Classic Film Guide

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Produced and directed by Frank Capra, with a story by Lewis R. Foster and a screenplay by Sidney Buchman, this essential political comedy drama features James Stewart in the title role, as Jefferson Smith (AFI’s #11 hero), who's appointed to the Senate by his state's Governor Hubert ‘Happy’ Hopper (Guy Kibbee), on the advice of his children (the Watson brothers), when one of their Senators dies. The state's senior Senator Joseph Harrison Paine is played by Claude Rains. Stewart's character is a young, idealistic boys’ club (like the Boy Scouts) leader and a patriot, who's far too naive to fair very well amongst the alligators in Washington, D.C.. This fact is quickly recognized by everyone, especially the former Senator's streetwise secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), who helps Smith navigate the treacherous waters of our nation's capital (and capitol building) and eventually (and obviously) falls in love with him. Edward Arnold plays media magnate Jim Taylor, who controls the state's political party and "owns" several (if not all) of its politicians. At the time of Smith's appointment, Taylor is in the midst of having his civil servants put through some pork barrel legislation (e.g. a dam project) for his own financial real estate benefit. Once the junior Senator catches wind of what's going on, Taylor utilizes Paine et al against Smith, who famously incorporates a one man filibuster, in a symbolic fight against the other politicians’ corruption. Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi as Ma Smith, H.B. Warner as the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Carey as the Vice President, Grant Mitchell and Porter Hall as senators, Charles Lane as a newsman named Nosey, William Demarest, and Dick Elliott are among those also in the cast. Al Bridge, Harlan Briggs, Jack Carson, Helen Jerome Eddy, Byron Foulger, and Harry Hayden are among those who appear uncredited.

Capra earned two Academy Award nominations, Best Picture and Best Director; Foster won the film's only statuette for his original story, and Buchman’s screenplay was Oscar nominated. Stewart received his first Best Actor nomination; supporting actors Rains (his first) and Carey (his only) were also nominated, as was Lionel Banks’ Art Direction, Dimitri Tiomkin’s Score, John Livadary’s Sound, and its Editing (Gene Havlick’s last nomination, Al Clark's second). The film was added to the National Film Registry in 1989. #29 on AFI's 100 Greatest Movies list. #5 on AFI's 100 Most Inspiring Movies list.

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