Jimmy Stewart's 'Mr. Smith' Unwelcome
in 1939 Washington
by Crosby Day
The Sunday Oklahoman "TV This Week," August 31,
One of the best-remembered political films of the 1930s is Frank
Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). James
Stewart has one of his best roles as Jefferson Smith, an honest but
naive small-town man, who is chosen by the political machine as a rubber
stamp to fill out a senator's term. However, when Smith becomes aware of
the bosses' corruption and threatens to expose it, they try to silence
him. The film airs Monday at 7:45 p.m. on American Movie Classics.
Smith is aided in his search for justice by Saunders (Jean
Arthur), the cynical Washington secretary assigned to him. With Saunders'
support, Smith learns how to pitch the honest voice of one man loudly enough
for it to be heard by the nation at large. The film had a gala preview
at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., on October 17, 1939. Among the
more than 4,000 guests attending were 45 senators, including Majority Leader
Alben W. Barkley, D-Kentucky; and 250 congressmen, including Majority Leader
Sam Rayburn, D-Texas.
Far from recognizing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a triumph
of democracy in action and a warning against incipient home-grown fascism,
senators and congressmen who should have known better outdid each other
in hysterical denunciation of the film. Barkley said the film was "as
grotesque as anything I have ever seen." Rayburn said: "It won't
do the movies any good." And Senator James F. Byrnes, D-South Carolina,
said: "The (film) was outrageous, exactly the kind of picture that
dictators and totalitarian governments would like to have their subjects
believe exists in a democracy." Punitive legislation against the movie
was even threatened.
Joseph P. Kennedy, American ambassador to England, urged Columbia
not to release the picture in Europe. Columbia
chief Harry Cohn replied with a sheaf of laudatory American and Canadian
reviews, including one by William Boehnel of the New York World-Telegram,
who wrote that Mr. Smith was "a stirring, patriotic document."
Eventually, freedom prevailed, and in 1942, when the Nazis banned
American films in France, Mr. Smith was deliberately the last one
shown, and loudly cheered by the audience. The film was warmly embraced
in England, where James Hilton wrote in London's Sunday Graphic that it
was "just about the best American patriotic film ever made."
© 1997 The Daily Oklahoman
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