Watching 1939: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

Release date: Oct. 17, 1939

Cast: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, Harry Carey, H.B. Warner, Astrid Allwyn, Ruth Donnelly, Grant Mitchell, Porter Hall, H.B. Warner, Larry Simms (as Baby Dumpling), Billy Watson, Delmar Watson, Garry Watson, Harry Watson, Edward Brophy (uncredited), Jack Carson (uncredited), Craig Stevens (uncredited), Robert Sterling (uncredited), Milton Kibbee (uncredited), Dickie Jones (uncredited), Frances Gifford (uncredited), Ann Doran (uncredited)

Studio:  Columbia Pictures

Director:  Frank Capra

When a senator dies, corrupt political boss Jim Taylor (Arnold) needs to fill the position with someone he can control. Patriotic but unexperienced Jefferson Smith (Stewart) is appointed in the place by his governor (Kibbee) and he is guided by Senator Paine (Rains), who is also controlled by Taylor, in his journey to Washington, D.C. Smith’s secretary Clarissa Saunders (Arthur), thinks Smith’s patriotism is bunk and tries to railroad him with a bad press story, but once she sees he is sincere supports him. While Smith is supposed to be a “Yes” man, he becomes determined to fight the corrupt senate politics.

1939 Notes:
• Director Frank Capra’s only film released in 1939.
• Edward Arnold and James Stewart were in five films released in 1939.
• Jean Arthur was in two films released in 1939. This one and “Only Angels Have Wings.”
• Craig Stevens’s second film role.

James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Other trivia: 
• Frank Capra originally wanted Gary Cooper for the lead to reprise his role as Mr. Deeds and the film would be “Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, but Cooper was unavailable.
• The original story was called “The Gentleman from Montana” written by Lewis R. Foster, according to Frank Capra: Castastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride
• Originally also purchased to star Ralph Bellamy
• Premiere took place in Washington, D.C.
• Four of the Watson brothers appear as hoppers: Billy Watson, Delmar Watson, Garry Watson, Harry Watson
• The film inspired a short-lived TV show “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1962-63) starring Fess Parker. The show only lasted 25 episodes.
• Production Code Administrator Joseph Breen disapproved of the script because of its unflattering look at U.S. politics and that it needed to represent the senate as fine and upstanding, according to McBride’s book on Capra.
• In 1989, the film was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
• James D. Preston, the former superintendent of the Senate press gallery, was the technical advisor for the film.
• A 1950s remake was considered but never made starring Jane Wyman.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
In this series, I often review the overlooked and smaller films of 1939 to provide a full scope of a year often cited as the best in film.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” does not fall into either of those categories – this film is both well-known and would be one of the films I would rank at the top films of 1939. In fact, in the grand scheme of film, I would consider “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” an “essential” film.

First of all, while it seems hard to imagine: there was a point when Jimmy Stewart was still an upcoming star and haphazardly cast: singing in “Born to Dance” and a criminal in a “Thin Man” movie. And while he had some starring roles prior to 1939 (The Shopworn Angel, Vivacious Lady), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is the movie that solidified him as a star. And he’s fantastic in this role, he is perfect as the naive idealist who wakes up and fights for what he believes in.

Stewart was nominated for his performance, his first Academy Award nomination, and sometimes I get sad remembering that he lost. And then I remember that he lost to Robert Donat in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and feel slightly better. (I’m okay with all the Best Actor nominees of 1939 but think Mickey Rooney for Babes in Arms is a stretch).

Outside of Jimmy Stewart, everyone is wonderful in this film. Stewart is really the only “newcomer.” Jean Arthur had starred in films since the mid-1930s and is fabulous as the cynical secretary.

And as for the rest of the supporting cast? It seems like Hollywood put out a “Calling all major character actors!” and got what they asked for! This film seemingly has every top character actor of the 1930s and 1940s: Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, Harry Carey, H.B. Warner, Ruth Donnelly, Grant Mitchell, Porter Hall, and H.B. Warner … just to name the majority.

As an added bonus: four of the Watson siblings (of the acting Watson child stars) appear in this film – but sorry, no Bobs.

It’s interesting, because today “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is viewed as a flag waving film in favor of democracy. But leaders in Washington, DC were unhappy with the film (and it premiered in Washington, DC). Democratic Sen. Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky called the film “a grotesque distortion” of the United States Senate. Democratic Sen. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina said official action should be taken against the film. Byrnes said it gave an outrageous image of “legislative corruption and was exactly what dictators of totalitarian governments would like to have their subjects believe of democracy,” according to the book “Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice” by David J. Skal and Jessica Rains.

Production Code Administrator Joseph Breen didn’t approve of it. Breen was concerned because the script needed to show the hard-working and upstanding people of the senate.

Regardless of the backlash, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” has stood the test of time and continues to be an inspiring depiction of fighting for what’s right, as Jefferson Smith hoarsely yells, “Either I’m dead right, or I’m crazy!

Not only was this an important film for the career of James Stewart and one of the top films of 1939, it is one of the top films of all time.

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