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Film Friday: «Mr. Smith Goes to Washington» (1939)

In honor of James Stewart's 108th birthday, which happens to be today, this week on "Film Friday" I thought I would bring one of his most iconic pictures. This was also the second of his films that I saw and remains one of my personal favorites.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) begins when the untimely death of Senator Foley disrupts the plans of corrupt political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), who needed the senator's help to perpetrate a land swindle at Willet Creek. He controls the state's Governor, Hubert "Happy" 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 "Jeff" 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.

Jeff and Paine travel to Washington, where the patriotic young senator is overwhelmed by his first sight of the Capitol Dome. He is hit hard upon his arrival by the Washington Press Corps, including reporter Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell), who paint him as a naïve fool in the newspapers. With the encouragement of Paine and with help from his cynical assistant Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff begins to draft a bill to establish a Boy's Camp in Taylor's Willet Creek site. Consequently, Taylor turns all of his might against Jeff, including Senator Paine. Jeff 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.

Jefferson Smith: 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."

In late 1938, Frank Capra was undoubtedly the highest-priced and most powerful film director in Hollywood, as well as the "undisputed king of Columbia's helmers." With his longtime collaborator and screenwriter Robert Riskin, Capra had given Columbia and studio head Harry Cohn such acclaimed productions as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) both of which earned him Academy Awards for Best Director and Lost Horizon (1937). His latest picture, You Can't Take It With You (1938), was about to bring Capra his third Oscar for Best Director and the coveted Best Picture statuette. As a follow-up to You Can't Take It With You, Capra wanted to make a film based on the life story of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, but Cohn "looked at me and said, 'Forget it. Give me another Mr. Deeds.'" 

Meanwhile, Columbia's head of production Samuel J. Briskin with whom Capra would later form the short-lived independent company Liberty Films approached the director with a short treatment by Lewis R. Foster called "The Gentleman from Montana," the story of a young, wide-eyed idealist who exposes corruption in the United States Senate. Like Capra, Foster was a graduate of the Hal Roach and Mark Sennett silent comedy schools, but had seen his career falter with the advent of the "talkies" until he was reduced to freelance work. Producer William Perlberg had purchased the screen rights to "The Gentleman from Montana" in 1937, but Cohn decided to shelve the project after the Production Code Administration, then run by Joseph I. Breen, expressed its disapproval. In a letter addressed to Cohn dated January 1938, Breen criticized Foster's "general unflattering portrayal of our system of government, which might well lead to the picture being considered, both here and particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the democratic form of government. [...] It looks to us like it might be loaded with dynamite [...] for the motion picture industry."

James Stewart and Jean Arthur
After Paramount and MGM showed interest in "The Gentleman from Montana," the Columbia story department offered the project to director Rouben Mamoulian, whom Cohn had been trying to lure to the studio. A Soviet Georgian émigré, Mamoulian found Foster's treatment "a powerful dramatization of American democracy" and immediately expressed interest in adapting it to the screen, in spite of the fact it had been turned down by the Breen Office. When Capra finally got the chance to read "The Gentleman from Montana," he insisted to Cohn that he had to have it. "Jesus, I wanted that story!" he said in a 1984 interview. "I didn't give a damn whether watchamacallim [Mamoulian] had that." Consequently, Capra traded in to Cohn an option he had taken on Clifford Odets's 1937 hit Broadway play Golden Boy which Mamoulian actually wanted for himself for the rights to "The Gentleman from Montana." Cohn then assigned Mamoulian to direct Golden Boy (1939), with Barbara Stanwyck and new Columbia contract player William Holden, in his film debut.

Since Riskin had left Columbia after finishing work on You Can't Take It With You to become independent producer Samuel Goldwyn's executive assistant, scriptwriter and script "doctor," Capra engaged Sidney Buchman to pen the screenplay for "The Gentleman from Montana." Ironically, Buchman was an active member of the American Communist Party; in fact, he was blacklisted by Hollywood studios in 1951 after being cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to name anyone but himself as a Party member to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In a 1969 interview, Buchman recalled, "During the making of Mr. Smith, Capra was terribly suspicious of me. 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 I wanted to betray him."

James Stewart and crew of Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington filming outside the United States Capitol
However, in the uncut version of his autobiography, published in 1971, Capra expressed ignorance of Buchman's Communist affiliations at the time they made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He said that Buchman did not reveal his "true colors" until after production wrapped, prompting a shocked Capra to effectively end his relationship with the writer. In 1984, this enmity seemed to be forgotten when Capra said in an interview, "The best writer of all, in my estimation, was the guy who got credit for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Some of his words were just perfect. Now, mind you, he was a Communist, and that he should write that picture — you see how you can [...] he didn't want to write that kind of show. He knew what he was doing. I knew it [that he was a Communist]. He said it. I didn't give a shit who was a Communist or who wasn't. I had control of the picture, and nothing I didn't like could go in there. I wasn't worried in the slightest." 

In October 1938, Capra, Buchman and assistant director Art Black travelled to Washington D.C. in preparation for the film. "The first thing we did in our Capital City was to go rubbernecking in a sightseeing bus," Capra recalled. "We wanted to see Washington just as our dewy-eyed freshman Senator from Montana would see it." They visited the Lincoln Memorial and even the White House, attending a press conference with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who addressed a series of events that would contribute to the outbreak of World War II a year later. While in Washington, Capra also hired a technical advisor, Jim Preston, the veteran superintendent of the Senate Press Gallery. He wanted Preston "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."

Capra, Arthur and Stewart on the set
Returning to Hollywood in November, Capra began the all-important casting process. Envisioning the film as a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (he even planned on calling it "Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington"), Capra initially thought of hiring its star, Montana native Gary Cooper, to play the lead. However, Goldwyn, to whom Cooper was under contract, refused to loan the actor to Capra. At that point, the director went to MGM and borrowed instead James Stewart, who had appeared in You Can't Take It With You.

Capra later recognized that Stewart was much better suited to the role: "Gary Cooper was an honest man, but he wouldn't know an idealist if one came up and hit him. He had a native honesty and decency about him, but it was on a lower level than Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy could deal with an idea." He also said: "Stewart was younger, which made him better from the part than Cooper. He still looked like a country kid. He had strong principles of his own, and they would spill over onto the screen. I felt that in many ways, Mr. Smith was James Stewart. I also felt that, considering the filibuster scene, Stewart was better equipped technically as an actor." A few weeks before Stewart was signed, the title of the film was changed to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Longfellow Deeds became Jefferson Smith.

Capra's only choice for the role of Clarissa Saunders, Jefferson Smith's hard-boiled secretary, was Jean Arthur, the female lead in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can't Take It With You. The remainder of the cast included: English-born Claude Rains as the flawed Senior Senator Joseph Paine; Edward Arnold, who had played Stewart's father in You Can't Take It With You, as corrupt publisher and political boss Jim Taylor; Thomas Mitchell, who appeared in three other Capra films, as cynical reporter Diz Moore; veteran English actor H. B. Warner, another Capra regular, as Senate Majority Leader; old cowboy actor Harry Carey, who had been in pictures since 1908, as the benevolent President of the Senate; Guy Kibbee, who had appeared in Capra's Best Picture nominee Lady for a Day (1933), as Governor "Happy" Hopper; former silent picture leading man Eugene Pallette as Taylor's associate Chick McGann; Beulah Bondi, who played Stewart's mother in five films, as Ma Smith; Astrid Allwyn as Senator Paine's daughter Susan; and Ruth Donnelly, who played Arthur's roommate in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, as Mrs. Hopper.

Frank Capra on the colossal Senate chamber set 
built for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Principal photography on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington began in April 1939. Early into filming, Capra decided to personally escort his principal players (Stewart, Arthur, Rains, Arnold, Mitchell and Carey) to Washington D.C. to shoot a few location scenes, hoping to instill in his cast "a deeper patriotic feel" they could then use in their performances." The interiors were mostly shot on Columbia's two largest soundstages, which art director Lionel Banks had turned into a photographic replica of the actual Senate chamber. It was a tall, four-sided set, complete with the three levels where the action would take place: the Senate floor, the rostrum where the Vice-President sat and the galleries holding the press, the pages and the public.

Filming the Senate sequences proved a challenge for Capra. "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," he later wrote. In these scenes, Capra also wanted to feature several reaction shots of the many observers in the Senate chamber. To be able to retain his desired natural flow to these shots, Capra had to rejected the one-camera setup usually employed by filmmakers; otherwise "we might still be there." Instead, the technical crew "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."

Claude Rains and James Stewart in the filibuster scene
Stewart was delighted with his role; "Frank gave me this chance, this tremendous, wonderful role, which really started me rolling," he said. As Arthur recalled, "He was so serious when he was working in that picture, he used to get up at five o'clock in the morning and drive five miles an hour to get himself to the studio. He was so terrified that something was going to happen to him, he wouldn't go any faster." According to Capra, Stewart's intense dedication to the role of Jefferson Smith enerved Arthur: "He was working hard to get everything right, and Jean felt that he shoud have paid more attention to her neuroses. She spent a lot of time in her dressing room throwing up because she was more insecure than ever. Or maybe she just wanted Jimmy's attention. She never really spoke kindly about him for a long time after that." 

For the climatic filibuster scene, in which Jeff had to sound hoarse after talking non-stop for 23 hours, Stewart had difficulties getting the right quality in his voice. When his attempt at "a kind of a coarse rasp" failed, "I went to see a ear, nose and throat doctor, and asked if there was anything that would give me a sore throat. [...] so he put some dichlorine of mercury into my throat just a drop and he had to put it near my vocal chords without putting it in my vocal chords. He said, 'How's that?' I could hardly speak and when I said, 'How does it sound?' it came out like a really bad rasp a real rasp. And he said, 'You got it, all right.'" To make sure the results would be absolutely satisfactory, Stewart hired the doctor "to come on to the set and supervise me and keep my throat sore. And so when you see the filibuster scene, you'll know I've really got a sore throat."

Eugene Pallette, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold
and Guy Kibbee (seated)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington finished filming on July 7, 1939, eight days over schedule and $288,660 over budget. Before the film was released to the general public, a gala preview was held at Washington's Constitution Hall on October 16, preceeded by a laudatory Press Club luncheon in Capra's honor. The dazzling social event was attended by 4,000 people, among them 45 Senators, 250 Congressmen, several justices of the United States Supreme Court and many members of the press. Columbia was represented by Harry Cohn, fellow studio founders Joe Brandt and Jack Cohn, Capra and his wife Lucille. Stewart was unable to attend, as he was busy filming the last scenes in George Marshall's Destry Rides Again (1939). As for Arthur, she too claimed a schedule conflict, but the rift that developed during production between her and Stewart may have been the real reason for her absence. 

As expected, the "radical" politics of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington resulted in strong reactions from certain congressmen and members of the press in the days that followed. Democrat James Byrnes accused Capra of betraying everything that was sacred to America, while House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn said the film "won't do the movies any good." At an impromptu press conference, Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley spluttered, "It was as grotesque as anything I have ever seen! [...] It showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record! [...] Such a travesty of facts of likely to do untold harm among innocent people." For his part, Joseph P. Kennedy, the United States ambassador to Great Britain, warned Cohn that the film would be viewed by Europeans as Nazi propaganda. Similarly, Frederic William Wile of the Washington Star insisted that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington "shows up the democratic system and our vaunted free press in exactly the colors Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin are fond of painting them."

James Stewart and Astrid Allwyn
Such was the concern in Hollywood that they would suffer a severe backlash from the Senate that the big studios reportedly offered Columbia $2 million to shelve the film. But Cohn stood firm by his production and refused to ban Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, arranging its public premiere for October 19, at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. Much to the relief of both Capra and Cohn, the picture opened strongly at the box-office and garnered rave reviews from the general press. 

Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times called the film "one of the best shows of the year"; Variety considered it "punchy, human and absorbing"; the New York Daily Mirror described it as "inspiring grand entertainment"; the New York Herald Tribune praised it as "a moving and memorable motion picture"; the Daily News flatly declared it "Capra's masterpiece"; and The Nation went so far as to to say that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was "by far the best film of the year." Despite Kennedy's warnings, the picture was warmly received overseas. In the London Sunday Graphic, James Hilton deemed it "just about the best American patriotic film ever made."

James Stewart was universally applauded for his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In The New York Times, Nugent wrote, "As Jefferson Smith, James Stewart is a joy for this season, if not forever." Variety agreed that he was "a most happy choice for the title role, delivering sincerity to a difficult part," while Newsweek noted that he "gives the most persuasive characterisation of his career." Most impressed was the reviewer for The Nation, who said, "Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith takes first place among Hollywood actors. [...] Now he is mature and gives a difficult part, with many nuances, moments of tragic-comic impact. And he is able to do more than play isolated scenes effectively. He shows the growth of a character through experience. [...] In the end he is so forceful that his victory is thoroughly credible. One can only hope that after this success Mr. Stewart in Hollywood will remain as uncorrupted as Mr. Smith in Washington."

At the 12th Academy Awards held on February 29, 1940 at a banquet  in the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Lewis R. Foster was given the Oscar for Best Story and the film received ten additional nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains and Harry Carey), Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Score and Best Sound Recording. In a year dominated by Victor Fleming's epic Gone with the Wind (1939), Stewart lost the Oscar to British actor Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). When Stewart did win the following year for The Philadelphia Story (1940), many people thought that the Academy was making up for not giving him the award for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Best Supporting Actor Oscar was presented to Thomas Mitchell for his work on John Ford's Western Stagecoach (1939).

Frank Capra: The Catatrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (2011) | Jimmy Stewart: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2007) | Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn (2013) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. How depressing would it be if this movie HAD been shelved!!! I
    absolutely love this movie!!! When I watched it I felt so Patriotic and it made me really want to go to DC, which unfortunately still hasn't happened. My favorite scene is the one at the Lincoln Memorial. I got chills.

    Fantastic post!!!! I always learn something I didn't know before :)

    1. I know! I'm so glad Harry Cohn decided to release the film despite all the controversy.

      Thanks for reading. :)


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