#113) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
OR “Graft Dodger”
Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Sidney Buchman. Story by Lewis R. Foster. Based on his unpublished story “The Gentleman from Montana”.
Class of 1989
The Plot: After the unexpected death of a U.S. Senator, Senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) and political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) select a replacement with Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a naïve scout leader who they believe will be easy to manipulate. Smith is a patriotic American with a sincere commitment to his new position. When a boys camp proposed by Smith is to be placed on land owned by Taylor, Smith sees his party’s political corruption firsthand. With help from his secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith takes on the political system and filibusters for his life.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it an “[e]ngaging slice of Americana” (one of their go-to phrases) and includes an essay by National Film Preservation Board member Robert Sklar.
But Does It Really?: You honestly think I’m going to say no to this film? “Mr. Smith” isn’t as controversial as it was in its day, but its political commentary still packs a punch almost 80 years later. Stewart and Arthur give career-defining performances, and at the film’s heart is Capra’s trademark optimism, mixed with a healthy dosage of cynicism. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is one of the true classic films that this list would not be complete without.
Everybody Gets One: Not surprisingly, most of the cast and crew of this film will show up in other Capra films on the Registry. The only major actor with only one NFR appearance is ‘30s leading man-turned-character actor Edward Arnold as Jim Taylor.
Wow, That’s Dated: “Brain” as a verb, references to 48 states, pre-CSPAN Senate coverage, prayer at the beginning of a Senate session…wait what? THAT’S still a thing?
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite its initial controversy with the Washington elite, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” had a strong showing at the 1940 Oscars; 11 nominations, second only to the 13 for “Gone with the Wind”. Due to its seemingly anti-American stance and the strong popularity of “Gone with the Wind”, “Mr. Smith” only took home one Oscar: Best Story. Most egregious is James Stewart’s star-making turn losing Best Actor to Robert Donat’s flashier performance in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”.
- Just to give you an idea of where James Stewart’s career was at this point, he gets second billing to Jean Arthur, despite playing the title character and having significantly more screen time than her.
- One of the actors playing Hopper’s children is credited as “Baby Dumpling”. What a time to be in the movies.
- I get the sense that Claude Rains eventually evolved into James Mason. Is it any wonder they were both Mr. Jordan?
- Smith says he “will do nothing to disgrace the office of U.S. Senator”. [Insert your own political sex scandal joke here]
- This film features a rare use of “Auld Lang Syne” for an event other than New Year’s Eve.
- When Smith arrives at the D.C. station it’s obvious that most of the extras are in the rear projection right behind him, which makes it look like they are trapped in another dimension.
- This film jumped on the Hamilton bandwagon 76 years before it was popular.
- One of the reporters suggests that Smith’s pet causes include “Save the Buffalos”. How’s that going?
- The Senate page that Smith befriends is Dickie Jones, the voice of Pinocchio. He gives Smith his real name when introducing himself.
- Holy cow, that Senate set is amazing!
- Turns out I’m not the only person on the internet baffled by the phrase “Christmas Tiger”. Any leads on this one? (UPDATE: As best as the internet can tell, a Christmas Tiger is an early version of the those bobble-head dogs people put on their dashboards. In this context, calling Smith a “Christmas Tiger” implies he will say yes to anything.)
- This is the second film I’ve covered in which Jimmy Stewart plays a senator from an unnamed state. For the time being let’s say Smith is from the great state of West Dakota.
- And then Smith goes around punching members of the press. He ain’t getting invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner, that’s for sure.
- I do love the scene where Smith visits Susan Paine and fumbles with his hat. It’s just so endearing.
- Can someone please invent “Schoolhouse Rock!” so Jean Arthur doesn’t have to explain all of this to Jimmy?
- Jean Arthur’s reaction to Smith’s story about the boys’ camp is priceless. It’s a shame she didn’t get a Best Actress nod.
- Why does Smith have a rifle on his wall?
- I’m a little baffled as to how Harry Carey got an Oscar nomination as the President of the Senate. It’s a small part and all he does is hide his amusement of Smith from the senators. I suspect it was more of a lifetime achievement nod for Carey, a leading man from the silent film era over 30 years earlier. And no, he’s of no relation to Harry Caray.
- Wow, a montage devoted to two different printing presses. You don’t see that anymore.
- Yes, back when you could just walk into a room and slap any kid you want.
- My main question: Where’s FDR during all of this?
- Wait, that’s it? The film ends so abruptly. Apparently there was a longer ending, but Capra cut it, ending right at the climax. You can see a little bit of the original ending in the trailer.
- So…nothing has changed?
- After attempts at a sequel never got off the ground, the film was turned into the short-lived 1962 TV series starring Fess Parker.
- The film got a remake in 1977 as “Billy Jack Goes to Washington”, the fourth film in the “Billy Jack” series. It transplants the story into the even more jaded political scene of post-Watergate 1970s. It was produced by Frank Capra Jr.
- Mel Gibson did a self-spoofing guest spot on “The Simpsons” in which he and Homer ruin the ending of a proposed remake. All in favor…say die.
- James Stewart did eventually go to Washington in 1987, via letter, to protest the colorization of black-and-white films.