Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a 1939 American political comedy-drama film, starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur, 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 It was directed by Frank Capra and written by Sidney Buchman, based on Lewis R. Foster's unpublished story.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".
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The governor of an unnamed western state, Hubert "Happy" Hopper (Guy Kibbee), has to pick a replacement for recently deceased U.S. Senator Sam Foley. His corrupt political boss, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), pressures Hopper to choose his handpicked stooge, while popular committees want a reformer, Henry Hill. The governor's children want him to select Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the head of the Boy Rangers. Unable to make up his mind between Taylor's stooge and the reformer, Hopper decides to flip a coin. When it lands on edge â" and next to a newspaper story on one of Smith's accomplishments â" he chooses Smith, calculating that his wholesome image will please the people while his naÃ¯vetÃ© will make him easy to manipulate.
Junior Senator Smith is taken under the wing of the publicly esteemed, but secretly crooked, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who was Smith's late father's friend. Smith develops an immediate attraction to the senator's daughter, Susan (Astrid Allwyn). At Senator Paine's home, Smith has a conversation with Susan, fidgeting and bumbling, entranced by the young socialite. Smith's naÃ¯ve and honest nature allows the unforgiving Washington press to take advantage of him, quickly tarnishing Smith's reputation with ridiculous front page pictures and headlines branding him a bumpkin.
To keep Smith busy, Paine suggests he propose a bill. With the help of his secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), who was the aide to Smith's predecessor and had been around Washington and politics for years, Smith comes up with a bill to authorize a federal government loan to buy some land in his home state for a national boys' camp, to be paid back by youngsters across America. Donations pour in immediately. However, the proposed campsite is already part of a dam-building graft scheme included in an appropriations bill framed by the Taylor "political machine" and supported by Senator Paine.
Unwilling to crucify the worshipful Smith so that their graft plan will go through, Paine tells Taylor he wants out, but Taylor reminds him that Paine is in power primarily through Taylor's influence. Through Paine, the machine in his state accuses Smith of trying to profit from his bill by producing fraudulent evidence that Smith already owns the land in question. Smith is too shocked by Paine's betrayal to defend himself, and runs away.
Saunders, who looked down on Smith at first, but has come to believe in him, talks him into launching a filibuster to postpone the appropriations bill and prove his innocence on the Senate floor just before the vote to expel him. In his last chance to prove his innocence, he talks non-stop for about 24 hours, reaffirming the American ideals of freedom and disclosing the true motives of the dam scheme. Yet none of the Senators are convinced.
The constituents try to rally around him, but the entrenched opposition is too powerful, and all attempts are crushed. Owing to the influence of Taylor's machine, newspapers and radio stations in Smith's home state, on Taylor's orders, refuse to report what Smith has to say and even distort the facts against the senator. An effort by the Boy Rangers to spread the news in support of Smith results in vicious attacks on the children by Taylor's minions.
Although all hope seems lost, the senators begin to pay attention as Smith approaches utter exhaustion. Paine has one last card up his sleeve: he brings in bins of letters and telegrams from Smith's home state, purportedly from average people demanding his expulsion. Nearly broken by the news, Smith finds a small ray of hope in a friendly smile from the President of the Senate (Harry Carey). Smith vows to press on until people believe him, but immediately collapses in a faint. Overcome with guilt, Paine leaves the Senate chamber and attempts to commit suicide, but is stopped by other senators. When he is stopped, he bursts back into the Senate chamber, loudly confessing to the whole scheme; that he should be expelled from Senate, and affirms Smith's innocence.
- James Stewart as Jefferson "Jeff" Smith
- Jean Arthur as Clarissa Saunders
- Claude Rains as Senator Joseph Harrison "Joe" 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 Senate Majority Leader
- Harry Carey as President of the Senate
- Astrid Allwyn as Susan Paine
- Ruth Donnelly as Mrs. Hopper
- Grant Mitchell as Senator MacPherson
- Porter Hall as Senator Monroe
- Pierre Watkin as Senate Minority Leader
- Charles Lane as "Nosey"
- William Demarest as Bill Griffith
- Dick Elliott as Carl Cook
- The Hopper Boys:
- Billy Watson
- Delmar Watson
- John Russell
- Harry Watson
- Gary Watson
- Baby Dumpling (Larry Simms)
- and H. V. Kaltenborn
Among unbilled veteran character actors seen in the film are Guy Kibbee's brother, Milton Kibbee, who has a bit as a reporter, Lafe McKee and Matt McHugh of the McHugh acting family. A number of the cast members and distinctive plot motifs would reappear in It's a Wonderful Life.
Columbia Pictures originally purchased Lewis R. Foster's unpublished story, variously called The Gentleman from Montana and The Gentleman from Wyoming, as a vehicle for Ralph Bellamy, but once Frank Capra came on board as directorÂ â" after Rouben Mamoulian had expressed interestÂ â" the film was to be a sequel to his Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, called Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, with Gary Cooper reprising his role as Longfellow Deeds. Because Cooper was unavailable, Capra then "saw it immediately as a vehicle for Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur", and Stewart was borrowed from MGM. Capra said of Stewart: "I knew he would make a hell of a Mr. Smith... He looked like the country kid, the idealist. It was very close to him."
Although a youth group is featured in the story, the Boy Scouts of America refused to allow their name to be used in the film and instead the fanciful "Boy Rangers" was used.
In January 1938, both Paramount Pictures and MGM had submitted Foster's story to the censors at the Hays Office, probably indicating that both studios had interest in the project before Columbia purchased it. Joseph Breen, the head of that office, warned the studios: "[W]e would urge most earnestly that you take serious counsel before embarking on the production of any motion picture based on this story. It looks to us like one that might well be loaded with dynamite, both for the motion picture industry, and for the country at large." Breen specifically objected to "the generally unflattering portrayal of our system of Government, which might well lead to such a picture being considered, both here, and more particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the Democratic form of government". and warned that the film should make clear that "the Senate is made up of a group of fine, upstanding citizens, who labor long and tirelessly for the best interests of the nation..."
Later, after the screenplay had been written and submitted, Breen reversed course, saying of the film that "It is a grand yarn that will do a great deal of good for all those who see it and, in my judgment, it is particularly fortunate that this kind of story is to be made at this time. Out of all Senator Jeff's difficulties there has been evolved the importance of a democracy and there is splendidly emphasized the rich and glorious heritage which is ours and which comes when you have a government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people'".
The film was in production from April 3, 1939 to July 7 of that year. Some location shooting took place in Washington, DC, at Union Station and at the United States Capitol, as well as other locations for background use.
In the studio, to ensure authenticity, an elaborate set was created, consisting of Senate committee rooms, cloak rooms, hotel suites as well as specific Washington, DC monuments, all based on a trip Capra and his crew made to the capital. Even the Press Club of Washington was reproduced in minute detail, but the major effort went into a faithful reproduction of the Senate Chamber on the Columbia lot. James D. Preston, a former superintendent of the Senate gallery, acted as technical director for the Senate set, as well as advising on political protocol. The production also utilized the "New York street set" on the Warner Bros. lot, using 1,000 extras when that scene was shot.
The ending of the film was apparently changed at some point, as the original program describes Stewart and Arthur returning to Mr. Smith's hometown, where they are met by a big parade, with the implication that they are married and starting a family. In addition, the Taylor political machine was shown being crushed, Smith, riding a motorcycle, visits Senator Paine and forgives him, and a visit to Smith's mother. Some of this footage can be seen in the film's trailer.
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.
It is known that Alben W. Barkley, a Democrat and the Senate Majority Leader, called the film âsilly and stupidâ, and said it âmakes the Senate look like a bunch of crooksâ. He also remarked that the film was âa grotesque distortionâ of the Senate, âas 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!â Barkley thought the film â...showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!â
Pete Harrison, a respected journalist and publisher of the motion picture trade journal, Harrison's Reports, suggested that the Senate pass a bill allowing theater owners to refuse to show films that âwere not in the best interest of our countryâ. 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 filmâs patriotism and support of democracy and publicized the filmâs 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 âAmericaâs prestige in Europeâ, and because of this urged that it be withdrawn from European release. Capra and Cohn responded, citing the filmâs 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 Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain and Stalin's USSR. 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. Capraâs swing is from the floor and in the best of humor; if it fails to rock the august body to its heelsÂ â" from laughter as much as from injured dignityÂ â" it wonât be his fault but the Senateâs, 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 âWhistleblower Week in Washingtonâ (May 13â"19, 2007).
The film has often been listed as among Capraâs best, but it has been noted that it âmarked a turning point in Capraâs vision of the world, from nervous optimism to a darker, more pessimistic tone. Beginning with American Madness (1932), such Capra films as Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Canât Take It With You (1938) 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 a venal, petty and thuggish group of crooks. Everyone in the film â" except for Jefferson Smith and his tiny cadre of believers â" is either in the pay of the political machine run by Edward Arnoldâs James Taylor or complicit in Taylorâs 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 haltâ.
Nevertheless, Smithâs 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 (1946) and other films.
Awards and nominations
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 11 Academy Awards but only won one.
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was named as one of the best films of 1939 by the New York Times and Film Daily, and was nominated for Best Film by the National Board of Review.
- Jimmy Stewart won the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.
- In 1989, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
- American Film Institute recognition
- 1998 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies #29
- 2003 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains:
- Jefferson Smith, Hero #11
- Senator Joseph Paine, Villain - Nominated
- 2006 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers #5
- 2007 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #26
In 1949, Columbia planned, but never actually produced, a sequel to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, called Mr. Smith Starts a Riot. They also considered doing a gender-reversed remake in 1952, with Jane Wyman playing the lead role.
A television series of the same name, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, ran on ABC during the 1962â"1963 season, starring Fess Parker, Sandra Warner and Red Foley. Producer Frank Capra, Jr. remade the film as part of Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack series, Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977), but it was not a success. The film was also loosely remade as The Distinguished Gentleman (1992), starring Eddie Murphy. The film's influence can be seen on many other films that deal with the United States Congress, including Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde and Evan Almighty. The short-lived NBC political drama Mister Sterling (2003) was described as "a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the 21st century", with the show centering on an idealistic young senator from California, coming to grips with Washington and appointed by a scheming, underhanded governor.
The VHS release of Ernest Rides Again featured the opening Saturday Night Live-based short "Mr. Bill Goes to Washington", a spoof of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The March 10, 1940 broadcast of Jack Benny's NBC radio show featured a parody entitled "Mr. Benny Goes to Washington."
The Simpsons episode Beyond Blunderdome includes a parodistic, fake remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, authored by a fictional Mel Gibson with Homer Simpson's help. The fictional remake follows the same plot of the original (save for being set in the 21st century) until the final iconic "filibuster scene", replaced with a stock action scene in which a nearly exhausted Mr. Smith suddenly stands up and viciously slaughters every single senator, impaling Senator Payne with an American flag, destroying the Senate and beheading the President of the United States, mockingly quoting Marilyn Monroe's Happy Birthday, Mr. President.
The Simpsons episode Mr. Lisa goes to Washington is inspired by, and contains several references to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The episode deals with Lisa Simpson's disillusionment with Washington government, following her winning a trip to Washington as a prize in an essay contest.
- Machine politics
- Political corruption
- Politics of the United States
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at the Internet Movie Database
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at the TCM Movie Database
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at AllMovie
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at the American Film Institute Catalog
- 5 Speeches from the Movie in Text and Audio from AmericanRhetoric.com
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Script
- Full length review of the film