Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

It’s Thursday, and we’re trying something new around here. Each week, we’ll feature one of the most highly acclaimed items in our collection, chosen from lists like the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films, The BBC’s Big Read, and School Library Journal’s Top 100 Picture Books. In addition to a quick review, we’ll make sure to include some fun tidbits about the book or movie and its creation. What can we say? We’re librarians – of course we love trivia.

This week’s selection is number 26 on the AFI’s list of the  100 Greatest American Films.

SneakyWoke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? Feeling down in the dumps? In the midst of a sneaky hate spiral? (Be warned that there’s some strong language in that link.) We all have those days that try our patience, test our sanity, and make us worry about the state of mankind. The worst part is that some cruel twist of fate makes those days last longer than normal.

For me, there are only two fail-safe means of escaping a sneaky hate spiral kind of day–going to sleep or watching a Frank Capra movie. Sleep works really well when it happens. Unfortunately, I have insomniac tendencies, especially when there’s a full moon (I’m not a werewolf, I swear!), and sometimes movies are my only option. In those cases, Capra never lets me down. His films have a certain magic about them that not only improves my mood and outlook, but restores my entire faith in humanity.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the perfect example. Small town scout leader Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is chosen by corrupt state officials to fill the seat of a recently deceased U.S. Senator. They intend to manipulate the naïve young man, but he quickly proves himself entirely dedicated and honorable. He proposes a bill for a government loan to sponsor a national boys’ camp, but his plans interfere with a graft scheme for which he is framed. Things seem impossible, but Smith fights back with a legendary filibuster.

I will not yield

“No, sir, I will not yield!”

Although Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is now considered a patriotic classic, it was surprisingly controversial when it was released. A few examples:

  • The Boy Scouts of America refused to have their name used in the film and according to the New York Times “objected to having any part in Capra’s reform movement.”
  • The U.S. Park Service would not allow the crew to film at Washington D.C. landmarks. They did it anyway.
  • The Hays Office initially recommended against making the film, worrying that it would be seen as an attack on the United States government, especially the Senate.
  • 45 U.S. Senators attended the film’s premiere in Washington D.C., and Capra claimed in his autobiography that several of them walked out of the screening.
  • The Senate Majority Leader at the time, Alan W. Barkley, hated the movie and complained that it “showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!”
  • One journalist even called for passage of a bill allowing theater owners to opt out of showing the film for patriotic reasons.

Who knew Frank Capra, a.k.a. Mr. It’s a Wonderful Life, was such a rebel?

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" James Stewart 1939 Columbia **I.V.

How do you like me now, Boy Scouts?

In spite of the controversy, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is delightful. Watch it and feel better about your life and the fate of the country.


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