Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

theatrical poster
Directed by Frank Capra
Produced by Frank Capra
Screenplay by Sidney Buchman
Story by Lewis R. Foster
Narrated by Colin James Mackey
Starring Jean Arthur
James Stewart
Harry Carey
Claude Rains
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Editing by Al Clark
Gene Havlick
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date(s) October 17, 1939 (1939-10-17)
Running time 129 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1.5 million
1945 re-release theatrical poster

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 It was directed by Frank Capra and written by Sidney Buchman, based on Lewis R. Foster's unpublished story.[1] Mr.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.[2] The film features a bevy of well-known supporting actors, 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.[3] In 1989, the Library of Congress added the movie to the United States National Film Registry, for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."



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. 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 – and next to a newspaper story on one of Smith's accomplishments – he chooses Smith, calculating that his wholesome image will please the people while his naïveté will make him easy to manipulate.

The very overwhelmed 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 oldest and best friend, and he develops an immediate attraction to the senator's daughter, Susan (Astrid Allwyn). At Senator Paine's home, Smith tries to strike up a conversation with Susan, almost completely befuddled by the young sophisticate. The unforgiving Washington press quickly labels Smith a bumpkin, with no business being a senator.

Paine, to keep Smith busy, suggests he propose a bill. With the help of his chief of staff, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith comes up with legislation that would 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 a Public Works 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 accuses Smith of trying to profit from his bill by producing fraudulent evidence that Smith owns the land in question. Smith is too shocked by Paine's betrayal to defend himself, and runs away.

Saunders has come to believe in him, and talks him into launching a filibuster to postpone the works bill and prove his innocence on the Senate floor just before the vote to expel him. While Smith talks non-stop, his constituents try to rally around him, but the entrenched opposition is too powerful, and all attempts are crushed. Owing to the influence of the "Taylor machine", newspapers and radio stations in Smith's home state, on Taylor's orders, refuse to report what Smith has to say and even twist the facts against the Senator. An effort by the Boy Rangers to spread the news 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 from 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 by shooting himself. When he is stopped, he bursts back into the Senate chamber, loudly confesses to the whole scheme, and affirms Smith's innocence.


James Stewart and Jean Arthur in a taxicab
Cast notes


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.[N 1]Because Cooper was unavailable, Capra then "saw it immediately as a vehicle for Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur,"[4] and Stewart was borrowed from MGM.[1] 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."[5]

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.[1]

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.'[1]"

The film was in production from April 3, 1939 to July 7 of that year.[6] 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.[7][8]

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,[1][9] 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.[1]

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.[1] 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.[10]


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.[5] 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.[11] 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.[12]

Senator Jefferson Smith addresses inattentive Senators

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."[13] 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!"[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

The film was banned in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia and Falangist Spain[16] 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.[16]

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.[17]

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).[19][20]

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."[21]

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.

Awards and nominations

Academy Awards

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 11 Academy Awards but only won one.[22]

Award Result Winner
Outstanding Production Nominated Columbia Pictures (Frank Capra)
Winner was David O. Selznick - Gone with the Wind
Best Director Nominated Frank Capra
Winner was Victor Fleming - Gone with the Wind
Best Actor Nominated James Stewart
Winner was Robert Donat - Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Best Writing, Screenplay Nominated Sidney Buchman
Winner was Sidney Howard - Gone with the Wind
Best Writing, Original Story Won Lewis R. Foster
Best Supporting Actor Nominated Harry Carey
Winner was Thomas Mitchell - Stagecoach
Best Supporting Actor Nominated Claude Rains
Winner was Thomas Mitchell - Stagecoach
Best Art Direction Nominated Lionel Banks
Winner was Lyle R. Wheeler - Gone with the Wind
Best Film Editing Nominated Gene Havlick, Al Clark
Winner was Hal C. Kern, James E. Mewcom - Gone with the Wind
Best Music, Scoring Nominated Dimitri Tiomkin
Winner was Herbert Stothart - The Wizard of Oz
Best Sound Recording Nominated John P. Livadary
Winner was Bernard B. Brown - When Tomorrow Comes

Other honors

  • 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."[23]
American Film Institute recognition


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.[1]

A television series of the same name, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, ran on ABC during the 1962–1963 season, starring Fess Parker, Sandra Warner and Red Foley. In 1977, Producer Frank Capra, Jr. remade the film as Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977) starring Tom Laughlin, part of the Billy Jack series; it was not a success. The film was also loosely remade as 1992's The Distinguished Gentleman, 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 2003 NBC political drama Mister Sterling was described as "a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the 21st century", with the show centering on an idealistic young senator from California, getting to grips with Washington and appointed by a scheming, underhanded governor.[1]

The VHS release of "Ernest Rides Again" featured the Saturday Night Live-based short "Mr. Bill Goes to Washington", a parody of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.


  1. ^ Lewis Foster later testified during a lawsuit that he had written the story specifically with Gary Cooper in mind.[1]
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Notes." TCM. Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  2. ^ Brenner, Paul. "Overview." Allmovie. Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  3. ^ Nugent, Frank. " Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)." The New York Times, October 20, 1939. Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  4. ^ Sennett 1989, p. 173.
  5. ^ a b Tatara, Paul. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." TCM article. Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  6. ^ "Overview." TCM. Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  7. ^ Rosales 2003, pp. 102, 117, 124.
  8. ^ "Filming locations." IMDB. Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  9. ^ Sennett 1989, p. 175.
  10. ^ "Trivia." TCM. Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  11. ^ Capra 1971, pp. 254–266.
  12. ^ McBride 1992, pp. 419–420.
  13. ^ a b Capra 1971, p. 287.
  14. ^ Capra 1971, p. 289.
  15. ^ Capra 1971, p. 292.
  16. ^ a b Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at the Internet Movie Database
  17. ^ "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)." Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  18. ^ Capra 1971, p. 286.
  19. ^ Miles, Adam and Tom Devine. "Washington Whistleblower Week Starts Monday.", 2007. Retrieved: January 10, 2010.
  20. ^ Blaylock, Dylan. "C-SPAN Highlights GAP Event in “Podcast of the Week”., May 2007. Retrieved: January 10, 2010.
  21. ^ Eder, Bruce. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" Allmovie review. Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  22. ^ "The 12th Academy Awards (1940) Nominees and Winners." Retrieved: October 16, 2011.
  23. ^ Brenner, Paul. "Awards." Allmovie. Retrieved: June 26, 2009.
  • Capra, Frank. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. ISBN 0-30680-771-8.
  • Jones, Ken D., Arthur F. McClure and Alfred E. Twomey. The Films of James Stewart. New York: Castle Books, 1970.
  • McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. New York: Touchstone Books, 1992. ISBN 0-671-79788-3.
  • Michael, Paul, ed. The Great Movie Book: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference Guide to the Best-loved Films of the Sound Era. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1980. ISBN 0-13-363663-1.
  • Rosales, Jean. DC Goes To The Movies: A Unique Guide To The Reel Washington. Bloomington, IN, IUniverse, 2003. ISBN 978-0595267972.
  • Sennett, Ted. Hollywood's Golden Year, 1939: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989. ISBN 0-312-03361-3.

External links

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