Washinton DC in Film: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–How Different Countries Reacted

In Frank Capra’s political film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939),  the best-known scene is the climactic filibuster that Jimmy Stewart’s Senator Jefferson Smith launches to show the country the truth about what’s going on behind the scenes of Washington’s politics.

To execute that scene, a perfect replica of the Senate floor was built on the back lot of Columbia for $100,000.  Since theoretically, the scene takes twenty-three hours, Stewart’s throat was painted with a mercury solution, mercuric chloride.

American Reaction

During the Depression era, there was restricted travel and domestic tourism, but the movie revived great interest in seeing the national landmarks of Washington D. C., particularly the Lincoln Memorial.

For obvious reasons, there has been strong reaction to that sequence.  It was a shocking thought that there could be such scale of corruption in American politics.  World War II had begun in Europe only a few weeks earlier, in September 1939, just after Nazi invasion of Poland.  As a result, a criticism of America was perceived to be ill-timed, mal-a-propos.

Former president Ronald Reagan once noted: “You may remember that when Jimmy Stewart stands in the well of the Senate and says that lost causes are ‘the only causes worth fighting for, because of one plain simple rule:  love thy neighbor.'”

In 1987, Stewart attended a benefit screening of the film to raise funds for the renovation of the National Press Club’s library, which is included in the film.

However, back in 1939, the National Press Club screening of the movie in D. C. did not go well.  Paul Leach, Chicago Daily News staff in Washington, led a revolt in the National Press Club against the Club-sponsored screening. There were 4,000 people in attendance, and quite a few were displeased.  Reportedly, one third of the screening guests walked out, with one Senator charging,  “This really stinks!”

On October 22, 1939, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Stirs Senators–and How!  Film Premiere Rouses Anger and May Lead to Passage of Anti-Bloc-Booking Bill.”

United Kingdom

Senate majority leader Alben Barkley of Kentucky called “Mr. Smith” a “grotesque distortion,” complaining that the film portrayed the “world’s greatest deliberative body” as an “aggregation of nincompoops.”  Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, called the picture “an indictment of our government” that would cause “inestimable harm” to America’s image.


In 1942, during the German occupation of France, several theater owners protested the collaborative Vichy government’s ban on American films by showing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  People flocked to provincial movie houses to see the film, cheering loudly when the word “Liberty” appeared in the film against the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s considered one of the very last expressions of freedom in France. The movie was shown in one French theater for thirty days straight as a protest before the Nazis barred it.

A Wartime dispatch later stated: “It was as though the joys, suffering, love and hatred, the hopes and wishes of an entire people who value freedom above everything found expression for the last time.”

Soviet Union Propaganda

However, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was shown in Moscow as anti-American propaganda around 1950.  The screening drew big crowds to Capra’s film, which was retitled “Senator.”  Prints were available in Europe before and after WWII, and the Soviets probably got hold of one of the copies.

The print shown in the Soviet Union was tempered with, and Columbia protested to the U. S. State Department that the Soviet censors have forced a new, different ending to the story.