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Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (May 20, 2008)

When Frank Capra read a synopsis of a story called “The Gentleman from Montana”, he was struck by its similarity in tone to his previous big hit, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. Instantly, he knew he wanted to star Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur as the boys’ club leader appointed to the Senate and his secretary.

Capra hired Jim Preston as technical advisor because he had been former superintendent of the Senate press gallery. Preston insisted that all the minor details of Washington life (and of the Senate chamber) be duplicated exactly in the studio, down to the lock on the Senate clock. The clock had been locked to keep senators from moving the hands forward so they could adjourn in time to go to the ball game.

In his autobiography The Name Above The Title, Capra says that in this film, he invented a way to surround the actors, in their close-ups, with the exact reality that had surrounded them in the master shot. Just to explain, in a film there is often an establishing shot, called a master shot, in which the actors involved in a scene are shown together. Following that a series of closeups track the several actors as they speak their lines. The master shots, and the closeups, were of course never filmed simultaneously, and were rarely even filmed on the same day. The actors had difficulty remembering their expressions or tones of voice from the master shot. Capra recorded the actual sound track of the master shot on a phonograph record as well as on film, and then played it back to the actors as they were filmed in the closeup. The result was a seamless blend between the master and the closeup shots.

The film was produced from April to July 1939 and was released the following October. There are 186 speaking parts in this film. Jimmy Stewart’s hoarseness during his Senate speech was induced by swabbing his throat with mercury chloride. Capra said he chose Thomas Mitchell for the part of the newspaperman Diz, because he was left-handed and “Southpaws were immediate ‘characters’ – full of surprises. Like doors that open the wrong way, clocks that run backward.” Harry Carey was cast as the Vice President after Capra saw his “rugged Yankee puss” in an actors’ directory. He was a veteran cowboy actor appearing in films since 1908. Yet, in take after take, he muffed his lines in the scene where he administers the oath of office to Smith. Capra took him aside, after a break, and said “You are just one heart tick away from the White House. Forget Harry Carey the cowboy actor. Swear this new Senator in as Harry Carey the Vice President of the United States.” On that take, Carey succeeded. This film won an Oscar for best original story. It was nominated for best picture and best screenplay, Capra for best director, Stewart for best actor, and Carey and Claude Rains for best supporting actor.

The three films that most characterize Capra’s concern with the fairness and justice that he felt America stood for are Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and Meet John Doe, which he made in 1940 after he left Columbia. They form a trilogy. Meet John Doe, with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, is in the public domain, and many DVD publishers have it in their catalogs. Some of these versions are poor transfers, so I was uneasy about scheduling Meet John Doe. However, this library has bought a copy of Meet John Doe. I’ve watched it, and it’s a really good transfer. So for extra credit, take Meet John Doe out the next time you visit the library. I think you’ll like it. But tonight’s movie, Mr. Smith is for many people the best remembered, quintessential Capra film, and I hope you enjoy it tonight.