Tonight: James Stewart and Jean Arthur, with Claude Rains and Edward Arnold in the Frank Capra classic “MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON.”
No director was more important to a studio than Frank Capra was to Columbia. Almost single handedly, he lifted Harvey Cohn’s studio out of Poverty Row and made it a major.
He won three Academy Awards for himself and his studio with “It Happened One Night” (1934), “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” (1936) and “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938).
Between 1934 and 1941, he made six films for Columbia—and every one a classic.
Including, in addition to the three just mentioned, “Lost Horizon” in 1937, “Mr. Smith” in 1939 and “Meet John Doe” in 1941.
After returning from service in World War II, where he directed the highly regarded “WHY WE FIGHT” documentary series, Capra produced and directed the other Jimmy Stewart classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
When Columbia first acquired tonight’s property, both Paramount and MGM had rejected it as too political and controversial.
Harry Cohn had purchased the rights as a vehicle for Ralph Bellamy. And Rouben Mamoulian was announced in the trades as the director.
When Capra expressed interest in the property, he perceived it as a sequel to “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town”—to be titled, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Washington,” with Gary Cooper in the title role.
Cooper was unavailable, and on the outs with Harry Cohn, so Jimmy Stewart got the part.
Joseph Breen of the Production Code warned Columbia, as he had MGM and Paramount, against making this movie.
“It looks to us,” he scolded in a letter, “like a film that may well be loaded with dynamite, both for the motion picture industry, and the country at large.”
Breen believed the screenplay was an “unflattering portrayal of…and a covert attack upon, our democratic form of government.”
The film went into production on April 3, 1939, with a budget of $1,674,000. It wrapped on July 7—three weeks over schedule—with a final negative cost of just under $2 million.
The film was premiered in Washington, D.C. on October 17, with a less than positive response from both the local press and Congress.
Some Senators thought the film insulting and walked out during the premiere.
Senate majority leader (and later Vice President) Alben Barkley of Kentucky called the picture “A grotesque distortion… It makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks!”
Even the Boy Scouts objected to being portrayed in one of “Mr. Capra’s reform movement” movies.
That’s why they are portrayed in the picture as the fictitious “Boy Rangers.”
Despite the controversy, the public embraced the picture—and so did the industry.
Variety proclaimed this “The most vital and stirring drama of contemporary American life yet told in film… Timely and absorbing.”
Frank Nugent in the N.Y. Times said, “More fun, even than the Senate itself… Not merely a brilliant jest, but a stirring and even inspiring testament to liberty and freedom.”
The picture earned 10 Oscar nominations: Best Picture (losing to “Gone With The Wind”), Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (both Claude Rains and Harry Carey) Best Screenplay, Best Art and Set Direction, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Editing and Best Original Song.
Jimmy Stewart lost to Robert Donat, who took home the Oscar for “Goodbye Mr. Chips.”
But the following year, Stewart was nominated again for his part in “Philadelphia Story,” and won.
Everyone in Hollywood knew that he had been given his Oscar, not for “Philadelphia Story,” but as a belated acknowledgement for his performance in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.”
This is a magnificent film—filled with the sort of American ideals that inspired me as a boy.
A Frank Capra masterpiece.
“Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.”