Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James Stewart and Jean Arthur
Jean Arthur, James Stewart and Thomas Mitchell

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is a comedy drama film made in 1939, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur. The movie received eleven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, even in the outstanding year of 'Gone With the Wind', 'Stagecoach', 'The Wizard of Oz', and other masterpieces, and won one Oscar, for Best Writing of an Original Screenplay.

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is the movie which established James Stewart as one of Hollywood's foremost stars. It is considered by many to be Frank Capra's greatest achievement and a cinematic masterpiece and is ranked at number twenty-six in the American Film Institute's List of Greatest Movies of All Time.

The film was among the best films of 1939 as listed by the New York Times and Film Daily and in 1989, it was added by the Library of Congress to the United States National Film Registry.

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' was a resounding success with both critics and the public. It made many millions at the box office, although the net profit to Columbia was only $168,500 due to its high negative cost and distribution expenses.

The movie received mixed reception on release. The public and major critics loved it but it was attacked by politicians in the U.S. Congress, and by the Washington press, as unpatriotic and even pro-Communist for its portrayal of corruption in the government and in big business.

The film's success stems from a combination of factors. It has a compelling story line, a first class script, a hard hitting idealistic message which still has relevance today, wonderful characters well acted by a superb cast and a happy ending.

The movie has lasted well and is still regarded as one of the most enjoyable movie classics of all time.


It is an honest movie which pulls no punches. James Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, an idealistic young man who is selected as a junior senator and who discovers at first hand how cynical and corrupt the political process can be. He doesn't give in, however and fights his case, and thus protects American values, with an impressive and unforgettable filibuster in the Senate chamber ending the movie on an upbeat note.


The original story was called "The Gentleman from Montana", written by Lewis R. Foster, a newspaperman turned Hollywood gag writer. The political content of the storyline put off several studios. Paramount and MGM considered it but were warned off by the Production Code's Joseph Breen, who objected to the unflattering portrayal of the American system of government.

The film rights were first bought by director Rouben Mamoulian for $1,500. He was more interested in filming 'Golden Boy' for Columbia and so sold the rights to Columbia's Harry Cohn for the same amount he paid for them.

Frank Capra at Columbia liked the story and saw it as a sequel to his successful 1936 film 'Mr.Deeds Goes to Town'. Gary Cooper was briefly considered to reprise his role from 'Deeds', but Capra quickly decided on the younger James Stewart, with Jean Arthur, both of whom he had directed in the 1938 Best Picture Oscar winner, 'You Can't Take It with You'.

Capra went on a research trip to Washington D. C., accompanied by screenwriter Sidney Buchman, a cameraman and a photographer. They sketched ideas for sets and shot photos and tried to see the city from a idealistic young person's point of view.

Filming in the Capitol Building was out of the question, and so Capra had an exact replica of the Senate chamber built at the Columbia studios.

Principal photography took about 80 days, starting in early March, 1939 and ending on July 7, 1939, eight days over schedule and over a quarter of a million dollars over budget.

In the scenes where Stewart is in the final part of his filibuster, Capra had his throat swabbed twice a day with mercury chloride, to make him sound hoarser.

The title "Boy Rangers" was used in the film as the American Boy Scouts would not allow their name to be used.


James Stewart is ideally cast as the naive but ultimately strong and triumphant, wholesome country boy. In 1939 he was already a well known actor but this movie made him a top Hollywood star. He was ably supported by a fine cast headed by Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains. The main villain, James Taylor, was played by Edward Arnold, who had also appeared in 'You Can't Take It with You'. For the important role of the President of the Senate, Capra found what he called "a strong American face" in Harry Carey, who had been acting in cowboy films since 1908 and who had befriended Capra at the start of Capra's career.

Jean Arthur was sensitive about how she photographed, and great care was taken in set design and construction so that she would be seen only on her "good" side.

Ma Smith, Jeff's mother, was played by character actress Beulah Bond. It was the third of five movies in which she played his mother. After 'Of Human Hearts' and 'Vivacious Lady' (both in 1938), she would later play Ma Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life' in 1946, and then again in an episode of the 'The Jimmy Stewart Show' in 1971.

Main Cast

James Stewart ... Jefferson Smith
Jean Arthur ... Clarissa Saunders
Claude Rains ... Senator Joseph Harrison Paine
Edward Arnold ... Jim Taylor
Guy Kibbee ... Governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper
Thomas Mitchell ... Diz Moore
Eugene Pallette ... Chick McGann
Beulah Bondi ... Ma Smith
H.B. Warner ... Senator Agnew
Harry Carey ... President of the Senate
Astrid Allwyn ... Susan Paine


Director ... Frank Capra
Producer ... Frank Capra
Production Company ... Columbia Pictures
Written by ... from an original story "The Gentleman from Montana" by Lewis R. Foster
Screenplay ... Sidney Buchman
Cinematography ... Joseph Walker
Musical Score ... Dimitri Tiomkin
Format ... B & W
Release Date ... 19 October, 1939
Running Time ... 125 minutes

Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Writing, Original Story ... Lewis R. Foster

Ten Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Columbia Pictures
Best Director ... Frank Capra
Best Actor ... James Stewart
Best Supporting Actor ... Harry Carey
Best Supporting Actor ... Claude Rains
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Sidney Buchman
Best Art Direction ... Lionel Banks
Best Film Editing ... Gene Havlick, Al Clark
Best Music, Scoring ... Dimitri Tiomkin
Best Sound Recording ... John P. Livadary