Obama Presidential Inauguration: Restoring Faith in Politics and Politicians

January 20, 2009

Obama’s Presidential Inauguration: On this important day, it’s interesting to revisit one of the best films about the American political system, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, made 70 years ago but still very timely today.

In Frank Capra’s classic, still timely political film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart is perfectly cast as a naïve country bumpkin, a young Senator who becomes the guardian of the most scared American democratic ideals.


“The Man from Montana,” as Lewis R. Foster’s original story was first called, had been making the rounds in Hollywood for years until the federal antitrust action was filed and studios decided to take a risk and make overtly political films.


Like the protags of other Capra’s films, most notably “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) with Gary Cooper, Stewart’s Jefferson Smith begins as a simple, idealistic senator from a nameless state.  (In the original screenplay, he’s named as a product of Montana).  He’s chosen by Washington’s cynical and corrupt politicians to replace a recently deceased senator, hoping they can manipulate him into being a yes man. Prime among the conspirators is the state’s esteemed senior senator, Joseph Paine (played by the suave Claude Rains). 


Smith sets off for Washington full of ideals and dreams of working with his cherished idol Paine, failing to realize that he is expected to be no more than a rubber stamp for a plan to finance a new dam that will profit only Paine and his decadent clique.


Almost as cynical as the politicians, the Washington media pokes fun at the gullible neophyte.  However, his idealism appeals to his secretary, Saunders, played by Jean Arthur, a quintessential actress in Capra’s earlier screwball comedy, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”


In a gender reversal, in the beginning Saunders serves as a mentor of sorts to the innocent and presumably out of touch Smith.  Unfazed by the press or politicians, he sets out to expose those who exploit the masses and distort and tarnished the country’s true value system.


The Production Code objected to Mr. Smith taking a drink before going back to his filibuster fight in the senate.  They also raised concerns over the portrayal of newspapermen and publishers as “drunkards and thugs” in the film  The labeling of U.S. Senate members as “performing monkeys” was also deemed problematic and asked to be deleted, as the word monkey was mentioned more than once.


It was a shocking thought that there could be corruption like that in Washington D.C.  Consider Senator Fletcher’s statement: “When you enter there, you leave those ideals outside the door.”  Censor Joseph Breen wanted the head of Columbia Harry Cohn to just have a few bad senators and to depict the rest as sturdy, honest and idealistic; the bad senators were supposed to be the exception to the rule.


For some critics, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is yet another sentimental Capracorn parable, but the film is well directed and delivers its worthy messages with humor and verve.  A masterly shrewd director, Capra knows that it’s the emotions and feelings of the characters, not their attitudes and speeches, that will appeal to the movie public and make both reel and real impact.


After several years in the business, this is the movie that catapulted Jimmy Stewart to major stardom in a vantage year, which also saw him appearing in the hit comedy Western “Destry Rides Again,” opposite Marlene Dietrich.


The ensemble cast is brilliant, including Hollywood’s best character actors: Thomas Mitchell, Edward Arnold, William Demarest, and especially Harry Carey, as the vice-president, who received for his part his only Oscar nomination (as Supporting Actor).


Oscar Nominations: 10


Picture, produced by Frank Capra

Director: Frank Capra

Original Story:  Lewis R. Foster

Screenplay: Sidney Buchman

Actor: James Stewart

Supporting Actor: Claude Raines

Supporting Actor: Harry Carey

Interior Decoration: Lionel Banks

Film Editing: Gene Havlick and Al Clark

Sound Recording: John Livadary


Oscar Awards: 1


Original Story


Oscar Context


In what’s considered to be the best year in Hollywood’s history, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington competed for the Best Picture Oscar with nine other films: Dark Victory, Gone With the Wind, which swept most of the Oscars, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights.  The year’s most nominated films were Gone With the Wind, with 11 nods, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with 10, winning only one award.


Harry Carey and Claude Rains lost the Supporting Actor Oscar to their colleague in the film, Thomas Mitchell, who won for the alcoholic doctor in “Stagecoach.”  In 1939, Mitchell was also seen as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in “Gone With the Wind.”


The Best Actor Oscar went to Brit Robert Donat for playing the teacher in the melodrama, “Goodbye Mr. Chips.”  The Sound Oscar went to Bernard B. Brown for “When Tomorrow Comes,” and the Scoring Oscar to Richard Hageman, Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken for Stagecoach,” which boasted a nine-minute chase scene.


See Comment on Cultural Reactions to the Movie