Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939, Columbia Pictures. Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 130 minutes.
The U.S. Senator of an unnamed state has died, and the pressure is on Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper (Guy Kibbee) to name his successor. While local politicians want a man they can manipulate, the people want a reformer. Yet another choice presents itself to the governor when his children enthusiastically tell him about Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), head of the Boy Rangers and an all-around good guy. Figuring Jeff Smith will be naïve enough to push around, the governor names him the new U.S. Senator.
Greeting Smith in Washington D.C. are the state’s other senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) and Smith’s secretary, the politically experienced and cynical Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur). Senator Paine also introduces his daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn), whom Smith quickly develops a crush on. When confronted by reporters, he reveals his idealistic side, and they immediately question his suitability for U.S. politics. The morning papers declare him a bumpkin.
Smith takes umbrage at their reports, and ends up in a fist fight with a few of the Washington press. They taunt him, telling him that as an appointee, his role is nothing more than that of a stooge. Frustrated by their comments, Smith confronts Paine, who encourages him to introduce a bill for a boys’ camp, a cause Smith has already made known to be near and dear to his heart.
This bill turns out not to be the simple proposal Paine intends it to be. It sets in motion a series of events that reveal corruption in the Senate, and puts Smith on the hot seat. Yet all is not lost—coming to his aide is the increasingly supportive Clarissa Saunders.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Stewart, Best Writing-Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for both Rains and Harry Carey. It won for Best Writing-Original Story. This was 1939, considered by many to be Hollywood’s best year, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was up against such films as Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and numerous others.
While audiences today are all too familiar with corruption in Washington, in fact, it is seen by many as the norm, the concept was unfamiliar to audiences in 1939. It is said that the other studios in Hollywood were afraid of retribution from Washington and offered Columbia more money than it had cost to make the film to instead shelve it. Hollywood had already implemented its own censorship code to stave out interference from the nation’s lawmakers. Columbia, however, refused to accept the money, and released the film as planned.
Thought by many to be director Frank Capra’s finest film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington embodies both the idealism and cynicism of those working in the nation’s capital. The naïve and inexperienced side of Jefferson Smith remains one that Americans can relate to, while the corrupt side, sadly, remains recognizable.