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 It was directed by Frank Capra and written by Sidney Buchman, based on Lewis R. Foster's unpublished story.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."
Columbia Pictures originally purchased Lewis R. Foster's unpublished story, variously called The Gentleman from Montana and The Gentleman from Wyoming, as a vehicle for Ralph Bellamy, but once Frank Capra came onboard as director – after Rouben Mamoulian had expressed interest – 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 a 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, Stewart visited Claude Rains, on a motorcycle, and forgiving 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 & 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.