Friday, June 8, 2012

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

#29 (1998) and #26 (2007) on the AFI Top 100 Films List

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a 1939 American drama film starring Jean Arthur and James Stewart about one man's effect on American politics. It was directed by Frank Capra and written by Sidney Buchman, based on Lewis R. Foster's unpublished story. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was controversial when it was released, but also successful at the box office, and made Stewart a major movie star. The film features a bevy of well-known supporting actors and actresses, among them Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell and Beulah Bondi.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning for Best Original Story. In 1989, the Library of Congress added the movie to the United States National Film Registry, for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

* James Stewart as Jefferson Smith
* Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders or "Saunders"
* Claude Rains as Senator Joseph Harrison Paine
* Edward Arnold as Jim Taylor
* Guy Kibbee as Governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper
* Thomas Mitchell as Diz Moore
* Eugene Pallette as Chick McGann
* Beulah Bondi as Ma Smith
* H.B. Warner as Senator Agnew
* Harry Carey as President of the Senate
* Astrid Allwyn as Susan Paine
* Alec Craig as Speaker Hi

Cast notes

* Other veteran character actors who appear in the film include All Bridge, William Demarest, Ruth Donnelly, Porter Hall, Charles Lane and Grant Mitchell. Milton Kibbee, Guy Kibbee's brother, appears in a bit part as a reporter, as does Matt McHugh, of the McHugh acting family.

When it was first released, the film premiered in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 1939, sponsored by the National Press Club, an event to which 4,000 guests were invited, including 45 senators Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was attacked by the Washington press, and politicians in the U.S. Congress, as anti-American and pro-Communist for its portrayal of corruption in the American government. While Capra claims in his autobiography that some senators walked out of the premiere, contemporary press accounts are unclear about whether this occurred or not, or whether senators yelled back at the screen during the film.
Senator Jefferson Smith addresses inattentive Senators

It is known that Alben W. Barkley, a Democrat & the Senate Majority Leader, called the film "silly and stupid," and said it "makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks." He also remarked that the film was "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 thought the film "...showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!"

Pete Harrison, a respected journalist, suggested that the Senate pass a bill allowing theatre owners to refuse to show films that "were not in the best interest of our country." That did not happen, but one of the ways that some senators attempted to retaliate for the damage they felt the film had done to the reputation of their institution was by pushing the passage of the Neely Anti-Block Booking Bill, which eventually led to the breakup of the studio-owned theater chains in the late 1940s. Columbia responded by distributing a program which put forward the film's patriotism and support of democracy, and publicized the film's many positive reviews.

Other objections were voiced as well. Joseph P. Kennedy, the American Ambassador to Great Britain, wrote to Capra and Columbia head Harry Cohn to say that he feared the film would damage "America's prestige in Europe", and because of this urged that it be withdrawn from European release. Capra and Cohn responded, citing the film's review, which mollified Kennedy to the extent that he never followed up, although he privately still had doubts about the film.

The film was banned in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the USSR and Falangist Spain According to Capra, the film was also dubbed in certain European countries to alter the message of the film so it conformed with official ideology.

When a ban on American films was imposed in German-occupied France in 1942, some theaters chose to show Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as the last movie before the ban went into effect. One theater owner in Paris reportedly screened the film nonstop for 30 days after the ban was announced.

The critical response to the film was more measured than the reaction by politicians, domestic and foreign. The critic for the New York Times, for instance, Frank S. Nugent, wrote that

[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.


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has been called one of the quintessential whistleblower films in American history. Dr. James Murtagh and Dr. Jeffrey Wigand cited this film as a seminal event in U.S. history at the first "Whistleblower Week in Washington" (May 13–19, 2007)

The film has often been listed as among Capra's best, but it has been noted that it

"marked a turning point in Capra's vision of the world, from nervous optimism to a darker, more pessimistic tone. Beginning with American Madness in 1932, such Capra films as Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and You Can't Take It With You had trumpeted their belief in the decency of the common man. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, however, the decent common man is surrounded by the most venal, petty, and thuggish group of yahoos ever to pass as decent society in a Capra movie. Everyone in the film -- except for Jefferson Smith and his tiny cadre of believers -- is either in the pay of the political machine run by Edward Arnold's James Taylor or complicit in Taylor's corruption through their silence, and they all sit by as innocent people, including children, are brutalized and intimidated, rights are violated, and the government is brought to a halt."

Nevertheless, Smith's filibuster and the tacit encouragement of the Senate President are both emblematic of the director's belief in the difference that one individual can make. This theme would be expanded further in Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and other films.

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