In 1947 the Christmas tale produced and directed by Frank Capra that hardly an American alive hasn’t heard of was released. It was entitled It’s a Wonderful Life, and it starred Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart had such an unusual voice and manner of speaking that you only needed to hear him speak to be certain of who it was that was speaking. In 1939, eight years before the release of It’s a Wonderful Life, a powerful political comedy-drama produced and directed Frank Capra was released. Its message is as relevant today as it was then. This movie was called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Viewing this film will remind us that political corruption and media bias are a danger that must be fought in every generation.
According to Wikipedia, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won for Best Original Story. It also notes that it is “considered to be one of the greatest films of all time” and was chosen by the Library of Congress to be one of the first 25 films to be preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry because it was “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”
On the imbd.com web site, a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington trivia article states that the American Film Institute ranked this story about “Mr. Smith” #5 in Most Inspiring Movies of All Time in 2006 and #26 in Greatest Movies of All Time in 2007. Another significant fact mentioned is that many people wrote to Frank Capra over the years, letting him know that the movie inspired them to enter politics. Many feared that the movie would damage the image of democracy, yet others realized it could be a powerful tool for keeping a healthy democracy. The Washington press corps was not pleased about the movie’s depiction of media bias, so they criticized the film for showing too much drinking. Some European countries dubbed the movie’s dialogue in such a way as to fit their ideology.
The 75th Anniversary edition I had purchased contained a booklet with some interesting background about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The booklet states that “Capra’s mastery of film technique, pacing, and audience response is ultimately what has kept Mr. Smith so fresh and appealing over the decades.” The movie originated from a story by Lewis R. Foster called “The Gentleman from Montana.” (The imbd.com web site tells us that the story is “loosely based on the early career of U.S. Senator [from Montana] Burton K. Wheeler, who was falsely indicted when, as a freshman senator in the 1920s, he fought corruption in the presidential administration of Warren G. Harding.”) [The booklet included with my 75th Anniversary DVD contained a great deal of interesting information, but I discovered that the DVD was produced with “4K” technology that is only compatible with an upgraded type of blu-ray machine. So be careful of that.]
The booklet reveals that Columbia Pictures originally planned to use Foster’s story as the basis for a script to be written for Ralph Bellamy in the starring role. The whole idea of making it into a movie was dropped when the Production Code Administration warned Columbia to “proceed at their peril.” Not long after that, director Rouben Mamoulian expressed interest in the story. This raised the attention of Frank Capra. He thought of it as a perfect sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, starring Gary Cooper. However, producer Samuel Goldwyn refused to release Gary Cooper for the role. So Capra called on Jimmy Stewart, with whom he had recently worked in the comedy You Can’t Take It With You. Capra merely changed the main character’s name from Longfellow Deeds to Jefferson Smith. He envisioned the senator as being from Illinois rather than Montana, but that is never mentioned in the movie.
Capra was intent on making the movie as realistic as possible. He and the scriptwriter, Sidney Buchman, travelled to Washington, D.C., to do research. They toured Washington via a sightseeing bus, just like the main character in the script. They investigated every detail of the Senate Chamber, Congressional offices, cloakrooms, National Press Club, and the monuments. The movie shows a young boy at the Lincoln Memorial reading the Gettysburg Address out loud to his grandfather. That scene came about because Capra witnessed a young boy doing that very thing and was moved by it.
The role of Jefferson Smith was challenging. It required the portrayal of thoughtful moments, angry outbursts, exhilaration, humor, nervousness, clumsiness, and honest conviction. Jimmy Stewart mastered them all beautifully, which boosted him rapidly to stardom. Jean Arthur played a “sarcastic and cynical” secretary—Miss Saunders. Jean gave a convincing portrayal of an “intelligent and resourceful” woman, and her transformation from disillusionment to enthusiasm adds a great deal to the story. Other talented actors are well cast in the story—Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Guy Kibbee, and Harry Carey. The unforgettable scene of Smith’s speech in the Senate was shot with up to six different cameras. Jimmy had a doctor apply a solution with mercury chloride to his throat to swell his vocal chords in order to achieve realistic hoarseness for the end of his filibuster.
Here is a brief summary of the plot line. If you want to be surprised, skip this paragraph. Jefferson Smith is sent to Washington to fill the remainder of the term of a senator who died. Smith is naïve, when it comes to Washington politics. Smith’s goal is to see the establishment of a national camp for boys. He discovers corruption and, as a result, is faced with retaliation. Miss Saunders, a friend of Smith’s, suggests that he filibuster while others try to print up the real story and distribute it. I will leave it there. I won’t reveal the ending. If you have already seen it, you probably remember the ending. Even if you’ve watched it before, it’s certainly worth watching again.
I consulted the Common Sense Media website. It showed that parents and children agreed this comedy-drama is appropriate for ages 9 and up. It warns that there is some drinking, plenty of smoking, and some mild violence, but gives it high marks for educational value, positive messages, and positive role models. No bad language. Yea! One reviewer gave it a 5-star rating and said, “Absolutely amazing film even though it is 70 years old.” [That was posted about 11 years ago. It is 81 years old as of this writing.]
This movie lasts 2 hours and 9 minutes. It is 2 hours and 9 minutes that will go by quickly and make an impact. It shows how very important it is to vote in good leaders and demand truth from the media. Below is a short trailer to give you just a taste of the movie.
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