Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Jimmy Stewart Can Dance and Proves He’s a Leading Man, Henry Fonda Has 35 Cats, Greta Garbo Moves Far Away, and Frank Capra’s Name Is Above the Title. From 1939, it's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood , available everywhere you listen to podcasts! Episode 38 is all about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

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1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington made Jimmy Stewart a star.  The tall, lanky guy, written off by Louis B. Mayer as obviously not leading man material, became one of the most popular, loved, and respected actors of the time with his flawless portrayal of Jefferson Smith, the idealistic young man who turns Washington, D.C. on its head.

During Jim’s tedious climb to stardom, he enjoyed a full social life in Hollywood, rooming with best friend Henry Fonda, dating the most desirable starlets, and even inspiring Greta Garbo to move far, far away from him, Hank, and their bachelorhood adventures.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Though Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a star-making vehicle for Jim, controversy surrounded this Frank Capra film that dared to suggest the presence of graft and corruption in Washington.  Senators and reporters in the US capital were disgusted by the film, while film critics outside of D.C. and the public at large, believed they’d found the perfect hero in Jefferson Smith, and in turn, Jimmy Stewart; a hero who would remind America and the Allied powers newly engaged in WWII that freedom is worth fighting for.

We’ll go through the plot, then get to the crazy bachelor days of Hank and Jim, before covering the exciting making of Mr. Smith, and the controversy surrounding its release.

And if you haven’t seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you can rent or purchase the film here on Amazon [aff. link].

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

The Plot

Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is an idealistic, bright, patriotic young man, beloved by the Boy Rangers he leads, and his community at large.  Jeff is the kind of guy who “knows Lincoln and Washington by heart.”  And it’s important to Jeff that his Boy Rangers understand and appreciate the freedoms they enjoy every day.  

So when he’s asked by the governor of his state to replace a senator who just passed away, Jeff is absolutely honored, and accepts the position.  The other senator Jeff will now work with is Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), his father’s old friend, and as such, a man Jeff greatly respects and thinks highly of.

But what the naive Jeff doesn’t realize is that both the governor and Senator Paine are under the thumb of the wealthy Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) and his political machine.  In exchange for Taylor’s support, finances, and reelection guarantee, the governor and Senator Paine do Taylor’s bidding.  For Senator Paine, this even means arguing on the senate floor for any legislation Taylor asks of him, legislation meant to better Taylor’s own position and power, not to represent the people of his state. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Claude Rains as the corrupt Senator Joseph Paine.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Jefferson Smith is only offered the senatorship because Taylor believes he’s not sophisticated enough to discover—or get in the way of—his corrupt maneuverings.  With the appointment of Jeff, Taylor is confident his political machine will continue working seamlessly as he directs Senator Paine to push through legislation that would build a dam on Willet Creek, with the sole purpose of increasing Taylor’s power.

And at first, it looks like Jeff Smith is exactly what Taylor needs: an innocent young man who, so in awe and reverence of Washington D.C., and the workings of the Senate, doesn’t realize what’s happening right under his nose.  He can only see the beautiful vision of the nation’s founders, and takes for granted that the other senators respect that vision as much as he does.  It doesn’t even cross Jeff’s mind that the men currently running the country would abuse their power.

Jeff does realize that he’s not doing much to contribute to the Senate proceedings, and asks Senator Paine how to change this.  Paine, convinced Jeff can do no harm to the political machine, encourages him to write a bill.  Jeff is inspired by the idea, and immediately sets to work on a bill with his secretary, Saunders (Jean Arthur).

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Saunders can't diminish Jeff's enthusiasm for his bill.

Jeff's Bill

The lovably cynical Saunders is aware of the corruption that permeates Washington, and tries to deter Jeff’s enthusiasm, explaining to him the lengthy process of writing a bill and trying to get it through the Senate.  But nothing Saunders says gets to Jeff, and they begin writing.

Jeff’s bill would create a national boys camp, right in his home state.  According to Jeff’s plan, the government would provide a loan to buy the land, then the boys would pay back the cost over time, with their own pennies and dimes.  Jeff’s vision for the camp would give the boys the opportunity to get out doors, make friends from all backgrounds and nationalities, and learn the value of freedom, for as Jeff believes,

“Boys forget about what liberty means by just reading about “the land of the free” in history books.  Then they get to be men and they forget even more.  Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books.  Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say, ‘I’m free, to think and speak.  My ancestors couldn’t, I can.”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Senator Paine argues for Jeff's dismissal from the Senate.

A Problematic Bill

The location Jeff chooses for his camp is Willet Creek, the same Willet Creek that Taylor desires to build his dam on…

Immediately, Saunders knows there’s going to be trouble.  

She tries to stay out of it, but her heart gets in the way, and she tells Jeff about the Taylor political machine, and the corruption behind the bill Senator Paine seeks to pass.

At first, Jeff can’t believe it.  But after confronting Taylor and Paine, he realizes that everything Saunders said is true.  Taylor tries to keep Jeff from exposing him and Paine with a bribe.  But Jeff can’t be bought, and refuses.

As a result, on the Senate floor the next day, Senator Paine tells lies about Jeff, assigning Taylor’s nefarious motives for Willet Creek to Jeff.  Pain tells the Senate that Jeff already owns the land he proposed for the boys camp, and as such would profit financially from his bill, if passed.  Paine even presents fake evidence showing Jeff owns the land.  He calls for Jeff’s dismissal from the Senate.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Saunders tells Jeff to not give up!

Saunders' Inspirational Words

Jeff is flabbergasted by Paine’s betrayal.  So much so, he can’t even begin to defend himself against the doctored evidence.  His idealistic views of his government tarnished,  Jeff plans to go home, and leave Washington for good.  But first, he seeks comfort at the Lincoln Memorial.  And he’s met at the Lincoln Memorial by Saunders, who inspires him to not give up, or go home just yet:

“When you get home, what are you going to tell those kids?  They’re liable to look up at you with hurt faces and say, ‘Jeff, what did you do, quit?  Didn’t you do something about it?’  Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines.  So did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground.  Odds against them didn’t stop those men, they were fools that way.  All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that, you know that Jeff.  You can’t quit now, not you.”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And Filibusters!

Saunders reinvigorates Jeff’s soul and belief in democracy, and he returns to the Senate chambers the following day with a plan: to filibuster—which basically means to talk nonstop for as long as you can stay standing on two feet—until his reputation is restored, and the will of the people proves stronger than the corruption in the Senate.

And Jeff does just that, encouraged in his weakest moments by Saunders, watching from the press balcony, and the President of the Senate (Harry Carey), who seems to be Jeff’s one ally on the Senate floor.

After an over 24-hour filibuster, Jeff meets his limit, and falls to the ground in a faint.  Saunders and the increasingly sympathetic Senate members rush to his side.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The tired Jeff knows he can't sit down if he wants to continue filibustering!

But Joseph Paine has also reached the limit of what his soul can take, and he bursts into the Senate chambers, admitting to his own corruption, and Jeff’s innocence.

The idealistic, exhausted Jefferson Smith wins his battle.  Jeff’s perseverance is a reminder that no cause is lost, and that democracy, no matter how imperfect, is perhaps the only form of government that allows an individual the freedom—and pathway—to fight for what he or she believes in.

And that’s the end of the film.

Jimmy Stewart

Jimmy Stewart Goes to Hollywood

If you remember from my introduction post on Jimmy Stewart, Jim and Henry Fonda became best buds as struggling actors in New York City, bonding over truly terrible living conditions, the struggle to make the rent money each month, and their favorite pastime, building model airplanes.  

Though Fonda always swore it was Jim who found work on Broadway more frequently, Hank was the first to get a substantial starring role, which led to a contract offer from 20th Century Fox.  Fonda accepted the offer, and was off to Hollywood, leaving behind both Jimmy and their current project, an unfinished Martin Bomber model airplane, which the boys often spent hours working on together each day.

Jim and Henry Fonda build a model airplane together.

Isn’t that just about the most adorable image ever?  Young Hank and Jim, taking a break from the daily grind and having a marvelous time together, hunched over a model airplane in their dingy New York City apartment. 

But it wasn’t too long before Jimmy received his own Hollywood contract offer, from MGM.  With Hank’s encouragement, Jim signed the contract, and set out for California in June of 1935.

And of course, Jimmy brought his trusty accordion.

Jimmy Stewart

Jim's Interesting Trip to Hollywood

Jimmy also brought the rather large Martin Bomber in a custom-made case, which caused Jim endless trouble on the train from New York to Hollywood.  Apparently, everyone though Jimmy Stewart was traveling with a machine gun. !!!!  As Jim comically remembered:

“Well, [on my way to California]…I held it [the Martin Bomber] in my hands the whole way…The only trouble was the case looked like a machine gun carrier.  I painted it black.  It looked exactly like a machine gun.  It was quite a trick, sleeping with it in the upper berth of a Pullman.  The conductors kept saying, ‘What do you have in that thing?’ Everyone was trying to figure it out. ‘It’s a model airplane with the wings folded back,’ I told them and they’d say, ‘That’s too good an answer for us, so we’ll let it go.’”

Jimmy Stewart, on a train, under suspicion of traveling with a machine gun.  The situational comedy doesn’t get much better.  

Young Hank and Jim, enjoying bachelorhood in their early Hollywood days.

Hank and Jim in Hollywood

Hank met Jimmy at the train station when he arrived in California, and the two resumed the fun they’d had as roommates in New York.  This time, Hollywood-style at Hank’s new place, which was decidedly more glamorous: in contrast to the squalid living conditions the boys good-naturedly suffered through in New York, even young actors starting out in Hollywood could be next-door-neighbors with Greta Garbo.

And the reclusive Swedish star was in fact, the boys’ next door neighbor.

Can you imagine???

Jim was surprised to learn that Hank hadn’t yet met Garbo.  But it wasn’t necessarily a lack of neighborliness on Fonda’s part—the notoriously private Garbo had built a tall fence between their properties.

Figures.

Greta Garbo, the reclusive Swedish superstar, and the next door neighbor of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.

But as Jim soon found out, it wasn’t so much Garbo’s undying wish to be alone that led her to build the fence.  It was her desire to keep Fonda’s 35 cats off her property.

!!!!!!!

As Jimmy recalled

“Garbo didn’t like Hank’s cats.  At least, Hank thought of them as his cats.  They were just wild beasts that looked cute and cuddly.  And Hank kinda liked cats, so he was always putting out food for them, and boy did they multiply, so every month there were more of these wild cats.  And this didn’t impress Garbo too much, so she put up this high fence to keep the cats out.”

I’d probably try talking to my neighbor first, but you know…GARBO.  Talking with neighbors wasn’t really her style.

Hank and Jim, just playing some ping-pong.

The Fleas Win

Fonda remembered the situation a little differently.  According to Hank,

“It wasn’t so much us or the cats that drove Garbo away.  It was the fleas the cats left behind.  The fence didn’t stop them.  They just hopped right over, and before we knew it Garbo was moving out to escape the plague of fleas she said we’d brought on her…We finally decided we’d also had enough of the fleas, and so we moved out…”

Wise move boys.

Jimmy with Ginger Rogers, my favorite of his early Hollywood girlfriends. ♥️

Jimmy and Ginger

When Hank and Jim weren’t feeding cats or giving fleas to Greta Garbo, they divided their time between filming at their respective studios, and enjoying bachelorhood in a sea of beautiful Hollywood starlets.

Of Jimmy’s girlfriends from his early Hollywood years, my favorite, hands down, is Ginger Rogers.

According to Ginger, Jimmy was a fabulous partner on the dance floor, undoubtedly one of the reasons the two got together.  They had fun, and dancing was often part of their dates.

Jimmy Stewart Could DANCE. And Sing!

If hearing that Ginger Rogers thought Jimmy Stewart a great dancer intrigues you, take a look at this clip of Jimmy playing a dancing sailor in Born to Dance (1938) opposite the great Eleanor Powell.  (Jimmy also does his own singing here, so be sure to listen!). Ginger was right, Jimmy Stewart was a CUTE dancer!  Though not formally trained, Jimmy’s charisma and obvious joy on the dance floor is infectious, and as a result, Jimmy more than holds his own next to the impossibly polished Ellie. 

Dancing and Dishes

My favorite Jimmy and Ginger dating-story was actually a double-date with Hank, and none other than Lucille Ball.

One night the foursome went dancing at the Coconut Grove and the Trocadero, then out to dinner at a restaurant with the appetizing name of Barney’s Beanery…

When they all arrived back at the boys’ place, as Fonda later recounted:

“Jim and I were all set for a good time, but then Jim and Ginger decided to dance in and out of every room.  Before I could say, ‘Jim, for heaven sake, don’t take her into the kitchen…they were IN the kitchen.  And we had piles of plates we hadn’t washed up for a week.  That was too much for Ginger.  She started washing up, and Lucille joined her.” 

So rather than enjoying a little romance that evening, Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball did Jimmy Stewart’s and Henry Fonda’s dishes.  Probably a bit of a let down for the boys at the time, but a great story!

Career Trouble

While Jimmy’s social and dating life was a great success, his film career at the time was another story.  It didn’t matter how hard the always dedicated Jim worked, MGM just didn’t know how to classify the tall actor, who Louis B. Mayer deemed too thin to be a leading man.  Mayer kicked around the idea of marketing Jim as a comedian, or even an action hero (!!!!).  But at the end of the day, Mayer subscribed to the same belief as film critic Howard Barnes, who expressed in 1936 that

“He [Jimmy Stewart] has been denied Robert Taylor’s beauty and endowed with none of the strong, silent intensity of Gary Cooper.”

As Jimmy himself later said of this time in his career,

“I’m sure some executives were wondering why they’d ever signed me up…” 

Jimmy's Chance at Stardom: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

In the eyes of Louis B. Mayer, it was clear that Jimmy Stewart just wasn’t going to make it as a full-fledged star: Jim was fast approaching 30 years old, obviously ancient, and if he hadn’t made it as a leading man yet, he never would.  Lucky for Jim, his agent, the visionary Leland Hayward, didn’t view his client and good friend that way.  In Hayward’s mind, Jimmy Stewart was leading man material—he just needed some loan out deals and good films at other studios to prove it.

And Hayward was right.  Jim proved himself a popular, unique, and completely natural leading man through successful films at other studios, such as RKO’s 1937 comedy Vivacious Lady—a personal favorite of mine, and Columbia Pictures’ 1938 hit, You Can’t Take It With You.  And it was through the director of You Can’t Take It With You, the legendary Frank Capra, that Jimmy Stewart finally graduated to the ranks of mega star.  

That star-making film was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The legendary Frank Capra.

Frank Capra: Name Above the Title

After the success of You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Frank Capra became the most popular director in America.  So popular in fact, Capra’s name was advertised above the titles of his films: Americans went to see Capra films not for any particular star, but because Frank Capra made them.

How cool is that??  In the 1930s, this was a new phenomenon.

Frank Capra’s life defined the American Dream.  At age five, Capra immigrated to the United States from Sicily, and worked his way up from an Italian ghetto in Los Angeles to become one of the nation’s most beloved and respected filmmakers.  

As Capra writes in his autobiography [aff. link], by the time of You Can’t Take It With You,

“I had reached a lifetime goal: Making something out of nothing; a nobody became Mr. Somebody—and I made the world like it.  What began as a gleam in my eye…was now a successful Hollywood reality:  A film director’s name spelled box office…”

A very young Frank Capra.

It’s become quite fashionable in some film circles today to ridicule the work of Frank Capra.  The terms, “Capracorn,” and “Capracorny,” have even been coined for this very purpose.  But at the height of Capra’s popularity, audiences flocked to see his films, which usually focused on the triumph of the common man over the corruption of big government or big business.  And of all films in the Frank Capra cannon, few so perfectly exemplify Capra’s favorite themes as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Capra with Gary Cooper, his original choice for Mr. Smith/Mr. Deeds (in Washington).

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Or Was it Mr. Deeds?

Capra insisted over the years that as soon as he read The Gentleman from Montana, the short treatment that eventually became Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he knew only Jimmy Stewart could play the film’s altruistic protagonist.  But this isn’t entirely true.  Though it didn’t take long for Capra to decide on Jimmy, his first choice for the role was actually Gary Cooper, a Capra favorite who had already played to perfection the title character in another hit Capra film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).  

In fact, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was initially titled Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, and was intended as a sequel to the previous Mr. Deeds film, with Coop reprising the title role.  But then two things happened: Samuel Goldwyn refused to loan Cooper to Capra; and Capra remembered how impressed he’d been with Jimmy Stewart’s nuanced performance in 1937’s Navy Blue and Gold.  As Capra himself put it,

“I had seen Jimmy Stewart play this sensitive, heart-grabbing role and sensed the character and rock-ribbed honesty of Gary Cooper, plus the intelligence of an ivy-league idealist.  One might believe that the young Stewart could reject his father’s patrimony, [or] a kingdom in Wall Street.”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Jimmy was the perfect combination Capra sought for his Jefferson Smith: a down-to-earth, relatable everyday man who was not only smart, but educated.  And lucky for Frank Capra, Louis B. Mayer was only too happy to loan out the lanky guy he didn’t believe would ever make it as a bonafide leading man.

Capra's Crisis

But Capra’s enthusiasm for Mr. Smith became tinged with guilt as the first day of filming drew near: Hitler’s intentions in Europe became clearer and more frightening each day, and Capra knew President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had some tough decisions on the horizon.  As Capra said in his autobiography, [aff. link]

“And here was I, in the process of making a satire about government officials; a comedy about a callow, hayseed Senator who comes to Washington…and disrupts important Senate deliberations with a filibuster…Wasn’t this the most untimely time for me to make a film about Washington?”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Frank Capra and Jimmy at the Lincoln Memorial, the site the inspired Capra to continue making his film.

However, after visiting Washington, D.C. in preparation for the film, and finding inspiration in the capital’s monuments, Capra decided that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was actually exactly the type of movie and message the world, on the brink of war, needed to hear:

“I left the Lincoln Memorial with this growing conviction about our film: The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals….It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.”

So Capra proceeded with his film.

Capra and his stars all went to Washington D.C. for location filming.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. For REAL.

From his initial trip to Washington in late 1938, Capra came back with James Preston, longtime superintendent of the Senate press gallery, who acted as the consultant on Mr. Smith for all the workings of the Senate.  It was important to Capra that even the most minute detail in his film be accurate.  Capra also brought back endless photos of his visit to the Senate, which were used to recreate the Senate chambers, even, according to Capra, down to a hole a Union soldier kicked into Jefferson Davis’ desk the day Davis joined the Confederacy.

The Search for "Absolute Realism"

Capra also arranged for his stars to spend some time in Washington, D.C., to get them in the mood of the film, and also to get some location footage.  Capra was fine with interiors being shot on the Columbia soundstage, but when it came to shots of Jefferson Smith experiencing the capitol for the first time, Frank Capra wanted the real thing.  As Jimmy Stewart remembered, Capra:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
What an awesome shot! Jimmy walks the streets of D.C., and Capra's crew catches it all.

“refused to build synthetic Washington street scenes at the Columbia lot or use process shots; he took the cast to Washington and caught scenes at the exact moments when natural settings dovetailed with the story.  In order to get a certain light, we made a shot at the Lincoln Memorial at four in the morning.  To catch me getting off a street car, a camera was hidden in some bushes.  I got on a regular car, paid my dime and, to the motorman’s amazement, departed, two blocks later—in front of the bushes.  For shots of me going up the Capitol steps, I sat in a car and, at a given secret signal, went trudging up through the swarming lunch-hour crowd.  This search for absolute realism, plus the superlative work of the supporting actors, had a great deal to do with ‘making’ the picture.”

Anyone who’s seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington knows the exact scenes Jimmy’s talking about: they’re real, completely in the moment, and clearly not Hollywood recreations.  These shots stay with you, and help make Jefferson Smith a real character we want to see succeed in Washington.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Jimmy Stewart wasn't faking that hoarse voice at the end of Jefferson Smith's famous filibuster...

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington AND Loses His Voice!

And speaking of real, the hoarseness in Jimmy’s voice at the end of Mr. Smith’s over 24 hour filibuster was just that—real.

At first, Jim tried acting like his voice was hoarse.  But Frank Capra remained unimpressed.  Jimmy remembered that

“The biggest problem I had was getting the right quality in my voice for the filibuster.  Mr. Smith talks for twenty-four hours, and after a while he gets a sore throat and his voice becomes hoarse.  I practiced a kind of coarse rasp, and when Capra heard it, he said, ‘Jim, that’s just awful.  You’re supposed to have a sore throat, but you sound just like an actor trying to put on a voice with a rasp.’  I said, ‘That’s exactly the position I find myself in.’”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Jimmy eventually decided the hoarseness just couldn’t be faked.  He went to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, and asked if there was anything the doctor could provide him that would actually give him a sore throat.

The doctor was convinced that Jimmy was absolutely crazy.  But he did know exactly what to give Jim to create a sore throat, and put a drop of the potentially fatal dichloride of mercury right next to Jim’s vocal cords.  It did the trick.  Capra even called the results “astonishing,” and the doctor was brought on set to keep Jimmy’s throat sore for the big filibuster scene filming.

A Perfect Performance

Hoarse voice or not, Jimmy Stewart’s performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is perfection.  Jimmy flawlessly conveys the pure heart, good intentions, and naïveté of Jefferson Smith on his arrival in Washington, D.C.  And when Mr. Smith becomes wise to the corruption of Taylor’s political machine and Senator Paine’s part in it, Jimmy subtly takes his character from utter disbelief, to resigned, disappointed acceptance, and finally—after Saunders’ inspirational words—back to the pure-hearted idealist, this time a little less naive, and ready to fight for his good name and the will of the people he represents.  As Frank Capra said of Jimmy’s performance,

“He played [Jefferson Smith] with his whole heart and his whole mind, and that is what made it so real, so true.” 

A Special Premiere for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The buzz surrounding Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was so great, the National Press Club asked Columbia Pictures if it could host a special premiere of the film, to be held in Washington’s Constitutional Hall, and attended by members of the press and the Senate.  Capra was fine with the idea of this special premiere, but worried that the Press Club had no idea what his film was really about: would the Press Club want to host the premiere if they knew Mr. Smith was largely a critique of the corruption in Washington, perpetrated by the very Senators attending, and press members sponsoring, the premiere? 

Capra insisted the Press Club view the film first.  And after a preview viewing by a small delegation, the Press Club enthusiastically accepted “full sponsorship and full responsibility” for the premiere of Mr. Smith.  They even invited Capra to come to a special luncheon in his honor before the premiere.

Still, Capra couldn’t help but be uneasy as he took his seat at this special premiere of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on October 17, 1939.  As Capra remembered in his autobiography [aff. link]:

“I crossed all my fingers and prayed a little that nothing would go wrong.

I hadn’t prayed hard enough.”

Capra's "Shellacking" by Washington's Finest

By about two-thirds of the way into the film, the whispering and fidgeting of the audience was undeniable.  And, as Capra remembered, by the time of Jefferson Smith’s filibustering, “the whispering swelled into a provoked buzz.”  By the end of the film, “about one-third of Washington’s finest had left.”

But the worst wasn’t yet over for Frank Capra.  After the premiere, Capra and his wife were escorted to a Press Club victory party.  Which, not too surprising given the atmosphere in the movie theater, ended up being a deluge of insults directed at Capra, the sitting duck, by angry reporters: 

“With my good wife next to me, I took the worst shellacking of my professional life.  Shifts of hopping-mad Washington press correspondents belittled, berated, scorned, vilified, and ripped me open from stem to stern as a villainous Hollywood traducer…

It didn’t make sense.  The average reporter I knew would have laughed at himself under the circumstances.  But these gentlemen were not average reporters.  They were demi-gods, ‘byliners,’ opinion makers.  What they wrote was instantly printed in hundreds of newspapers at home and abroad.  They not only influenced government policy; at times, they made it.  They were the real ‘power’ of the press before whom Senators—even Presidents—quailed.”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Politicians Call it Propaganda

And as for the politicians’ reaction to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, perhaps the quintessential example of their distaste for the film involved Joseph P. Kennedy, American Ambassador in London at the time, and father of future President John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy telegramed Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn that Mr. Smith’s critique of Washington made the film not just an insult to America, but a piece of pro-Axis propaganda.  As such, Kennedy called upon Cohn to “immediately withdraw the film from European distribution.”  

Kennedy’s reaction to the film was, according to Frank Capra, the perfect example of [aff. link]

“…[the] two freedoms that have created more headaches for the Supreme Court than all others put together—freedom to enforce freedom; and freedom to flout it, or advocate its destruction.”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Frank Capra, Jean Arthur, and Jimmy on the set of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

The French Choose Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Harry Cohn stuck to his guns, and didn’t pull the film from distribution, in Europe or otherwise.  And despite the negative opinions towards Mr. Smith in Washington, the film was critically praised outside of D.C., and became a box office smash, earning $3.5 million in the US alone.

As to Joseph Kennedy’s fears about the film being pro-Axis propaganda, well, Kennedy needn’t have worried: in late 1942, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was chosen by the French people as the last English-language film for showing in French theaters before the Nazi-ordered ban on American and British films in France.

What a compliment to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Jimmy at the Lincoln Memorial for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Mr. Stewart Stays Uncorrupted in Hollywood

Jimmy Stewart received some of the best reviews of his career for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Stellar reviews, coupled with the film’s blockbuster success, made 31 year-old Jimmy an official, undeniable, star.  As a reviewer in The Nation put it,

“Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith takes first place among Hollywood actors…One can only hope that after this success, Mr. Stewart in Hollywood will remain as uncorrupted as Mr. Smith in Washington.”

In this, Jim wouldn’t disappoint.  But though he remained uncorrupted in Hollywood, Jim didn’t remain stagnant.  In just a few short years, Jimmy Stewart left Hollywood to join the other men and women of our greatest generation.  After his experiences as a bomber pilot in Europe during WWII, Jimmy Stewart returned to Hollywood a changed man.  What that meant exactly for his film career, Jim didn’t quite know.  But he’d seek new direction and dimension in his postwar career with Frank Capra, and a film called It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Be sure to join me next week as I review It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), with Jimmy in the role best friend Hank Fonda once said was the closest onscreen portrayal of what Jim was really like offscreen.

Jimmy Stewart

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