Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a 1939 American drama film starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur, about one man's effect on American politics. It was directed by Frank Capra and written by Sidney Buchman, based on Lewis R. Foster's unpublished story. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was controversial when it was released, but also successful at the box office, and made Stewart a major movie star. The film features a bevy of well-known supporting actors, among them Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell and Beulah Bondi.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning for Best Original Story. In 1989, the Library of Congress added the movie to the United States National Film Registry, for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The governor of an unnamed western state, Hubert "Happy" Hopper (Guy Kibbee), has to pick a replacement for recently deceased U.S. Senator Sam Foley. His corrupt political boss, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), pressures Hopper to choose his handpicked stooge, while popular committees want a reformer. The governor's children want him to select Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the head of the Boy Rangers. Unable to make up his mind between Taylor's stooge and the reformer, Hopper decides to flip a coin. When it lands on edge – and next to a newspaper story on one of Smith's accomplishments – he chooses Smith, calculating that his wholesome image will please the people while his naïveté will make him easy to manipulate.
Smith is taken under the wing of the publicly esteemed, but secretly crooked, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who was Smith's late father's oldest and best friend, and he develops an immediate attraction to the senator's daughter, Susan (Astrid Allwyn). The unforgiving Washington press quickly labels Smith a bumpkin, with no business being a senator. Paine, to keep Smith busy, suggests he propose a bill.
Smith comes up with legislation that would authorize a federal government loan to buy some land in his home state for a national boys' camp, to be paid back by youngsters across America. Donations pour in immediately. However, the proposed campsite is already part of a dam-building graft scheme included in a Public Works bill framed by the Taylor political machine and supported by Senator Paine.
Unwilling to crucify the worshipful Smith so that their graft plan will go through, Paine tells Taylor he wants out, but Taylor reminds him that Paine is in power primarily through Taylor's influence. Through Paine, the machine accuses Smith of trying to profit from his bill by producing fraudulent evidence that Smith owns the land in question. Smith is too shocked by Paine's betrayal to defend himself, and runs away.
However, Smith's chief of staff, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), has come to believe in him, and talks him into launching a filibuster to postpone the Works bill and prove his innocence on the Senate floor just before the vote to expel him. While Smith talks non-stop, his constituents try to rally around him, but the entrenched opposition is too powerful, and all attempts are crushed. Due to influence of the Taylor "machine", on his orders, newspapers and radio stations in Smith's home state refuse to report what Smith has to say and even twist the facts against the Senator. An effort by the Boy Rangers to spread the news results in vicious attacks on the children by Taylor's minions.
Although all hope seems lost, the senators begin to pay attention as Smith approaches utter exhaustion. Paine has one last card up his sleeve: he brings in bins of letters and telegrams from Smith's home state from people demanding his expulsion. Nearly broken by the news, Smith finds a small ray of hope in a friendly smile from the President of the Senate (Harry Carey). Smith vows to press on until people believe him, but immediately collapses in a faint. Overcome with guilt, Paine leaves the Senate chamber and attempts to kill himself with a gun. When he is stopped, he bursts back into the Senate chamber, loudly confesses to the whole scheme, and affirms Smith's innocence. Order in the chamber completely breaks down as cheering people rush onto the Senate floor and Smith's supporters hug each other. The President of the Senate calls for order a few times but eventually gives up, sitting back in his chair.
Columbia Pictures originally purchased Lewis R. Foster's unpublished story, variously called The Gentleman from Montana and The Gentleman from Wyoming, as a vehicle for Ralph Bellamy, but once Frank Capra came onboard as director – after Rouben Mamoulian had expressed interest – the film was to be a sequel to his Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, called Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, with Gary Cooper reprising his role as Longfellow Deeds.<ref 3771&category=Notes "Notes."] TCM. ="3771&category=Notes "Notes."] TCM. " N="N"/>Because Cooper was unavailable, Capra then "saw it immediately as a vehicle for Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur," and Stewart was borrowed from MGM. Capra said of Stewart: ""I knew he would make a hell of a Mr. Smith... He looked like the country kid, the idealist. It was very close to him."
In January 1938, both Paramount Pictures and MGM had submitted Foster's story to the censors at the Hays Office, probably indicating that both studios had interest in the project before Columbia purchased it. Joseph Breen, the head of that office, warned the studios:
"[W]e would urge most earnestly that you take serious counsel before embarking on the production of any motion picture based on this story. It looks to us like one that might well be loaded with dynamite, both for the motion picture industry, and for the country at large."Breen specifically objected to
"the generally unflattering portrayal of our system of Government, which might well lead to such a picture being considered, both here, and more particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the Democratic form of government."and warned that the film should make clear that
"the Senate is made up of a group of fine, upstanding citizens, who labor long and tirelessly for the best interests of the nation..."
Later, after the screenplay had been written and submitted, Breen reversed course, saying of the film that
"It is a grand yarn that will do a great deal of good for all those who see it and, in my judgment, it is particularly fortunate that this kind of story is to be made at this time. Out of all Senator Jeff's difficulties there has been evolved the importance of a democracy and there is splendidly emphasized the rich and glorious heritage which is ours and which comes when you have a government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.'"
The film was in production from April 3, 1939 to July 7 of that year. Some location shooting took place in Washington, DC, at Union Station and at the United States Capitol, as well as other locations for background use.
In the studio, to ensure authenticity, an elaborate set was created, consisting of Senate committee rooms, cloak rooms, hotel suites as well as specific Washington, DC monuments, all based on a trip Capra and his crew made to the capital. Even the Press Club of Washington was reproduced in minute detail, but the major effort went into a faithful reproduction of the Senate Chamber on the Columbia lot. James D. Preston, a former superintendent of the Senate gallery, acted as technical director for the Senate set, as well as advising on political protocol. The production also utilized the "New York street set" on the Warner Bros. lot, using a 1,000 extras when that scene was shot.
The ending of the film was apparently changed at some point, as the original program describes Stewart and Arthur returning to Mr. Smith's hometown, where they are met by a big parade, with the implication that they are married and starting a family. In addition, the Taylor political machine was shown being crushed, Stewart visited Claude Rains, on a motorcycle, and forgiving him, and a visit to Smith's mother. Some of this footage can be seen in the film's trailer.