Tuesday, May 17, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'

It would be easy to dismiss “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as an earnest relic of a bygone era.

The story contains 1930s-era backroom politics with clear-cut corruption and an “aw shucks” hero who doesn’t seem real even for the time. He has a wide-eyed love of country that takes flag-waving patriotism to new heights. All that’s missing is an “I (heart) USA” tattoo across his forehead.

But the director is Frank Capra, who turned out film after film during the 1930s that championed the common man against the rich, the powerful and the corrupt. And it worked every time, because these films contain hope, with characters at times desperately clinging to it. That portrayal of hope is universal, which is why these movies hold up so well today.

People may start watching “Mr. Smith” with a contemporary cynicism but feel it melt away as the hero goes from wide-eyed naïf to earnest fighter of good, someone we can cheer for and feel good about doing so.

It certainly helps that Capra found the perfect actor for the role – James Stewart, who came to represent such goodness to many of his fans. His career steadily built steam during the 1930s, but it exploded with this role. Not only is he the personification of who we want leaders to be, but he personified the people themselves while delivering a tour-de-force performance highlighted by the climactic Senate filibuster.

The film opens with the death of Senator Sam Foley. News flies from Washington D.C. back to the unknown state where corrupt political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) confers with current senator and possible future presidential candidate Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) to determine who should be appointed as the new senator. They will give the word to Gov. Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) to make the announcement.

But the man chosen is universally panned as nothing more than a puppet of Taylor’s. At home for dinner, an agitated Hopper is accosted by his children, who want him to pick Jefferson Smith (Stewart), leader of the Boy Rangers and a man with no political experience. The kids are hilariously both politically naïve and savvy – after all, one tells his dad, every boy who likes Smith has two voting parents.

Hopper sees possibility with the green Smith, and Paine and Taylor agree. With a seemingly ineffective Smith in office, they can push through, without much notice, their bill that contains a dam project that will benefit Taylor.

In addition, Smith’s late father and Paine once knew each other, and Taylor believes that Smith’s reverential feeling toward Paine can be used to good advantage.

Smith comes to Washington and is immediately in a state of euphoric awe, puzzling his new Washington-weary secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur) and a slew of reporters who decide to have fun with this hayseed.

Paine diverts the attention of an inquisitive Smith by encouraging him to pursue his dream – a bill that would create a national boys camp. But Smith’s location for this camp is exactly where the dam is to be built, which leads to growing tensions between the two.

“He’s honest, not stupid,” Paine tells lackey Chick McGann (Eugene Pallette) in trying to decide how to handle Smith.

Meanwhile, Saunders thaws toward Smith and begins to question her own cynical outlook on life.

“I wonder if it isn’t a curse to go through life all wised up like us?” she tells press buddy Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell).

It’s at this point that the audience is clearly thawing toward Smith as well, as he slowly transforms from wide-eyed innocent to an unwitting champion for democracy.

Sidney Buchman wrote the screenplay from a story by Lewis Foster (longtime Capra collaborator Robert Riskin had left Columbia Pictures the year before). For research, Capra and Buchman took a trip to Washington and did the tourist thing, mingling with the people and experiencing their awe and joy at seeing the national monuments. They also had the chance to sit in on a presidential press conference with Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Capra did hesitate about proceeding with the film, thinking his approach would be seen as simplistic when compared to the complexity of running the government. But upon visiting the Lincoln Memorial, he encountered a young boy reading the Gettysburg Address to his blind grandfather, and Capra – who was an immigrant and loved America – was touched enough to proceed.

Indeed, as an ode to this moment, the movie contains a scene with a boy reading the address to his grandfather.

But when the film had its world premiere in Washington D.C., the good people of the nation’s capital almost ran Capra out of town. They felt Capra had made a laughing-stock out of the government by showing rampant corruption, particularly with the darkening political situation in Europe. The story is that the Senate voted unanimously to denounce the film and to begin looking at muting the power of movie studios. The studios, in response, banded together to try and buy the film and keep it from release.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and both the critics and the public loved the movie. The very darkness of the corruption and cynicism – much more disturbing than in previous Capra films – made the redemption of Smith more emotional.

And Stewart is simply magnificent. If the original plan was to get Gary Cooper and team him again with Arthur following “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” I’m thankful it was Stewart who Capra got on loan from MGM. Smith’s impassioned filibuster is everything the audience needs to both understand the depth of political deceit and the courage it takes to stand up against it. Stewart infuses it with such intense emotion that impossible not to be riveted. Stewart’s raspy voice toward the end was supposedly the result of a doctor painting his vocal chords with a mercury solution.

Matching Stewart is Arthur. She’s the person who the audience identifies with initially, a go-between between the overly earnest Smith and the corruption. She’s wise enough to be wary of both sides until she realizes that she’s been cynical for too long. One of Arthur’s best scenes is when Saunders gets drunk with Diz and proposes to him. Arthur said a woman playing drunk must be handled carefully, and she nails the scene.

The supporting cast is a roll call of greatness, including many familiar faces to Capra films – Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Smith (she would play Stewart’s mother again in “It’s a Wonderful Life), Mitchell (who was everywhere in 1939, including “Stagecoach” and “Gone With the Wind”), H.B. Warner as Senate majority leader, and Arnold. Then add in Rains, Pallette, Kibbee and Harry Carey as the president of the Senate and you have a crackerjack cast.

The film was nominated for 11 Oscars, including picture, director, actor, and supporting actor for both Rains and Carey. It won only for Foster’s original story.

No matter. This film is beloved by Capra fans. And think about this: When Germany invaded France and gave theater owners 30 days to switch to German-only movies, a number of owners showed “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” during these final days. Audiences packed the theaters and cheered for Jefferson Smith, a man fighting for liberty and freedom.

That’s the true power of film and this one in particular.


My thanks to Becky and Page for organizing this wonderful blogathon. Check out the Classic Movie Blog Association web site to read about the many other films from 1939. I’m still trying to get through them!


  1. LOVE this movie!! I think it's the finest performance of Jimmy Stewart's amazing career. He was beyond brilliant in his role. Not sure how he didn't win the Oscar that year. (Also, could have given the Oscar to Clark Gable, who was also brilliant that year.)

    Thank you for all the interesting inside information. I didn't know any of that.

    I wish our elected officials of today would watch this...and then be inspired to honor and decency.

    Our family intends to watch this movie Friday night in celebration of Jimmy Stewart's birthday. We've seen it several times, but it's been over a year since our last viewing, and we think it's the perfect movie to watch in Jimmy's honor.

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you're a fan of the film and I appreciate you stopping by.

  3. I really enjoyed your review to one of my favorite Stewart performances, along with Jean Arthur. Also, Capra had the amazing talent to mix comedy, drama together to make a wonderful film.

  4. Excellent post, and I didn't know the boy reading to his grandfather was taken from a true-life incident. It's one of my favorite moments in the film (and the drunk scene). Your comment here: It would be easy to dismiss “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as an earnest relic of a bygone era." is so well-put, and I think the heart of the matter, and the greatest challenge, to anyone reviewing this film. Perhaps especially to younger people seeing it for the first time, but I agree that the power of this movie transcends magically all that we might find fault with it. More than a classic, it's an American treasure. Thanks.

  5. Great post on one of my favorite movies. Like you I'm glad Stewart got the role over Gary Cooper. I don't know if Cooper could have portrayed the desperation so well as Steward could have.

    Although I think Henry Fonda could have been a fine Mr. Smith. I always found it interesting that Fonda and Capra didn't make a movie together, as I think they would have been a good team.

  6. A great post about one of my favorite films. Jean Arthur was in top form for this film, and as you say, she brought balance to the dichotomy of good vs. evil. BTW, Beulah Bondi played Stewart's mother in FOUR films, and then on TV. Look for her in Of Human Hearts and Vivacious Lady, both released in 1938.

  7. This was a marvelous review of my second favorite Capra film. Although I love James Stewart in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, this is (in my opinion) his best performance of the 1930s. If I'm channel surfing and come across the filibuster scene, I always get engrossed with it and end up watching rhe rest of the movie. As you wrote, the supporting--especially Claude Rains--is superb. I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I think that Jean Arthur is a little over-the-top as the cynic-turned-believer (or perhaps her character's transition was just a little quick for me). Thanks for an enteraining, informative write-up of a perfect pick for a 1939 blogathon.

  8. 1939 was a hell of a year for Thomas Mitchell, wasn't it?

    Wonderful review of a classic film. I remember watching this film in my government class in high school and during the scene where the boy scouts are being blasted by fire hoses, I remember my classmates turning to look at each other, a few of them giggling nervously, some open-mouthed. They didn't believe a mainstream movie, especially an old one, would actually go there.

  9. You are so right when you said the hope depicted in the movie is a universal. As Canadians living outside the American political experience, there is not one member of my family who doesn't love, cheer and belief in Jefferson Smith.

  10. Thank you to everyone for the comments! Dawn: Capra did have that knack of mixing elements together and making them work. Jacqueline: It remains an American treasure -- a nice phrase for the film. Kevin: You are right about Fonda and Capra. I think they would have worked well together. I'm not sure I agree Fonda would have been right for this. In comparing Stewart here to Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath," both are pefect for their roles but I can't see them interchanged because each character requires the strengths of the actors who played them. Hi Allen: You are right about Bondi. Thanks for that tidbit. Hi Rick: I agree about being able to endlessly watch the filibuster. I'm a fan of Arthur, and interestingly enough, this time when I watched it, she was even better than remembered, so give her another shot :) Hi Rachel: Interesting, isn't it? Capra was pretty fearless at this point in his career. He ended up leaving Columbia after making this movie, despite Harry Cohn's attempts to keep him. Hi Caftan Woman: I'm glad you can appreciate what the movie is saying. It's pretty universal.

  11. Thank you for this great post! One of the things I like about Capra's films is his depiction of strong women - and Jean Arthur in Mr Smith is really the catalyst; she's the one who rouses Smith to defend himself and she gets him back in the fight. She's part of a great group of feisty Capra women, including Stanwyck and Donna Reed. I had also heard that not only were Washington politicians angry at Capra, but also the Washington press corps, since he portrayed a number of reporters as connivers who were willing to frequently 'bend the elbow' - viewers who think Capra was nothing more than sentimental, simplistic optimism should really look closely at movies like Mr Smith and Meet John Doe. Capra was a brilliant portrayor of Americana in all its shades of gray. Thanks again!

  12. Hi Grand Old Movies: I love your last link, because Capra's films could be perceived as more black and white, when you are right -- he did get into those shades of gray.

  13. Oh, I agree that Fonda could not have brought that kind of passion to the performance. I just remember watching "Mr. Roberts" and his disappointment at what was happening to his naval career and it reminded me somewhat of Mr. Smith's disappointment in how the government was operating.

    It still would have been interesting to see a Fonda-Capra pairing.

  14. Stewart did win a best actor award from the New York Film Critics for this film. His monologue near the end revealed his heretofore concealed depth as an actor. A wonderful performance.

  15. Classicfilmboy, in many ways your sterling blog post was as stirring as the movie itself! When you get past the initial "gee whiz" aspects of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, the characterizations all around are more complicated than people realize. With all due respect to Robert Donat, I've always thought James Stewart should have won the Best Actor Oscar that year. Happily, MR. SMITH... became and remains a full-fledged classic for new generations to discover and embrace!

  16. CFB, I can echo the comments praising your entertaining and informative review. I also have a very personal reason for embracing this film, since I spent much of my youth living in the glow and shadow of Washington, D.C., the myth and the reality. I learned to love and question all this country was and could be from visiting the national monuments on family and school trips (this sort of stuff gets into your imagination when you visit Mount Vernon and Monticello, Arlington Cemetery and Manassas Battlefield and it is a bit tough to shake). Although the film is filled with many memorable scenes, my favorite might be the one you described with Jimmy Stewart visiting the Lincoln Memorial; I also have fond memories of attending a concert performance on the Potomac River under the stars.

  17. I can only add what others have said. A great post and very entertaining to read. I run hot and cold with Capra but you have to respect the guy for putting out so much good work. Stewart is fantastic but yeah , Mr. Fonda would have brought more passion to the table.

  18. CFB,
    I'll refrain from getting all political here but when Bernie Sanders recently did his own version of Jefferson Smith on the Senate floor I cheered all while crying. As someone who's very passionate about politics and voicing those views frequently I love this film!

    And how lucky for us that MGM didn't force Stewart to skate in Ice Follies so that he could stand up on that set and give the performance of a lifetime? I adore this film and I can honestly say that it is MY favorite film of 1939!

    Brian, I am a huge fan of yours as you know but I adore your review and you did not disappoint on this one.

    Well done MGM, Stewart and the Hollywood machine for having the foresight to release this masterpiece. Often referred to but never duplicated.


  19. Thank you all! Hi VP -- It did show a depth that he put to good use throughout the rest of his career. Hi Dorian: I agree he should have been best actor. Then again, he's my favorite actor of all time, so I think he should have won every time. Hi Whistlinggypsy: I've been to DC only once and had a great time. One of my sisters lives there and works for the government, and she loves it. Hi John: Thanks for stopping by. I know Capra is an acquired taste for some, but I'm a fan.

  20. Hello Page: I am a huge fan of yours too. And I'm so glad Jimmy didn't break a leg at those ice follies, although he left Lew Ayres behind when he went to Washington :) I had no idea this was your favorite film of 1939, so I'm glad that you enjoyed the review. This blogathon has been so much fun, so thank you and Becky for sponsoring it. I still have about 10 blogs left to read!!

  21. Memory can play funny tricks as the years intervene, but I am as sure as I can be that Captain Blood, Now,Voyager, and Mr. Smith were the first 3 classic films I remember seeing on TV. I had great parents who made sure we knew about great things. From those 3 films I carried forever all the elements I love most in movies. I bet I watched Mr. Smith every time it was on TV. And to this day it still draws me in whenever I find out it is showing.

    Your review is done with your characteristic excellence, CFB, and it sure doesn't hurt that the subject is Mr. Smith and Frnak Capra. I am forever a sucker for Capra, and proud of it. I was so fascinated by your information about the reaction of pompous politicians and fearful film studio bosses -- I didn't know about that! I had also never heard that moving story about the movie's impact in Germany.

    As an adult, Mr. Smith brings out some very different emotions than a young person experiences. Now it brings tears to my eyes because I wish so much that there really could be one or two bad guys that you could know, by name, and fight like Mr. Smith did. Our political machine is so huge and nameless for the most part that one feels helpless trying to pin down who, what and how. But I still feel the respect for hope and individual impact that Mr. Smith so beautifully illustrates.

    Your review is such a significant part of the success of this blogathon. Thanks so much!

  22. Before I became a Classic Movie addict, I remember a morning I woke up really early, like 6am, and tuned Cinemax...and there was a black and white movie, and despite this fact, I kept watching, because there was this young actor giving a great speech and a dynamic actress trying to help him :) Great review!

  23. Filmboy, I admire you for tackling such a daunting subject as this movie. But it's a great post, with a well-judged balance of description, background, and interpretation. For me this is Capra's second greatest movie after "It's a Wonderful Life." It may be simplistic in the way it presents its conflicts in black-and-white terms, but it's nevertheless irresistible. You did a wonderful job of explaining why it appeals to the optimist in everyone (even if it's the secret optimist) while still acknowledging all the real forces that tend to dampen optimism--a sort of political Peter Pan story. I'd forgotten what a roster of Hollywood greats this film contains, so thanks for reminding us all of the wonderful character actors lending support to the sublime James Stewart and Jean Arthur. One of the most fascinating things about this film for me is the way it balances Stewart's character right on the line between commitment and obsession, pushes him over the line almost to the point of self-destruction, then hauls him back at the last moment. Stewart was brilliant, engaging us so fully that he carried us along with him on his wild ride. Your post captured all of this wonderfully.

  24. Hi Becky: Thank you! You are a dear. I am also a sucker for Capra and think people pick on him too much. Hi Clara: Thanks! Isn't it interesting how a single scene can suck us into a movie? That happens to me all the time. Hi R.D.: Thank you so much for the kind words. I think one of Capra's strengths is the presentation may seem simple but there are darker and deeper truths in his films. I agree how Stewart does a terrific job of finding that balance. Always glad to see a comment from you!

  25. Filmboy - This is such a passionate piece. Very powerful and beautifully written. I've seen "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" so many times - most of them long ago - and I've become jaded over the years, so I hadn't much interest in revisiting it. But you've got me rethinking that attitude, I'm starting to remember the film as it struck me when I first saw it.

  26. Hi Eve, thank you for the kind words. One of the reasons I chose this film is because I had not seen it in a long time and I wondered how I would react as a middle-aged man who's heard and seen plenty in my various jobs. Happily, my reaction was so strong in a positive way that I was picking up things I either had missed or forgotten. So I encourage you to watch it again; you might be surprised!

  27. Great look at one of the greatest ever! This is one of those classic movies I grew up with in the 70s and 80s thanks to Mom and Dad, who aren't classic film junkies but exposed me to just enough to light the fire!

    Stewart, yeah, amazing, though I guess what I've noticed lately is how much more complicated Jean Arthur's Saunders is as a character. She's really in a spot, professionally and emotionally!

    By the way, have you ever seen Washington Merry Go Round (1932) with Lee Tracy? It's kind of the pre-code version of Mr. Smith, a very similar feel throughout, though Lee Tracy is a bit obnoxious to ever compare with Stewart's Jefferson Smith!

  28. Hi Cliff, Thanks for stopping by! Glad you liked the post. And no, I haven't seen "Washington Merry Go Round." I'll have to look for that one.

  29. It is a pleasure to have this type of important information. Keep it up please. We would like to get more thoughtful words from you again and again.