Frank Capra: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next few weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Though it was controversial at the time of its release, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of the best-loved of Frank Capra’s films, and may be considered the quintessential Capra movie. Themes and concepts we’ve seen in other of his films that also make an appearance here include corruption in the political process, unconventional (even unheroic) heroes, a villain who turns at the end, women with strength and character, and lost causes. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington also features the iconic filibuster sequence that celebrates the heroism of the American political process.

The story begins with the governor of an unnamed state in fly-over country trying to decide on a replacement for a recently deceased senator. His political bosses want him to select someone of their choosing, while popular committees prefer a reformer. The governor’s children suggest Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), head of the Boy Rangers. The governor eventually decides to flip a coin, heads for the corporate stooge, tails for the reformer; when the coin lands on its side next to a newspaper story about Smith, the governor decides that Smith’s wholesome appearance would appeal to the reformers while his inexperience would make him easy to manipulate.

When Smith is introduced, he’s nervous, awkward, and unpolished. When he arrives in Washington DC, he’s dazzled by the history of the Capitol and overwhelmed by the political process. He’s easy pickings for a press that sees a hick who’s unprepared for public life. Some of these themes echo similar themes in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, and even Platinum Blonde.

Among other lessons filmmakers can take from Mr. Smith is Capra’s dedication to characters and casting. Capra made sure that characters appearing on screen for only one scene remain in the audience’s consciousness. Small parts still serve an important function. In Mr. Smith, the President of the Senate (Harry Carey) has about 20 lines, but he serves as a surrogate for the audience, lending the character more importance than suggested by the paucity of lines.

Capra didn’t feature anti-heroes or leading characters with few redeeming characteristics because he thought the audience would care more what happens to a likeable character when he gets into trouble. He tried to make sure his villains weren’t cartoonish by giving them their own sense of ethics so they could think they were right. The conflict between opposing sides ensures that the hero, however good and sympathetic, would have to struggle for and earn his happy ending.

When it came to casting, Capra usually didn’t do screen tests—he preferred to talk with actors on a one-on-one basis, usually without asking them to read anything. He also didn’t let an actor’s reputation get in the way of casting. Jean Arthur, for example, had a reputation for being difficult to work with, but Capra considered it his job to get her on set; once there, she consistently delivered good performances,

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington features a more jaded look at Americans, particularly those in politics, than had been seen in earlier Capra pictures, but it stands out as probably his strongest statement on the change that can be effected by an individual citizen.


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