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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Feel-Good Political Corruption Classic

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington James Stewart Jean Arthur
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Feel-good political corruption comedy-drama stars Jean Arthur and James Stewart.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

A newly restored print of Frank Capra’s 1939 Best Picture nominee Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and Claude Rains, will be screened tonight, July 20, as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939.” The screening will take place at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

The evening will begin at 7 p.m., with the tenth chapter of the 1939 serial Buck Rogers, starring Buster Crabbe and Constance Moore, and the Columbia animated short Scrappy’s Added Attraction.

By the time Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came out in 1939, Capra had already won three Academy Awards and had become embroiled in some nasty labor disputes during his tenure (1935-1939) as Academy president. After all the ugliness involved in the battle for (and against) labor rights in Hollywood, ugly Washington politics perhaps seemed like child’s play to him.

As explained in Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Rouben Mamoulian had been originally set to direct Columbia’s adaptation of Lewis R. Foster’s story “The Gentleman from Montana,” but Capra decided he wanted to do it himself. As a result, Mamoulian go to direct Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden in the studio’s production of Clifford OdetsGolden Boy while Capra took charge of transferring “The Gentleman from Montana” to the big screen.

In order to avoid any lawsuits, Columbia eventually also bought the rights to Maxwell Anderson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1933 play Both Your Houses, which also revolved around a young idealist fighting corruption in Washington’s hallways of power. (The chief difference being that in the play the idealist loses the battle; in the film, he – absurdly – comes out victorious.) Anderson, by the way, had also written the original story on which Columbia’s Washington Merry-Go-Round was based. In this hard-hitting 1932 flick, Lee Tracy plays a character facing situations quite similar to those encountered by the hero of Capra’s film.

Capra wanted Gary Cooper to play the idealistic hero, Jefferson Smith, but Samuel Goldwyn refused to loan out his star. MGM contract player James Stewart, who had starred for Capra in the Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It with You the year before, landed the role that was to establish him as a major Hollywood name.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington also marked the first time in quite a while that Capra worked without his usual collaborator, Robert Riskin. Instead, Sidney Buchman, a Screen Writers Guild activist and card-carrying member of the Communist party was hired to work on the screenplay.

“During the making of Mr. Smith, Capra was terribly suspicious of me,” Buchman told director Bertrand Tavernier in 1969. “He knew that I had joined the Party and figured that I wanted to slip in a hidden message, an allusion, an ambiguous sentence. He had the impression that I wanted to betray him.”

If only. Mr. Smith, in fact, desperately needed some ambiguity to make him less of a walking, talking Bill of Rights billboard. Even so, numerous reactionary publications and a number of American politicians expressed outrage at the way Washington’s elite is portrayed in the film. Some went as far as to claim that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was the type of anti-American political propaganda that would please Fascists, Nazis, and assorted totalitarian leaders. (Had Mr. Smith been released while W. was in the White House, Dick Cheney would have asserted that Capra was trying to help the terrorists.)

As it stands, though a little too long at nearly 130 minutes and despite its phony feel-good finale, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains an effective political comedy-drama chiefly because of several subversive elements found in Buchman’s screenplay and thanks to a handful of excellent performances, including those of Jean Arthur, who does her utmost in an underwritten role; Claude Rains as the crooked senator Joseph Paine; and Harry Carey as the fairy-taleish president of the Senate.

James Stewart, for his part, has a few good moments later in the film, but he and Capra way overdo the young senator’s aw-shucksiness. Had they toned down their character’s idealized – and more than a tad condescending – folksiness, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would have been a much superior, much more mature film.

All in all, I sure wish that Rouben Mamoulian had remained on the project and that Gary Cooper had played Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington won the Academy Award for Writing – Original Story (Lewis R. Foster). It also received an additional ten Oscar nominations: Best Picture (Columbia), Actor (Stewart), Actor in a Supporting Role (Carey), Actor in a Supporting Role (Rains), Art Direction (Lionel Banks), Directing (Capra), Film Editing (Gene Havlick, Al Clark), Music – Scoring (Dimitri Tiomkin), Sound Recording (Columbia Studio Sound Department, John Livadary, sound director), and Writing – Screenplay (Buchman).

Tickets for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and other individual films in the series are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online at, by mail, in person at the Academy during regular business hours or, depending on availability, on the night of the screening when the doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library

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1 comment

Ron -

Sir, you absolutely missed the point of the entire film. It is PRECISELY about the innocence of life and how a little fish gets thrown into a big pond…and survives. Mamoulian would have been an interesting choice, I’ll grant you that. But Cooper? He would have given the ‘aw-shucks’ you mention the utmost treatment…much more so than Stewart.


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