Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains
is about one man's effect on American politics. Directed by Frank Capra – his last film for Columbia Pictures, 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.
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 4000 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, 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Europe", and because of this urged that it be withdrawn from European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, Soviet Russia 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 that 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.
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.
Pic: Senator Jefferson Smith addresses inattentive Senators.
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