American patriotism on film has been defined in many ways, though arguably none more rewarding than every man, James Stewart’s fervent belief in the present and wistful promise of the future in Frank Capra’s monumentally stirring Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In a Depression-ridden America, people had rediscovered their faith in the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and his fireside chats, Capra aiming a decidedly malicious little arrow into the legitimacy of its Congress by pitting filmdom’s most winsome male ingénue against the morally corrupt political machinery of a dyed in the wool fraud, masterfully calculated by the superb Claude Rains. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is an unsurpassed gem in Capra’s crown; a movie, not unlike Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) in its biting social commentary, that Columbia studio boss, Harry Cohn was ‘encouraged’ not to make; Cohn hedging his bets on his star director and pushing the project through despite his own modest misgivings. Capra’s clout at Columbia cannot be underestimated. Within a few short years, he had risen through the ranks as few in his profession; gone from floundering would-be artist to expert technician in the cinema arts; surrounding himself with a superior roster of Columbia’s A-list talent that included screenwriter, Sidney Buchman, with an amiable – if uncredited – assist from Myles Connolly.
To bask in the afterglow of Jefferson Smith’s wholesome naiveté is to admire both Capra’s verve and his complicity for telling compassionate stories about the America he had embraced with all the impassioned charm and flavor of the immigrant experience. Like song writer, Irving Berlin, Capra’s view of America is one of boundless excitement, joy and unquantifiable dollops of national pride. There is both humility and a dignity to this exercise. Indeed, it remains a genuine shame Berlin and Capra never collaborated together. What art these two ardent romancers of ‘America the beautiful’ might have wrought. Nevertheless, their work apart attests to a level of optimism for their adopted homeland; certainly, in Mr. Smith’s case, to an unparalleled conviction in the country’s political machinery, to weed out its bad apples and endure as the last bastion for all the free peoples of the world. Not that Washington perceived the project as such. In fact, Columbia president, Harry Cohn was to experience some undue pressure; Mr. Smith misperceived as a condemnation of the democratic system at its worst, or rather, an insincere slight on government’s ability to procure the necessary and proper set of values without the intervention of a novice unceremoniously cast in their midst.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is undeniably anchored by James Stewart’s galvanic performance as the newcomer – Jefferson Smith; just a small town hick, unaccustomed to the fast-talking and even faster moving backroom machinations that make Washington click – or rather, operate spuriously right in the open. The other truly great performance in the film belongs to Jean Arthur, cast as the gutsy, but jaded object of Jefferson’s Smith’s affections - Clarissa Saunders. Arthur’s career dates all the way back to the silent era. But it wasn’t until her appearance in Capra’s other memorable ‘everyman’ comedy – Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) that she truly came into her own as a bona fide star: the sharp, shoot-from the hip gal with a Teflon-coat protecting her very fragile heart. Cohn had purchased a short ‘unpublished’ story by author, Lewis R. Foster, variously titled, The Gentleman from Montana and then, The Gentleman from Wyoming. Initially, the plan had been to star Columbia contract player, Ralph Bellamy. Ultimately, Cohn was to minimize any misperceived aspersions cast upon either state by avoiding mention from whence our hero hails. Indeed, Cohn was to instruct Capra and his screenwriters to be vague on a good many points more definitely outlined in Foster’s story. For instance, bumbling governor, Hubert ‘Happy’ Hopper (Guy Kibbe) is never given a state; his politico hack/womanizer with few redeemable qualities left open to interpretation; a sort of global representative or textbook example of how ‘not to’ become involved in the political arena.
Cohn was also forced to concoct a fictional national boy’s club – the Boy Rangers – after the Boy Scouts of America refused to allow any representation of their organization in the film. Indeed, in January 1938, Hollywood’s governing board of censorship had attempted to put the kibosh on any film based on Foster’s short story; discouraging both Paramount and MGM from pursuing the project. The Hays’ Office, then presided over by Joseph Breen, specifically objected to the “generally unflattering portrayal” of America’s system of government. It sounds mildly absurd today, but the climate of another looming war in Europe might have inspired Breen in his zealous dissuasions; fearing any misrepresentation of America’s politicos as anything less than a sect of diligent, hard-working and upstanding citizens, tirelessly laboring in the best interest of the nation, would offer unnecessary fuel to the Axis Powers’ already dwindling respect for American might and morality. In refusing to kowtow under pressure, Harry Cohn would quickly discover he would have to fight for his proposed picture from then on; to have it made – and, more importantly, have it seen by the general public.
Yet, objections would not come from Joseph Breen after a copy of the screenplay had been submitted for his consideration. In fact, Breen thought the scrip “a grand yarn” destined to do “a great deal of good for all those who see it”. Breen’s accolades for a picture yet to be made were the last bit of gushing and cooing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would receive. Moreover, Cohn found himself being pressed by the omnipotent power structure in Washington. It is rumored the FBI started a file on Cohn; a quietly benign threat to keep Cohn and Columbia under a microscope for presumed ‘subversive activities.’ At some point, the original ending to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was distilled – or rather, rewritten. There remains some discrepancy as to whether the changes were enforced by Harry Cohn – presumably, to cut costs – or external forces; but the changes seem to have foreshortened the evolution of the burgeoning romance between Jefferson Smith and Clarissa Saunders. Production photos, as well as the original theatrical trailer, depict scenes of both characters returning in marital triumph to Smith’s hometown; also, Smith forgiving Senator Paine (Claude Rains) his deceptions. Arguably, such forgiveness might have inadvertently alluded to redemption for Paine – undeserved and unjustifiable in the golden age of Hollywood-ized morality.
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington might also have become a darker political drama in director, Rouben Mamoulian’s hands. But Capra had expressed interest in the project. With the meteoric success of Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in his back pocket, Cohn could not deny his star director Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra initially saw the film as a sequel to Mr. Deeds, intending Gary Cooper to reprise his Longfellow Deeds role a second time. Alas, Coop’s commitments elsewhere precluded his involvement herein; Capra immediately turning to James Stewart as his alternative. “He looked like a country kid,” Capra would later recall of Stewart, “The idealist…it was very close to him.” In the days when stars were indentured to slavish studio contracts, Stewart belonged to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. And so, the groveling between Harry Cohn and MGM’s raja, Louis B. Mayer began. Interestingly, the genuflecting was kept to a bare minimum; Mayer seemingly in a philanthropic mood, or perhaps conscious of the fact his writers had not yet figured out Stewart’s on screen personal. Following Stewart’s monumental success in Mr. Smith, Mayer would recall him to his own stable of stars and diligently work to build the lanky Pennsylvanian a homegrown career.
Frank Capra was granted limited access to a few choice locations in Washington D.C., including Union Station, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building. But these appeared mostly as background plates in the film; leaving Capra’s art director, Lionel Banks to indulge in meticulous – and very costly – recreations of the Senate committee and cloak rooms, hotel suites as well as specific monuments. The sets rivaled anything in reality. Even the Press Club was reproduced down to the minutest detail; the recreated Senate Chamber, presided over by technical advisor, James D. Preston, a former superintendent of the Senate’s gallery. Preston would also be instrumental in advising on political protocol. To minimize costs, virtually all of the exteriors of the city were shot on Warner Brothers’ freestanding ‘New York Street’ back lot, redressed and populated by a thousand extras to add flourish and movement.
Presumably, to hedge his bets and broker favor from the politicos who had already denounced the film before having seen it, Harry Cohn planned to debut Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the cradle of liberty: D.C.’s Constitution Hall. Alas, his appeasement backfired. The National Press Club had already sharpened their poisoned pens, citing Mr. Smith as “silly and stupid”. Democrat majority leader, Alben W. Barkley went so far as to suggest it made the whole of Washington look like “a bunch of crooks” and further promoted an unflattering opinion that Capra had made a movie “as grotesque as anything ever seen!” America’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, also jumped on the bandwagon suggesting Mr. Smith’s release in Europe would wreck “America’s prestige.” Evidently, the press was more than willing to bolster this outrage, and insinuations both Capra and Cohn were anti-American and pro-Communist flourished. Journalist, Pete Harrison even proposed the Senate pass a bill banning any movie made “not in the best interest of our country”. In hindsight, Washington did one better – or worse (depending on one’s point of view), quietly qualifying the Neely Anti-Block Booking Bill. Eventually known as the Government Consent Decrees, this led to the breakup of studio-owned theater chains in the late 1940s; in effect, splintering Hollywood’s autonomy until the mid-1980’s.
Cohn had a lot of money riding on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. To pull the movie from distribution, not only would have admitted that, perhaps, some of the vitriol being heaped upon the picture was warranted, but also been tantamount to cutting his own throat, financially speaking. Instead, Cohn pitched a counter offensive; a PR junket bent on plumping up the film’s patriotic message in support of democracy; a push that achieved minor success and was publicized in various positive reviews. In Europe, Mr. Smith was immediately banned in Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia; Capra even learning of areas where the foreign dub had been made to conform to alternative political ideologies. Labeled the quintessential ‘whistle blower’, Mr. Smith’s reputation suffered at the box office. Capra, who had invested every last ounce of blood, sweat and tears in order to will his pet project to life, was demoralized by the critical backlash. In retrospect, Mr. Smith’s disquieting implosion left Capra to pursue a decade’s worth of infinitely darker movies, beginning with Meet John Doe (1941) and culminating with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Despite Capra’s initial disappointment, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has long since endured as one of his top-tiered entertainments. Fair enough, the only virtuous person in the picture is undeniably Stewart’s Jefferson Smith; untouched and unspoiled by the corruption and graft that surrounds him; his goodness eventually rubbing off on Clarissa, who becomes his most ardent supporter. Ostensibly, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington can be viewed as anti-American, although this was never Capra’s intent; the elder statesmen of its political machinery contented to remain silent while manipulative politico puppet master, James Taylor (Edward Arnold), cajoles, bribes, brutalizes or otherwise intimidates innocent people and stifles the jurisprudence of a nation into doing his own private bidding. But the ‘anti-American’ allegations only stick if one sets aside the film’s finale; Jefferson conducting a patriotic flag-waving filibuster until he collapses on the floor of the Senate, drawing out Paine’s empathy into a raw confession. It’s a delicious and perhaps even Christ-like notion – one optimist changing the course of a corrupt system from the inside.
Claude Rains devious complicit is the obvious villain in Capra’s piece; Taylor’s mouthpiece and go between. But Guy Kibbee’s ridiculous governor is, arguably, the more fascinating stooge. On the surface he is played strictly as the fop – a hallmark of Kibbee’s career; cast as reoccurring loveably obtuse and slightly inebriated cads. Yet, a closer look at his character reveals a decidedly more sinister purpose; the way he callously chooses a coin toss to make up his mind as to which candidate he should back; the coin landing on its edge but next to a newspaper detailing Smith’s accomplishments. And the governor’s decision is sealed by his own inability to conceive of a man’s virtue equating to anything more – or better – than rank naiveté; just a simpleton who can be easily swayed by a thin smile, a warm handshake and a kind – however facetiously conceived - word.
Immediately following Dimitri Tiomkin’s rousting main title underscore, we are introduced to the quandary as to who will fill the seat of newly deceased U.S. senator, Sam Foley. Eventually, the backroom connivers back junior senator, Jefferson Smith, believing he will be fairly easy to manage and manipulate to do their bidding once ensconced in Washington’s well-oiled – and oily - machinery. To ensure close watch is kept on Smith, James Taylor entrusts his quiet supervision to the publicly esteemed elder statesman, Sen. Joseph Paine (Claude Rains); a friend of Jefferson’s late father. Paine is actually Taylor’s mouthpiece and corrupted to his core. Smith is introduced to Paine’s daughter, Susan (Astrid Allwyn) with whom he immediately becomes quite sheepishly smitten. But Smith’s cockeyed optimism proves a hindrance when the Washington press club decides to follow his every move, concocting bylines and promoting him as the all-American country bumpkin.
Smith is demoralized, feeling as though he has made a grave mistake in accepting the nomination. Recognizing how ill equipped he has been, Smith leans heavily on his secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) and, to a lesser extent, her pal, Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) for advice. Saunders was an aid to Sam Foley, kicking around Washington for a long time. She’s hard and practically heartless, knowing too well how callous and cruel this town can be. When Jefferson asks to be taken to the various Washington monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial, Saunders laughs off the request as misguided and touristy. But Smith is the real deal; believing heart and soul in the high ideals of the country’s founding fathers. Sensing Jefferson’s waning interest in remaining in Washington, but also convinced Taylor has found the ideal stooge to manipulate, Paine quietly hints Smith propose a bill to help bolster and stem the tide of his ridiculed press coverage.
The idea has merit, Smith immediately latching onto a bill that will authorize a federal loan to appropriate a patch of wilderness for a national boys’ camp in his home state. The idea is the land will be paid back through donations from youngsters all across America. In a Depression strapped America, donations nevertheless begin to pour in from all corners of the country. Alas, the proposed campsite is already part of a dam-building graft scheme included in an appropriations bill, its chief architect, James Taylor and its most ardent supporter, Senator Paine. Unwilling to stain the reputation of an honorable man - at first - Paine informs Taylor of his decision to step down from the fray, whereupon Taylor insidiously reminds Paine his entire political career is built upon a lie; one Taylor has no quam to crush in an instant should Paine refuse his demands. Under pressure to save his own political face Paine takes to the senate floor, accusing Smith of already owning the land in question, producing fraudulent evidence to support his claim. Unable to quantify Paine’s betrayal, or defend himself from it, Smith skulks off with his own reputation in tatters.
Saunders, who thought less of Smith for his wholesomeness, has begun to quietly fall in love with him. Having seen the goodness as more than mere façade, Saunders seeks Smith out, imploring him to take a stand and vindicate his reputation with a good ole fashioned filibuster. If nothing else, it will postpone the appropriations bill and prevent his expulsion from the senate. Smith is moved by Saunders’ sudden faith in him and accepts this challenge, launching into a non-stop diatribe, begun passionately and, in fact, supported in his own home state. Determined he should not succeed, Taylor sends out his hired guns to intimidate and injure the Boy Rangers, who are spreading the word of Smith’s innocence. Director Capra’s optimistic view of this grassroots dissemination of the truth is a tad too idealistic; a handful of ardent young men canvassing their towns and cities with mimeographed pamphlets, even as Taylor’s army of back-pocket newspaper drones spread their vitriol against Smith in the mainstream press.
Taylor’s minions decimate Smith’s supporters, distorting the facts to suit their own impressions of ‘the truth’. Entering his twenty-fourth uninterrupted hour on the senate floor, a beleaguered and utterly exhausted Jefferson Smith is faced with a bin of letters and telegrams supposedly from his own state, though actually forged by Taylor, asking for his expulsion. Believing his own countrymen have lost all faith in his resolve, Smith is momentarily comforted by the kindly visage of the President of the Senate (Harry Carey), before collapsing on the floor as Saunders frantically looks on from the gallery. Overwrought with guilt, Senator Paine attempts suicide, is stopped by his cohorts, then bursts onto the floor to confess his complicity in the cover up and expose Taylor’s corruptions and his own. Exonerated, Smith is cheered to the rafters, with Saunders rushing to his side.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains the quintessence of that oft’ labeled ‘Capra-corn’ film formula Frank Capra perfected over at Columbia Pictures throughout the 1930’s. In everyman, James Stewart, Capra has the absolute perfect embodiment of the bright-eyed, big-hearted American to whom even the very concept of moral turpitude is foreign; much less its varying improbity transferred from theory into practice. James Stewart’s genial everyman unfurls a flurry of patriotic flag waving; the spectacle spared its schmaltz, not only from Stewart’s carefully nuanced performance, but also by Capra’s masterful direction. Interestingly, Capra took a break from his usual good luck charm, screenwriter, Robert Riskin; Sidney Buchman delivering the goods with great sincerity and gusto herein. His set pieces; Jefferson’s awe-inspiring first look at the Lincoln Memorial, and the rousing filibuster are not only memorable bits of sentimental showmanship, but have since gone on to become iconic representations, defining - for most what it means to truly be an American.
Regardless of the critical muckraking that occurred upon the film’s premiere, Mr. Smith is Capra’s class ‘A’ affair, with only slight tinges of the political exposé to recommend it. Perhaps too many toiling and roiling in Washington then found more than a kernel of truth in its representations of backroom politics. The film also comes at the tail end of Capra's reign at Columbia Studios. With the advent of WWII, Capra's particular brand of Americana grew at odds with the more grim approaching storm clouds from the European conflict, particularly after America's involvement in the crisis. By 1940, light and frothy Capra-corn was out. Film noir was in; though no one had labeled the latter movement as such just yet.
Sony Home Entertainment debuts Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as, presumably, their entrée to the ‘Capra Collection’ in a handsome embossed digi-pack with impressive liner notes. Problem: Sony has already farmed out Capra’s masterpiece, It Happened One Night (1934) to Criterion. So, just what other Capra gems are destined for this ‘collection’ remains open for discussion. One would sincerely hope for newly remastered and sparkling restorations of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) and Lost Horizon (1937) among them. But I digress. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has been given a superb restoration under the aegis of Grover Crisp, who continues to lead the charge – and the way – in hi-def presentations of vintage catalog on Blu-ray. Bravo, Mr. Crisp, and thank you! Mr. Smith looks divine in 1080p, the benefactor of a ‘from the ground up’ digital restoration in 4K to mark its 75th anniversary. Prepare to be dazzled. Virtually all of the age-related damage that once plagued the old DVD’s is gone. The gray scale exhibits exceptional tonality and, apart from a handful of ‘soft’ inserts, most likely derived from less than stellar existing source materials, this transfer is a winner through and through. Contrast is richly satisfying; deep saturated blacks and near pristine whites. Film grain has been naturally replicated. Close-ups astound in their razor-sharp clarity and attention to minute details in skin, hair and fabric; the ‘wow’ factor in evidence throughout. The DTS-HD mono audio is capable; a real showcase for Dimitri Tiomkin’s underscore; dialogue and effects sounding solid and, occasionally, surprisingly nuanced.
You’ll be disappointed by the extras. I know, I was. We get direct port overs of Frank Capra Jr.’s all too brief Frank Capra Jr. Remembers Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Conversations with Frank Capra Jr. - The Golden Years, and, Frank Capra Collaboration – by far, the best of the lot. Also present: Conversations with Frank Capra Jr. - A Family History and The Frank Capra I Knew, hosted by historian Jeanine Basinger. Kenneth Bowser’s 1997, Frank Capra’s American Dream is also here. But if you already own It Happened One Night from Criterion, then you already have this feature-length documentary hosted by Ron Howard. This leaves the 28 page digi-pack as the only genuine ‘new’ extra included in this set; well worth the price of admission and featuring an essay by Jeremy Arnold. Bottom line: an immortal film, expertly represented in hi-def. Highly recommended! Very highly, in fact.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)