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Jefferson Smith
Jimmy Stewart played Jefferson Smith in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
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'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'

By Matt Slovick
WashingtonPost.com Staff

This film has been around for almost 60 years and remains the top Washington-related movie. Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, the "average Joe" who thinks he can make a difference but runs into men with power and crooked politicians. However, in the typical style of director Frank Capra, the good guy wins.

Incidents like Watergate and Iran-Contra have made today's Americans more cynical about government and politicians. But this film caused quite a stir in this town in 1939. The Washington Press Club sponsored a premiere at Constitution Hall that was attended by congressmen, Senators and Supreme Court justices. About halfway through the film, people started walking out. At another dinner, Capra was criticized for showing graft in the Senate. The Washington press corps, who didn't like the way reporters were portrayed, joined in the attacks against Capra.

But average Americans filled the theaters to see the film that helped make Stewart a star. The movie earned 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (it lost to "Gone With the Wind").


Washington Sites: You name it, Mr. Smith saw it. The new senator arrives at Union Station, goes on a bus tour and sees: the Capitol; Washington Monument; Lincoln Memorial; Supreme Court building; Tomb of the Unknowns; Arlington National Cemetery; Constitution Hall; White House.


It Wasn't Washington: All the background film was shot in Washington and rear-projected on a Hollywood set, where the film was actually made. The scenes in the Senate were filmed on a stage that was meticulously reproduced.


Film's Background: Director Rouben Mamoulian bought the story from Lewis R. Foster for $1,500. Columbia Studios chief Harry Cohn tried to buy the story for Frank Capra for $75,000. Mamoulian turned down the offer. When Cohn allowed Mamoulian to direct another movie, Mamoulian sold the rights for only what he paid. It was thought that Gary Cooper, the star of Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," might star in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington." But Capra picked Jimmy Stewart, who he believed to appear more boyish and naive.


Plot: When a state senator dies, Gov. Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) believes that Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) would be perfect in the interim role since he was so naive. Media magnate Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) and Sen. Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) expect Smith to back their crooked scheme to finance a new dam that will appreciate their real estate holdings.

When the press depicts him as incompetent, Smith feels he has disgraced his state. Paine convinces Smith he can make a difference by drafting a bill to create a national boys' camp. His cynical secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), who has been in Washington for a long time, falls in love with him and his idealism. When she learns of the conspriacy by Taylor and Paine, she tells Smith.

A devastated Smith tells Paine he will expose the corruption, but Paine tells the Senate (96 members, 48 states then) that Smith owns the land on which he wants to build the camp. Paine and others lie in front of a special committee, which recommends Smith be kicked out of the Senate. Saunders suggests he can lead a filibuster until his friends find evidence to clear him. Smith begins his 23-hour stand that leads to the "Capraesque" ending.


Memorable Scenes:

  • When Smith arrives in Washington, he's wide-eyed and as excited as a school boy.
  • Saunders tries to explain to Smith how difficult it is to write, introduce and pass a bill.
  • A drunken Saunders, who is smitten with Smith, tells him about the graft in the bill introduced by Paine.
  • Paine stands up in the Senate and accuses Smith of owning the land upon which he wants to create a national boys camp.
  • Saunders convinces Smith -- at the Lincoln Memorial -- not to quit.
  • The final minutes of Smith's 23-hour filibuster, when he confronts Paine and gives a speech about "lost causes."
  • After Smith collapses in the Senate, the overwhelming guilt finally catches up with Paine, who confesses that Smith is innocent and he and others are the crooks.


    Memorable Lines:

  • "Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say, 'I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't. I can. And my children will' ": Smith to Saunders when they begin drafting the bill for the national camp for boys.
  • "Maybe we can clear out of this town (Washington) ... get to feel like people": a drunken Saunders to her friend, Diz Moore.
  • "Well, I'm gettin' out of this town so fast, away from all the words and all the momuments and the whole rotten show": Smith to Saunders after Paine and others lied about him to a special committee.


    Rating: MPAA ratings didn't exist until 1966.
    Release Date: 1939 (by Columbia).
    Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
    Director: Frank Capra.
    Cast: Jimmy Stewart (Jefferson Smith); Jean Arthur (Clarissa Saunders); Claude Rains (Sen. Joseph Paine); Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor); Harry Carey (president of the Senate); Guy Kibbee (Gov. Hubert Hopper); Thomas Mitchell (Diz Moore); Eugene Pallette (Chick McCann); Beulah Bondi (Ma Smith); H.B. Warner (Sen. Fuller); Astrid Allwyn (Susan Paine); Ruth Donnelly (Emma Hopper); Grant Mitchell (Sen. MacPherson); Porter Hall (Sen. Monroe); Pierre Watkin (Sen. Barnes).
    Total Oscar Nominations: 11.
    Oscar Wins: Lewis R. Foster, best original story.
    Other Nominations: Best picture; Jimmy Stewart, best actor; Harry Carey, best supporting actor; Claude Rains, best supporting actor; Frank Capra, best director; Sidney Buchman, best screenplay; Gene Havlick and Al Clark, best editing; Dimitri Tiomkin, best score; Lionel Banks, best art direction; John Livadary, best sound.

  • © 1996 The Washington Post Company

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