MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON in 1939 and makes some discoveries. First his hopeful and patriotic heart is dazzled and inspired by the literally monumental surroundings and trappings of Democracy, the aura of Jefferson and Lincoln in the air. Then his crusading faith and spirit are ripped and torn by the reality of a labyrinth of cruel cynicism, casual deceit, accepted graft and layered corruption that reeks of the swamp gas the city emerged from. Of course, now it’s 70 years later, and gee, things have changed….
Director Frank Capra and screenwriter Sydney Buchman took an unpublished story idea and made a bigger, broader and deeper revisit to their earlier Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, which pitted small town boy Gary Cooper against shyster lawyers in Manhattan, with a romantic angle provided by the emergent Jean Arthur. In between Arthur co-starred with another riser, James Stewart, in Capra’s hit You Can’t Take It With You. Coop was unavailable this time, so Capra figured “it was either Cooper or Stewart and Jim was younger and I knew would make a hell of a Mr. Smith–he looked like the country kid, the idealist–it was very close to him.” Jimmy groove-fit his lanky 6’3″ self into ‘Jefferson’ Smith’s All-American clumsy but gallant dreamer-fighter, beautifully mirroring Smith’s sincerity, enthusiasm, outrage and hurt. Primed by the material and direction, Stewart delivered such a compelling and heartfelt performance that he earned critical raves, won a fully deserved Oscar nomination and cinched a beloved career. *
“My Dad had the right idea. He had it all worked out. He used to say to me, “Son, don’t miss the wonders that surround you; because, every tree, every rock, every ant hill, every star is filled with the wonders of nature.” And, he used to say to me, “Have you ever noticed how grateful you are to see daylight again after coming through a long, dark tunnel?” Well, he’d say, “Always try to see life around you, as if you’d just come out a tunnel.”
Arthur makes a fine foil; for my bat-ears, the quieter Jean was, the better; the more she employed her tendency to squeak, the less it charms. As in ‘Deeds‘, she plays a been-around cookie, a congressional aide this time instead of a reporter; at first bemused by the naive appointee, then concerned, finally vital to his success. Capra backs them up with a can’t lose supporting cast of some of most formidable character actors of the time: Claude Rains (marvelous), Thomas Mitchell, Edward Arnold, Harry Carey, Guy Kibbee (as ‘Hubert “Happy” Hopper’), Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi (one of five times she played Stewart’s mother), H.B. Warner, William Demarest.
The near-exact replica of the Senate chamber floor that art director Lionel Banks created cost $100,000 (at least $1,800,000 now). The sets and setting may not seem like such a big deal today, after decades of network television and C-span, but at the time, most moviegoers had never seen the Senate. In his autobio “The Name Above The Title”, Capra wrote “How to light, photograph, and record hundreds of scenes on three levels of a deep well, open only at the top, were the logistic nightmares that faced electricians, cameramen, and soundmen.”
“You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked! And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause.
Those detailed sets and using them for effect were crucial to the rousing filibuster finish. As a defiant but exhausted Smith croaks and gasps his message (Stewart painted his throat with a mercuric chloride solution to achieve the hoarse delivery), the collected audience of scoundrels (our ‘honorable representatives’) and lowly citizens hang on his words, while back in his home state an army of kids with bikes and wagons try to get the truth out under the boots of the political bosses thugs and parrot media.
Reception at the premiere in Washington D.C. was hostile—the entrenched but insecure pols and power-cozy press corps did not fancy being flayed in a forum that a lot of people would see, with some influential politicians barking that it’s anti-corruption theme was—when it came to the government—somehow anti-American. Tellingly, it was banned in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Spain and the Communist Soviet Union as propaganda for Democracy. As would be further amplified in Meet John Doe, the movie was prescient in showing how controlling, restricting and directing media (back then radio and newspapers) could silence debate and throttle free expression (Holy Fox, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, look where we are now).
Sure, it’s ‘corny’. Why not? Afraid you’ll be moved? Yes, it’s ‘manipulative’. Movies kind of…are; so are books, songs, paintings, flower arrangements, birthday parties, conversations…Capra bashers accuse him of pandering, which, at the same time—since his passionate and influential movies were embraced by the public, and several are considered beloved classics—also backhands those who appreciate them: apparently we’re the rubes. You know who’s really phony? The people who sneer at everything.
Lewis R. Foster’s Story adapting won an Oscar, and along with Stewart, the film was flush with nominations for Best Picture, Supporting Actor/s( Rains and Carey), Director, Screenplay, Art Direction, Film Editing, Music Score and Sound. The $1,900,000 investment was on solid ground, as an appreciative public made it the 3rd biggest hit of the year, grossing $9,600,000. **
Others in the cast: Ruth Donnely, Grant Mitchell, Porter Hall, Jack Carson (uncredited), Charles Lane, Billy Watson, Russell Simpson and Dub Taylor—also sans credit, and oddly downgraded from his featured debut in You Can’t Take It With You. Somewhere in the throng is 20-year-old Craig Stevens, two decades before he became Peter Gunn. With Dimitri Tiomkin scoring to accentuate the Americana, Freshman Senator Jeff Smith meets, defeats and wins over decadent D.C. in 129 minutes.
* Stewart lost to Robert Donat’s Goodbye, Mr.Chips. It’s usually given that Stewart won next year for The Philadelphia Story as consolation, taking what should have gone to his lifelong pal Henry Fonda in The Grapes Of Wrath. Gotta agree–he’s fine in The Philadelphia Story, but Fonda’s ‘Tom Joad’ is iconic in Ford’s realization of the Steinbeck novel. Stewart deserved it more for this film (he was also top-rate that year in Destry Rides Again)–he could have shared it with Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind (definition of Iconic).
** In 1962, Fess Parker starred in a TV series version, but it was dropped after 25 episodes. Capra’s son, Frank Jr., produced the woeful 1977 quasi-remake Billy Jack Goes To Washington, barely released, ending zany Tom Laughlin’s bizarre run as actor,writer and director of the impatient outpatient Mr. Jack. To be fair, Capra Jr. also produced quality items like Marie, The Black Marble and Play It Again, Sam.
“The Gentleman From Montana”, the unpublished story that became the Capra Sr./Stewart classic, came from Lewis R. Foster, a former reporter who had a knack for comedy (The More The Merrier). He also displayed a flair for Americana that he’d later employ for Disney on late 50s TV episodes of The Swamp Fox and Zorro, and the nifty Little Big Horn western Tonka.
Part of 1939’s seam-bursting crop was a rich vein of Americana, as the filibustering Mr. Smith had sturdy-stock company from Gone With The Wind, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Union Pacific, Of Mice And Men, Man Of Conquest (about Sam Houston), Frontier Marshal (Wyatt Earp), Jesse James, Dodge City (the greatest saloon bust-up of all time), and a 4-star three-fer from John Ford with Drums Along The Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln and Stagecoach. And, lest poppies make us forget, blowing in from Kansas, Dorothy & dog…
(refrain) “You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause.” Damn right!(on!)