Saturday, February 29, 2020

Hurrah for Smith

This is my entry in the Leap Year Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room

In the history of the Academy Awards, the ceremony has only been held once on February 29. That year was 1939.  The turning point for the award in my opinion.  Prior to that only the most avid fans of movies and the Hollywood elite really cared about the award.  It certainly wasn't the mega-extravaganza that exists today.  (For one thing, awards ceremonies dispensed with a lot of the extraneous stuff and just handed out the awards without a lot of fanfare)

The 1939 award ceremony attracted a lot of attention, however.  Gone with the Wind was the odds on favorite in all 13 categories for which it was nominated (and it won in 8 of them).  But the biggest loser at the  Oscars that year would have to be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Competing with GWTW in many categories, and having 11 total nominations, Mr. Smith only managed to snag one of the golden statuettes, one of only a couple in which it was not in competition with the extravaganza.  That award was for Best Story.

James Stewart competed with Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler) for Best Actor.  But in an upset of gigantic proportions, in my opinion, the award actually went to Robert Donat for Goodbye Mr. Chips.  In almost every other category, however, the GWTW nominee topped the voting.  And despite the fact that GWTW is a fantastic film, the fact that the Stewart film failed to achieve more than one award is somewhat of a crime.

One could possibly be forgiven if they see a lot of George Bailey (It's a Wonderful Life) in Jefferson Smith.  Both are rather idealistic, and both feature James Stewart as a character who is rather uncomfortable in his immediate surroundings.  (Not to mention Stewart's iconic delivery as a stammering man who seems to be unable to marshal his thoughts to go along with his speech).

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939):

The junior senator has died.  (The actual state is unnamed, but it must be somewhere in the western part of the United States.  The capitol city, Jackson City, is fictional, so that does,t help.  However, the story which inspired the original play and film was titled "The Gentleman from Montana", which gives credence to some of the descriptions that Jefferson Smith gives to Clarissa Saunders during a private moment. ).  The governor, "Happy" Hopper (Guy Kibbee),  is pressured to name a replacement.  He has two names given to him, both of which are deemed by him as political dynamite, but he must get someone, and quick.

His children suggest a local hero, Jefferson  Smith (James Stewart).  But Smith is an unknown figure in politics.  His big claim to fame is his work in stopping a forest fire in the state.  But Hopper comes to the decision, by a strange coincidence during a flip of a coin, to get Smith as his nominee.

Of course the bigwigs of the political machine, including senior Sen. Paine (Claude Rains) and the political puppeteer Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) are initially not very receptive.  But they decide that such an innocent guy might be just the right choice after all if they can keep him in line with the current machinations going on in the state and the Senate.

See, there is some subterfuge going on. Read: graft.  A bill in the Senate has a rider to build a dam in the state and fund it with US dollars.  And some, including Taylor, stand to make big money because they have been buying up the land where the dam will be built.

Smith arrives in Washington not having much of a clue about his job.  And the press portray him as a yokel.  Which, when Smith finds out, doesn't set well with him.  But he has been told that the way to get his feet solidly in the Senate is to propose a bill.  He decides that his dream is the best option; he wants to build a national Boys Camp in the state, with a loan from the government to be paid back by  boys across the country, in nickels and dimes donated by them.

Unfortunately for Smith, his chosen location is in the exact same spot as the dam that the political machine is trying to get approved.

Smith learns of this and is disapproving, losing his faith in a longtime family friend, Sen. Paine.  He is seen as a threat, so bigwig Taylor and Paine conspire to get him ejected from the Senate.  Taylor uses his wiles to get Smith discredited, framing him as having bought up the land around the proposed dam/boys camp himself for profit.  And despite the efforts of the boys in the state to clear his name, Smith is convicted of subterfuge and is on the dock to be removed from the Senate at the next session.

Smith, with the help of his secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), launches a filibuster to prevent his expulsion, and hopefully derail the dam.  A twenty-three hour filibuster, we are led to know, which includes reading the United States Constitution, word for word.  But because of Taylor's machinations, even his home state is against him.

It looks like Smith is going to be fighting a losing battle.  You can't beat the system, he is told.  But Smith has ideals and he thinks that having right on his side will win in the end.  But its not looking good for our hero.

Capra had a hell of a time bringing this movie to the big screen.  For one thing, the real US government was highly objectionable to the poor treatment it received in the script.  And Joseph Breen, the head of the censoring committee in Hollywood at the time warned the production that the script might not be .accepted if it painted a dim light on the Democratic form of government.  This was due more to how the world at large might view the government rather than the US citizenry, but be that as it may.

Fortunately for us, the film did get a go sign, and it was filmed in the spring and summer of 1939.  It didn't set well with the Washington press at it's premiere, and was attacked as being "pro-Communist" for its presentation of the government as corrupt. Capra claimed that some senators even walked out during it's premier at Constitution Hall.  The movie was banned in Europe, especially in Hitler's Germany.

But Washington, and the world at large, were just minor dissenters to the film.  The film got better press from critics who were not in line with the politics of Washington.  Most of the press of the time was more acceptable to the film.  It has since been named in the top 20 of many lists as one of the greatest films of all time, and many consider it to be one of Capra's greatest films.  And as noted above, it was a big winner in the nominations category at the Oscars, (even if it only won one.)  The film, probably quite fairly, is labeled as "Capra-corn" because of its overt sentimentality, but it does have its inspiration.

Drive home safely, folks.



  1. Capra's movie is a testament to the ideals that were the basis for your country and it drives home the point that citizens must be vigilant if they ever hope to reach those high ideals.

    Frank Capra really knew how to cast his movies and use those amazing character actors. I appreciate his ability more and more.

    1. I got some realy good insight into Capra when I read a book called "Five Came Back"by Mark Harris. Thanks for reading.

  2. Ah, that's cool about the Oscars only being held once on Leap Day. And I agree with you--Stewart was robbed. Thanks again for joining the blogathon, Quiggy. :-)

  3. A perfect movie, next to Wonderful Life my favorite Capra. Jimmy Stewart forever, especially in his two Capra roles.
    - C

    1. I have a soft spot for IAWL. But this one is just as good. Thanks for reading.


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