Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), dir. Frank Capra

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Frank Capra on Jean Arthur (quoted in Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies):

Jean Arthur was an enigmatic figure because she doesn’t do very well in crowds, and she doesn’t do very well with people, and she doesn’t do very well with life, but she does very well as an actress. She’s afraid. She’d stand in her dressing room and practically vomit every time she had to do a scene. And she’d drum up all kinds of excuses for not being ready. Well, I finally got to know her. All I had to do was push her out into the lights, turn the camera on, and she’d blossom out into just something wonderful, very positive, certain. An assured, poised, lovely woman. And she could do anything, could express love or hate or anything else. And when the scene was over, she’d go back into that dressing room and cry. She certainly had two sides to her: the actress, this wonderful actress, and this person, this shy personality that she was in reality. She’s quite a study.

Frank Capra on Jimmy Stewart:

Jimmy Stewart first of all is very, very fine actor. He’s a fine man. He can project whatever his thoughts are. He can project what he’s dreaming, what’s in his heart, what’s in his soul. He can let you see that. He’s a very humble man. And at the same time he’s very educated and a very knowledgeable sort of a guy. But he’s got this wonderful quality – all the women want to mother him, that’s his great quality. Now, they don’t want to jump in bed with him, perhaps, but they certainly want to mother him. When he’s in trouble, they’re for him. They want to help him.

Frank Capra on Stewart again:

My father first thought of Gary Cooper for Mr. Smith, but decided that Jimmy had everything Cooper did – with one thing more – he projected an Ivy League intelligence that was crucial to the character of Jefferson Smith, and it was something Cooper did not have. Stewart was the perfect garden variety of citizen with just the right touch of Phi Beta Kappa.

Marc Elliot, from Jimmy Stewart: A Biography:

The making of Mr. Smith was fraught with controversy from the beginning, reaching all the way to the highest governmental authority in Hollywood, Joseph L. Breen, then the head of the industry’s self-regulated Production Code Administration. It was one thing for a director like Capra to make a satire about Utopia, as long as it was set in some far-off Shangri-La, or a wacky comedy about a wealthy, out-of-touch family of millionaires living in a Shangri-La-like mansion exempt from the realities of the “real” world. But, as Capra was to discover, it was quite another to attempt a head-on, non-metaphoric feature about the pervasive, ongoing political corruption set within the great, vaunted walls of the United States Congress.

In 1937, Harry Cohn had optioned a short treatment written by Lewis R. Foster called The Gentleman from Montana, which concerned the gradual disillusionment of an optimistic freshman senator. Foster was an “idea man” who, like Capra, started in silent comedy but had seen his career dissipate in the first decade of talkies until he was reduced to freelancing original treatments he’d written for the studios. Cohn liked the premise of The Gentleman from Montana but initially thought about shelving it after Breen, whose office insisted it be shown all material that any studio considered filming, personally wrote back to Cohn in January 1938 rejecting the treatment because of its “general unflattering portrayal of our system [that is] a covert attack on the democratic form of government.”

The project then languished from studio to studio. Everyone who read it liked it, but no one in a position to get it made was willing to challenge Breen’s powerful office, until Harry Cohn decided to take a chance on it. He believed he could soften up its rougher, more controversial edges and optioned it as a project for Soviet Georgian emigre director Rouben Mamoulian. Cohn had been searching for something for Mamoulian, hoping he could sign the director to a contingent long-range contract at a bargain rate. Moreover, if a controversial project like Mr. Smith failed, he could always put the blame on what he would describe as Mamoulian’s Soviet-bred anti-Americanism.

More from Marc Eliot:

Principal photography on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington began in April 1939. The interiors were mostly shot on a giant sound stage that Columbia Pictures had converted into an impressively detailed reproduction of the actual Senate chamber. Early into filming, Capra decided to personally escort his principal players to Washington D.C., to shoot some location scenes while hopefully instilling in his cast a deeper patriotic feel for the material they could use in their performances. Along with Stewart and Arthur, Capra took the always spectacular and profoundly underrated Claude Rains (Senator Joe Paine), the Capra regular and ever-dependable Edward Arnold (state machine boss and corrupt publisher Jim Taylor), Thomas Mitchell (perennially tipsy D.C. beat reporter Diz Moore), and Harry Carey (benevolent vice president and president protem of the Senate.

It was the first time Jimmy had been to the nation’s capital since he was a boy, when he’d once gone with his mother and sisters to visit Alexander while he was stationed there during World War One just prior to his being shipped out to the front lines of France. This time Stewart fell deeply in awe of the capital, particularly the monuments, and especially the Lincoln Memorial, which was to play such a crucial role in two of the movie’s pivotal scenes.

Jimmy Stewart:

Director Frank Capra, who taught me a lot about acting while we were making Mr. Smith, refused to build synthetic Washington street scenes at the Columbia lot or use process shots; he took the cast to Washington and caught scenes at the exact moments when natural settings dovetailed with the story. In order to get a certain light, we made a shot at the Lincoln Memorial at four in the morning. To catch me getting off a streetcar, a camera was hidden in some bushes. I got on a regular car, paid my dome and, to the motorman’s amazement, departed, two blocks later – in front of the bushes. For shots of me going up the Capitol steps, I sat in a car and, at a given secret signal, went trudging up through the swarming lunch-hour crowd. This search for absolute realism, plus the superlative work of the supporting actors, had a great deal to do with ‘making’ the picture. I think especially of the grand performances of Claude Rains, Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur, a fine comedienne who proved in Mr. Smith that she could handle dramatic moments with equal skill.

More from Marc Eliot:

The film builds toward its inevitable climax in which everything miraculously resolves itself in happy democratic justice and contentment but not before what Andrew Sarris once described as the “obligatory Capra scene of the confession of folly in the most public manner possible”. During this sequence, Capra shoots Stewart in ever tighter close-ups, full-face shots with no visible background, his wrists curved downward like swans’ necks under his chin, his eyes darting from side to side, his face awash in sweat and agony.

Jimmy Stewart:

It was the filibuster speech that Capra started way back in the gallery with the camera and ended up two feet from my face. Capra said, ‘Jesus, do it right, ’cause this is what we’re going to use.’ He kept getting closer and closer. By the time he got there I had the thing all worked out.

Frank Capra:

To act hoarse for the filibuster scene would be an additional hurdle that he have to go through in doing this part. So I thought I’d like to relieve that [burden] from his mind. I asked a doctor, “Look, you can cure a sore throat, can you produce one?” And he says, “Oh sure.” So about three times a day he’d swab Stewart’s throat with a vile mercury liquid of some kind that would swell his vocal chords and make him hoarse. He’d have to fight to get that voice out. That, of course, was a great, great help in playing the part.

Marc Eliot again:

To modern audiences Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may come off as too oversimplified a fairy tale of right triumphing over wrong, one more in the endless replays Hollywood has given the world of the David-and-Goliath tale, even if this one is staged in the arena of Washingtonian democracy. However, in its day, the film’s defiant view of the reality of American politics was nothing less than populist dynamite. Nothing like it had been seen in an American mainstream movie. No filmmaker had ever before made such massive accusations about the pervasiveness of the corruption inherent in the hitherto untouchable hallowed halls of Congress. Because of it, Mr. Smith deeply resonated with a citizenry that had lived through a decade of the Depression and was now engaged in a battle over whether or not America should enter into the dangerous battlefield of World War Two.

The film had a special premiere on October 17, 1939, in Washington D.C., the audience made up of Washington insiders and Hollywood glitterati.

Marc Eliot on the response:

The very next day, senator after senator and political columnist after political columnist publicly questioned the film’s depiction of the everyday mechanics of American politics. Washington columnist Willard Edwards wrote that at the premiere “members of the Senate were writhing in their seats [over their] resentment … the Senate believes itself to have been maligned by the motion picture industry [and] is preparing to strike back at Hollywood. Frederic William Wile of the Washington Star wrote what was perhaps the most stinging attack on Capra when he insisted that the film “shows up the democratic system and our vaunted free press in exactly the colors Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are fond of painting them.”

The controversy quickly took on a life of its own, with Capra taking virtually all of the heat, while the film’s stars, especially Jimmy, managed to avoid the fray. When things got too hot for Capra, he rather unfortunately suggested that maybe the blame really belonged to the film’s screenwriter, Buchman, who was, Capra reminded everyone, a member of the Communist party, someone who’d “betrayed” everyone (including Capra himself) by inserting certain party “codes” into the movie.

Much to the relief of Capra and Cohn, the film’s public premiere a week later, at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, brought rave reviews from the general press, and it went on to become a box-office blockbuster.

Thomas Mitchell on Stewart:

He was the most naturally gifted actor I ever worked with. It was all instinct, all emotion. I don’t think it came from training or technique … it came from forces deep within him.

Andrew Sarris on Jimmy Stewart:

I would prefer to place James Stewart in a triptych of equal acting greatness with Cary Grant and James Cagney … and say that Stewart is the most complete actor-personality in the American cinema, particularly gifted in expressing the emotional ambivalence of the action hero.

Frank Capra on Stewart:

He played [Jefferson Smith] with his whole heart and his whole mind, and that is what made it so real, so true.

Jimmy Stewart to Peter Bogdanovich:

That’s the great thing about the movies … after you learn – and if you’re good enough and God helps you and you’re lucky to have a personality that comes across – then what you’re doing is – you’re giving people little, little, tiny pieces of time, that they never forget.

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11 Responses to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), dir. Frank Capra

  1. justjack says:

    WON-derful collection of writings on a bona fide classic. I especially loved the picture you chose of Jean Arthur. The personification of spunk, but with a layer of sexiness lying right there under the surface. And because she was a little on the short side, she’d always be looking up at the male lead in a way that makes me go a little weak-kneed.

    And what a voice! Nobody could toss off a line like “say listen, ya big lummox!” the way Jean Arthur could. I just adore her.

  2. Ken says:

    I got to see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the big screen in the summer of ’08 in downtown Cleveland. Loved it: the comic grimace on Jean Arthur’s face as she pantomimed “five…three” from the gallery, the way Harry Carey portrayed a man allowing himself to be won over, Claude Rains’s old-school acting (particularly the oratory, I think we talked about his oratorical gestures like the hand on the hip and the other hand pointing up and back a few months ago), everything.

  3. Nicola says:

    I haven’t seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But you’ve put me on to Jean Arthur in such a big way I’m dying too! There’s a Frank Capra boxset that looks just delicious that I want so badly. It’s got It’s A Wonderful Life, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, You Can’t Take It With You,It Happened One Night. I think you’ve just pushed me over the edge and I’m going to have to do it NOW!

  4. red says:

    Justjack – Jean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses – I love that spunk she has, too. I love her here – her cynical world-weariness at the beginning. The typical “insider”.

    There are many stories of how difficult she found acting – Howard Hawks had a hard time with her, Capra touches on it here – and I find her even MORE interesting because of her struggles. She was almost pathologically shy. What is so awesome is she never played shy women. Sensitive, maybe, underneath the capable tough-broad exterior – but you really sense that this woman had a GIFT for this acting thing, that caused her so much psychological torment. She didn’t get onscreen and play trembling wallflowers, or pathologically shy people – she (to quote Capra) BLOSSOMED into these parts the second she was on set.

    I have a great admiration for that. The RESULTS made it look so easy, but the process was really hard for her. You’d never ever know it.

    Kudos.

  5. red says:

    Ken – Oh that “five three” moment just gives me goosebumps.

    I love the relationship between Arthur and Thomas Mitchell, too. Boozing it up at late-night diners, dealing in a good-natured way with the fact that Mitchell is in love with her – bantering back and forth – they’re really FRIENDS, right? Male-female friendship – very hard to capture – but I think they really do here. There will always be that sexual element – but they handle it as it comes up, and for the most part, are just good buddies, with each other’s best interest at heart.

    Claude Rains.

    My God, what an actor. Yes, his rhetorical flourishes – and the true OUTRAGE he is able to convey – in stark contrast to the real kindness we have seen from him in earlier scenes. You get the sense of what this politician COULD have been if the system itself were different. He’s a bit of a tragic character. He started out as an idealist – but look what happened.

    Also, the kind of creepy way he whores out his daughters … I mean, not explicitly – but he definitely is okay with the fact that they are being “used” in the battle against Jefferson Smith. He’s lost his soul.

    I think his work, as always, is impeccable. It makes me happy to see him – he perfectly modulates the journey of the character. You love him, in a way you root for HIM as much as you do for Stewart …

  6. red says:

    Oh and Harry Carey as the Vice President!!!!

    The man has, what, 10 lines in the whole thing – and they’re all variations on “Does the Senator yield for a question?” They are all PROCEDURAL – nothing from the heart, nothing that reveals his personality or his take on things – but don’t you just GET an entire human being from his performance??

    LOVED HIM.

  7. red says:

    Nicola – Oh yes, this is definitely a must-see – a movie that really tipped Stewart over the edge into super-stardom, and you can see why. It has its hokey elements – Stewart did well in hokey material – but it has real heart and real intelligence. Great scenes, great writing.

    Sounds like a great box-set – I should get it myself!

  8. red says:

    Oh and here is my Geekery:

    When Stewart gives his handlers the slip upon arriving in Washington and goes and visits all the monuments – it is a bit over-the-top, with the American Eagle superimposed over a billowing American flag – Okay, Capra, we get it, we get it – but I have had similar experiences to that on my trips to DC – it is hard to not just stand in awe at the Lincoln Memorial – and all that.

    BUT: here’s my geekery: we see him visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson memorial – we see closeups of the statues of Washington and Jefferson and Sam Adams and Lincoln – and then – yay – we see “Hamilton”, and a closeup of Hamilton’s face.

    I was just gratified that he was included. Because he was out of favor at that time (and there will always be those who don’t think he should be “in the canon”) – but Capra included him anyway.

    I felt happy about that. As though I have some personal stake in Hamilton’s reputation.

  9. Ken says:

    Well, shoot. If you can’t stick up for your dead not-gay boyfriend, who can you stick up for?

  10. phil says:

    Interesting. Stewart always told the story he went to the doctor and wanted a raspy throat.
    So Capra had that idea? hmmmm…

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