlights and a National Guard band playing patriotic tunes; The Washington Times-Herald even put out a special edition covering the event. Four thousand guests attended, 45 Senators among them. About two-thirds of the way through the film, the grumbling began, with people walking out. Some politicians were so enraged by how "they" were being portrayed in the movie, they actually shouted at the screen. At a party afterward, a drunken newspaper editor took a wild swing at Capra for including a drunken reporter as one of the characters!
Several politicians angrily spoke out against the film in newspaper editorials, which, in the long run, may have helped its box office. Sen. Alben W. Barkley viewed the picture as "a grotesque distortion" of the Senate, "as grotesque as anything ever seen! Imagine the Vice President of the United States winking at a pretty girl in the gallery in order to encourage a filibuster!" Barkley, who was lucky he didn't get quoted on the film's posters, also said, "...it showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!"
Senator James F. Byrnes of South Carolina suggested that official action be taken against the film's release...lest we play into the hands of Fascist regimes. And Pete Harrison, the respected editor of Harrison Reports, urged Congress to pass a bill allowing theater owners to refuse to show films - like Mr. Smith - that "were not in the best interest of our country." And you thought the Dixie Chicks got a raw deal.
Not everyone, especially American moviegoers, saw Capra's vision as an affront to democracy. Frank S. Nugent, a critic for The New York Times wrote, "(Capra) is operating, of course, under the protection of that unwritten clause in the Bill of Rights entitling every voting citizen to at least one free swing at the Senate. Mr. Capra's swing is from the floor and in the best of humor; if it fails to rock the august body to its heels - from laughter as much as from injured dignity - it won't be his fault but the Senate's, and we should really begin to worry about the upper house."
by Paul Tatara
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
In 1919, a young Frank Capra had his first brush with picture-making when he got work as an extra on the western The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1919). The movie was shooting on the Sacramento River near where Capra found temporary work on a ranch. The film's director was Jack (later John) Ford, and the star was Harry Carey. Capra told Carey that he was interested in a career in movies, and got some encouragement from the actor, who was already a film veteran, having started in D. W. Griffith's stock company of players. Twenty years later, Capra was able to repay Carey for his kindness, by casting him in the key supporting role of Vice President in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The film rights to The Gentleman from Montana, Lewis R. Foster's story which was the basis for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, had originally been purchased by director Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1931). Harry Cohn offered Mamoulian $75,000 for the rights, but the director turned it down. Mamoulian had another ploy in mind; he was anxious to direct Golden Boy (1939) for Columbia, so after Cohn agreed, Mamoulian sold Cohn the rights for the same amount he paid: $1,500.
For a key scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in which a drunk Saunders (Jean Arthur) must admit to herself that she is in love with naive Jefferson Smith, Frank Capra turned for help to another director with a strong story sense, Howard Hawks. Hawks made suggestions for the scene, which was ultimately played as a single two-shot with no cuts - playing off Thomas Mitchell, the scene was a tour-de-force for Arthur.
Character actress Beulah Bondi played Ma Smith, Jeff's mother in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, marking the third of five times that the actress played mother to a character played by James Stewart. Previously, she appeared with Stewart in Of Human Hearts and Vivacious Lady (both 1938), and subsequently she would play Ma Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), and then twenty-five years later play the mother of Stewart's character again in an episode of the latter's TV series, The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971).
Jean Arthur was sensitive about being photographed on her "good side," so in pre-production, care was taken in set design and construction so that her entrances showed only the "good" side of her face.
One of the fondly remembered scenes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the tourist trip that Jeff Smith takes upon arriving in the nation's Capital. The montage of monuments and patriotic images was compiled by Slavko Vorkapich. Originally from Serbia, Vorkapich began his career as a cinematographer in the silent era, then specialized in photographic effects and special transitions in films such as Dancing Lady (1933) and Viva Villa! (1934). He began creating montage effects with spectacular work in San Francisco (1936), and thereafter was credited for montage sequences for such films as The Good Earth (1937), Maytime (1937), Test Pilot (1938), and The Crowd Roars (1938). He worked with Capra again on Meet John Doe (1941).
FAMOUS QUOTES from MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939)
Governor Happy Hopper (Guy Kibbee): [Jefferson Smith is] a big-eyed Patriot, knows Lincoln and Washington by heart, stands at attention in the Governor's presence, even collects stray boys and cats. A perfect man, never in politics in his life, wouldn't know what it was all about in two years, let alone two months.
Jefferson Smith (James Stewart): ...Dad used to tell me that Joe Paine was the finest man he ever knew. I don't think I'm gonna be much help to you down there in Washington, Senator. I'll do my best. With all my might, I can promise you one thing - I'll do nothing to disgrace the office of the United States Senate.
Jefferson Smith: Dad always used to say the only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes.
Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur): Daniel Boone's lost...Lost in the wilds of Washington...The Boy Ranger, aw, he'll show up. He must have a compass with him.
Jefferson Smith: I don't think I've ever been so thrilled in my whole life, and that Lincoln Memorial! Gee Whiz! And Mr. Lincoln, there he is. He's just lookin' right straight at you as you come up those steps. Just - just sitting there like he was waiting for somebody to come along.
Saunders: Look Senator, I wasn't given a brain just to tell a Boy Ranger what time it is.
Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains): Don't be a fool, Saunders. If certain things happen, I'm taking everybody up with me and you'll get one of the biggest jobs in Washington.
Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell): See you got Daniel Boone in all right.
Saunders: Daniel in the lion's den.
Jefferson Smith: Why don't you tell the truth for a change?
Sweeney Farrell (Jack Carson): How do you want it Senator? Dished out or in a bottle?
Jefferson Smith: People in this country pick up their papers and what do they read?
Diz: Well, this morning, they read that an incompetent clown had arrived in Washington, parading like a member of the Senate.
Jefferson Smith: (Pointing out the window) That's what's got to be in it!
Jefferson Smith: The Capitol Dome.
Saunders: On paper?
Jefferson Smith: 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.
Jefferson Smith: My dad had the right idea. And it all worked out. He used to say to me: 'Son, don't miss the wonders that surround you because every tree, every rock, every anthill, every star is filled with the wonders of nature.' And he used to say to me: 'Have you ever noticed how grateful you are to see daylight again after coming through a long dark tunnel?' 'Well,' he'd say, 'Always try to see life around you as if you'd just come out of a tunnel.'
Saunders: I wonder Diz, if this Don Quixote hasn't got the jump on all of us. I wonder if it isn't a curse to go through life wised up like you and me.
Saunders: Why don't you go home?...This is no place for you - you're half-way decent. You don't belong here. Now go home.
James Taylor (Edward Arnold): Either he falls in line with us and behaves himself or I'll break him so wide open they'll never be able to find the pieces.
Paine: You've got to 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?
Jefferson Smith: 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.
Saunders: 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.
Jefferson Smith: I got up here and I started to open my mouth and the long and powerful arm of Mr. James Taylor reached into this sacred chamber and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck.
Jefferson Smith: And I'll tell you one thing, that 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.
H. V. Kaltenborn (Himself): Half of official Washington is here to see democracy's finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off, the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. ...In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers. They have come here to see what they can't see at home. Democracy in action.
Jefferson Smith: And I hate to stand here and try your patience like this, but either I'm dead right or I'm crazy!
Jefferson Smith: I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about the 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.' And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust. You know that rule, Mr. Paine. And I loved you for it, just as my father did. And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others. Yes, you even die for them.
Compiled by John Miller
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
In early 1939, Frank Capra was without question the most prominent film director in America. He had just won the Best Director Oscar® for his most recent movie, You Can't Take It with You (1938). That film, which also won for Best Picture, was just the latest in a string of hits Capra had made for Columbia Pictures and the studio's mogul, Harry Cohn. With his longtime collaborator and screenwriter Robert Riskin, Capra had helmed such classics for Cohn's studio as Lost Horizon (1937), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and It Happened One Night (1934), for which Capra had won his first Best Director Oscar®. Capra was at something of a loss for a follow-up to You Can't Take It with You, particularly because Riskin had taken an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and left Columbia. One of Capra's initial ideas, a costume biography of Chopin, was shot down immediately by Cohn, especially when Capra expressed an interest in shooting it - at great cost - in Technicolor. When he saw a two-page synopsis of an unpublished novel called The Gentleman from Montana (by Lewis R. Foster), Capra jumped on it - it featured an Everyman who becomes embroiled in the darkest aspects of Washington politics. Some consideration was given to making it a sequel to the earlier Gary Cooper film and calling it Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, but Capra realized he needed a younger, more self-assured character than Longfellow Deeds would have been. With Riskin unavailable, writer Sidney Buchman was hired to work on the screenplay.Capra, Buchman, and Capra's long-time assistant director Art Black traveled to Washington, D.C. As Capra later wrote in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, "The first thing we did in our Capital City was to go rubbernecking in a sightseeing bus. We wanted to see Washington just as our dewy-eyed freshman Senator from Montana would see it..." Knowing that filming the many scenes in the Capitol Building would be out of the question, Capra and his crew would face the formidable task of building a replica of the Senate chamber back at Columbia. "With us were cameraman Joe Walker to shoot backgrounds, and a still-photo crew to photograph the thousand and one details of the Senate - walls, doorknobs, chandeliers, etc. - with a yardstick in each shot as a dimension parameter for the studio set builders."
Columbia and Capra also engaged an advisor for the film, Jim Preston, who for forty years had served as the superintendent of the Senate press gallery. Capra told Preston, "I want you to arrange for our crew to come in here and photograph all the details - inkwells, pencils, stationery, everything down to the hole the Union soldier kicked in Jeff Davis' desk the day Jeff walked out to join the Confederacy. Later on you will come to Hollywood and help me select ninety-six actors to fill those desks - that look like real Senators..." Preston replied that the composite U.S. Senator was fifty-two years old, five feet-eleven inches tall, and weighed 124 pounds.
While in Washington, Capra was a guest of the press corps and attended a White House press conference with President Roosevelt. Hearing FDR address the weighty issues of Chamberlain appeasing Hitler and Japan attacking China gave Capra reason to doubt his film: "...here was I, in the process of making a satire about government officials; a comedy about a callow, hayseed Senator who comes to Washington carrying a crate of homing pigeons - to send messages back to Ma - and disrupts important Senate deliberations with a filibuster. The cancerous tumor of war was growing in the body politic, but our reform-happy hero wanted to call the world's attention to the pimple of graft on its nose." A visit to the Lincoln Memorial turned Capra's thinking around; he witnessed a scene there that he was determined to depict in his movie: "We must make the film if only to hear a boy read Lincoln to his grandpa."
Capra and company returned to Hollywood in November, 1938 to finish writing and preproduction, including an all-important task for Capra: casting. The film had an amazing 186 speaking parts. As Capra later wrote, "I seldom, if ever, made any screen tests. I thought they were idiotic and certainly unfair to the players. I selected my cast solely by instinct." For his two leads, Capra didn't look any further than the stars of his most recent film, and cast James Stewart and Jean Arthur. Edward Arnold, who had also appeared in You Can't Take It with You, was cast as primary villain James Taylor. Thomas Mitchell, who would eventually appear in a total of four Capra features, was cast as the cynical reporter Diz Moore, and H. B. Warner, a veteran of five Capra films, appeared as the Majority Leader. The director went outside of his usual casting choices for two important roles: as the flawed senior Senator Paine, he cast British actor Claude Rains. For the key role of the Vice-President, who presides over the Senate, Capra wanted "a strong American face." He found it in Harry Carey, who had been acting in cowboy films since 1908.
by John Miller
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Frank Capra faced a daunting logistical problem in filming the Senate scenes for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Senate chamber had been faithfully recreated on the Columbia stages by art director Lionel Banks and a huge team of craftsmen, and the set was just that: a chamber. It was a tall, four-sided set filled with hundreds of people. Action required for the story would also be taking place simultaneously on three levels: the Senate floor, the rostrum where the Vice President sat, and the galleries holding the press, the pages, and the public. As Capra put it in his autobiography, "How to light, photograph, and record hundreds of scenes on three levels of a deep well, open only at the top, were the logistic nightmares that faced electricians, cameramen, and soundmen." Capra would also rely heavily on reaction shots of the many observers in the scenes set in the Senate chamber. He wanted to retain a natural flow to these shots and so, for these reasons, the usual one-camera set up could not be employed; "...we might still be there," Capra said. The technical team "...devised a multiple-camera, multiple-sound method of shooting which enabled us, in one big equipment move, to film as many as a half-dozen separate scenes before we made another big move."
Capra also described in his autobiography a novel way of keeping continuity in performances during the filming of close-ups. For example, in filming a master shot of a scene between Jean Arthur and fellow actors, the actors can obviously bounce lines off each other in a natural way, but what to do when shooting Arthur's close-up of the same scene? Capra says, "...I 'invented' a way to surround Jean Arthur in her close-up with the exact reality that had surrounded her in the master shot... The sound of the master shot was recorded not only on film, but on a record as well. When the master shot was approved, the sound department rushed the record back to the set and put it on a playback machine. Attached to my chair were a volume-control dial and a push button with which I could cut in or cut out the playback's loudspeaker at will. ...No actors, stand-ins, or script girls mouthing insipid feed lines. Just Jean Arthur and the playback."
Meanwhile, James Stewart was delighted with his role, and began to attend the rushes - something he had seldom done with his films at MGM. Capra screened the footage at the projection room in his house. As quoted in Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film by Roy Pickard, the actor said, "The first time I stopped off at Capra's house I was there an hour and forty minutes. There was take after take, from every angle. He really covered himself. Every scene from every angle. Well, I didn't stay to the end. The next night it was clearly going to be even longer! After an hour I turned to Frank. He was fast asleep." Needless to say, Stewart soon went back to avoiding dailies.
For the climactic filibuster scenes, Jefferson Smith had to sound hoarse after twenty-three hours of straight talking. Actor Stewart had trouble simulating the effect, so he consulted a throat doctor, asking how a gravelly voice could be induced rather than cured. As quoted again by Pickard, the actor said, "He dropped dichloride of mercury into my throat, not near my vocal chords, but just in around there. It wasn't dangerous. And he said: 'how's that?' I said: 'rasp, rasp'. He said: 'You got it.'" Stewart had the doctor apply the solution on the set; he was worried that Capra would disapprove and accuse Stewart of being a mechanical actor, but the director was delighted. Capra said, "the result was astonishing. No amount of acting could possibly simulate Jimmy's intense pathetic efforts to speak through real swollen chords."
Capra's film finished shooting on July 7, 1939 - eight days over schedule and $288,660 over budget. A round of audience sneak previews followed, and the director had an unusual approach for them. Capra had found the audience previews for Lost Horizon (1937) to be traumatic, so, as he wrote in his autobiography, he "...never attended a single preview of my subsequent films." For his next picture, You Can't Take It with You, he relied on others to report back to him the audience reactions. For Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he hit upon a different approach: "Let Cohn take a hundred wise guys to the preview. I sent one man with a tape recorder. ...Where the film was interest-grabbing, the audience was silent, hushed. Where it was dull or long, I heard coughs, shufflings, rattlings of peanut bags. The laughs - from giggles to guffaws - were measured exactly in length and volume. ...like tailors tearing apart and rebuilding a coat to their chalk marks, we re-edited our film to the tape." Capra does not mention it in his book, but the ending of the film was severely cut following the previews. Originally, there was a protracted denouncement. Following Smith's collapse on the Senate floor, there were several scenes showing his triumphant return to his home state. He and Saunders are given a parade, the political machine of James Taylor is dismantled, Smith visits Senator Paine at home and forgives him, and there is a reunion with Ma Smith and her blessing given to Saunders as a daughter-in-law. All of this was cut after Capra assessed the reactions of test audiences. (Two brief shots of the parade sequence are visible in the movie's trailer).
Before his film was released to the general public, a major screening was held in Washington, D. C., at the invitation of the Washington Press Club, at Constitution Hall on October 16, 1939. More than 4,000 people attended, including Senators, congressmen, Supreme Court justices, and much of the Georgetown elite. Harry Cohn was there, and Capra and his wife attended, sitting with the family of Senator Burton K. Wheeler, Republican from Montana. (Although Montana was never mentioned as the state Jefferson Smith was from in the film.) Some biographers have charged that Capra "overdramatized" his account of the preview in his book, and that there wasn't a flood of walkouts as he wrote. The audience was only superficially polite at best, however, and there were certainly strong reactions from certain congressmen and members of the press in the days and weeks that followed.
Well documented was the reaction of Joseph P. Kennedy, the ambassador to Great Britain, who sent Harry Cohn a cablegram urging him to withdraw the film from European distribution. Kennedy wrote, "I have a high regard for Mr. Capra ...but his fine work makes the indictment of our government all the more damning to foreign audiences... I feel that to show this film in foreign countries will do inestimable harm to American prestige all over the world. ...Pictures from the United States are the greatest influence on foreign public opinion of the American mode of life. The times are precarious, the future is dark at best. We must be more careful." Cohn and Capra had sent Kennedy many clippings from American reviews and editorials, all praising the film and expressing the opinion that Democracy can withstand, and in fact encourages, such questions as the film raises.
Not only did Mr. Smith Goes to Washington score a resounding success with critics, it also did well with audiences. The film made millions at the box office, but due to its high negative cost (almost $2 Million) and distribution expenses, the net profit to Columbia was only $168,500. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was the last obligation Capra had to the studio and Harry Cohn, and following its completion he was a free agent.
by John Miller
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Though it’s now universally revered as an ode to democratic ideals, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) was originally denounced by many Washington power-brokers. That may come as a bit of a shock if you haven’t seen this classic picture for several years. Jimmy Stewart’s lead performance made him a star, and is justly remembered as the key component of a beautifully constructed narrative. But Capra, for all his flag-waving and sometimes naive moralizing saved a great deal of bite for the hallowed halls of American government.
If not subversive, the movie is at least driven by a strong distaste for the misuse of power by our elected officials. This was an exceptionally gutsy message at a time when Americans were concerned with the rise of Nazism overseas, and Capra surely knew he would ruffle a few feathers. But he put his foot down and said exactly what he wanted to say, much like the film’s patriotic lead character. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to light up a sparkler.
Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a young man who takes over after the unexpected death of a junior Senator. Smith is despised by his cynical secretary (Jean Arthur), and is quickly portrayed as an appointed yokel by the D.C. press. Undaunted, he tries to introduce a bill that would build a much needed boys’ camp in his state. When a powerful businessman named James Taylor (Edward Arnold) and the state’s senior Senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Raines), discover that the camp will be built on land that Taylor plans to sell for an enormous profit under the provisions of an impending bill, they try to bribe Smith.
Smith, of course, stands his ground, so the two men set about ruining him. This eventually leads to an unforgettable filibuster scene that solidified Stewart’s persona – the first persona of his multi-dimensional career, anyway - as a common man with bottomless reserves of backbone and dignity. (Stewart, in a move worthy of Robert De Niro, had a doctor administer dichloride of mercury near his vocal chords to give his voice the exhausted rasp he was looking for at the close of Smith’s filibuster.)
Capra nearly cast Gary Cooper, but finally settled on Stewart. “I knew he would make a hell of a Mr. Smith,” he said. “He looked like the country kid, the idealist. It was very close to him.” Stewart knew this was the role of a lifetime, one that could place him near the top of the Hollywood heap. Jean Arthur later remembered his mood at the time: “He was so serious when he was working on that picture, he used to get up at five o’clock in the morning and drive himself to the studio. He was so terrified something was going to happen to him, he wouldn’t go faster.”
Even in the classics-heavy year of 1939, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a major achievement, arguably the finest picture of Capra’s storied career. It may wrap itself up a bit too easily, but you’d have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by the journey. Or, in lieu of that, you could be a U.S. Senator or Washington newspaper reporter circa 1939.
On October 17, 1939, the picture was previewed at Washington’s Constitution Hall. The preview was a major production featuring searchlights and a National Guard band playing patriotic tunes; The Washington Times-Herald even put out a special edition covering the event. Four thousand guests attended, 45 Senators among them. About two-thirds of the way through the film, the grumbling began, with people walking out. Some politicians were so enraged by how “they” were being portrayed in the movie, they actually shouted at the screen. At a party afterward, a drunken newspaper editor took a wild swing at Capra for including a drunken reporter as one of the characters!
Several politicians angrily spoke out against the film in newspaper editorials, which, in the long run, may have helped its box office. Sen. Alben W. Barkley viewed the picture as “a grotesque distortion” of the Senate, “as grotesque as anything ever seen! Imagine the Vice President of the United States winking at a pretty girl in the gallery in order to encourage a filibuster!” Barkley, who was lucky he didn’t get quoted on the film’s posters, also said, “...it showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!”
Senator James F. Byrnes of South Carolina suggested that official action be taken against the film’s release...lest we play into the hands of Fascist regimes. And Pete Harrison, the respected editor of Harrison Reports, urged Congress to pass a bill allowing theater owners to refuse to show films – like Mr. Smith - that “were not in the best interest of our country.” And you thought the Dixie Chicks got a raw deal.
Not everyone, especially American moviegoers, saw Capra’s vision as an affront to democracy. Frank S. Nugent, a critic for The New York Times wrote, “(Capra) is operating, of course, under the protection of that unwritten clause in the Bill of Rights entitling every voting citizen to at least one free swing at the Senate. Mr. Capra’s swing is from the floor and in the best of humor; if it fails to rock the august body to its heels – from laughter as much as from injured dignity – it won’t be his fault but the Senate’s, and we should really begin to worry about the upper house.”
Produced/Directed by: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Editors: Gene Havlick and Al Clark
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Principal Cast: James Stewart (Jefferson Smith), Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders), Claude Raines (Sen. Joseph Paine), Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor), Harry Carey (President of the Senate), H.B. Warner (Sen. Fuller), Guy Kibbee (Gov. Hubert Hopper), Thomas Mitchell (Diz Moore), Eugene Pallette (Chick McGann), Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith).
BW-131m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara