The Christian Science Monitor
By Richard L. Strout
Washington, October 17, 1939
In the midst of his cares as Majority Leader piloting the neutrality debate through Congress, Senator Alben W. Barkley (D) of Kentucky stopped long enough in a corridor of the Senate to express his views forcibly and at length about Mr. Smith Goes toWashington.... He declared he spoke not only for himself but for the entire Senate in his condemnation. The picture, he declared, was a "grotesque distortion" of the way the Senate is run.... "As grotesque as anything I have ever seen! Imagine the Vice President of the United States winking at a pretty girl in the gallery in order to encourage a filibuster! Can you visualize Jack Garner winking up at Hedy Lamarr in order to egg her on?"
Other correspondents tried to turn attention to the neutrality debate, but Senator Barkley was not to be distracted. He continued: . . .
"And it showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record! At one place the picture shows the Senators walking out on Mr. Smith as a body when he is attacked by a corrupt member. The very idea of the Senate walking out at the behest of that old crook! It was so grotesque it was funny. It showed the Senate made up of crooks, led by crooks, listening to a crook . . . It was so vicious an idea it was a source of disgust and hilarity to every member of Congress who saw it."
"Didn't some of the members praise it?" asked the reporter.
"I didn't hear a single Senator praise it," said Senator Barkley. "I speak for the whole body. The vote was 96 to none and no filibuster."
Senator Barkley's statements seemed to be echoed through Congress.
He declared that Senator Burton K. Wheeler (D) of Montana, who shared Mr. Capra's box at the premiere, felt as he did.
Senator James F. Byrnes (D) of South Carolina called the pictured. "outrageous . . . exactly the kind of picture that dictators of totalitarian governments would like to have their subjects believe exists in a democracy...."
More fire than smoke flares behind the scenes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington . . . insiders here look for an early and smashing retaliation. Passing of the Neely anti-block booking bill, a backcrusher to the present distributing set-up of the film business, is predicted for early January . ..
Philadelphia, Pa., Inquirer
. . . Now and again you hear it said that foreign countries interpret life in America from what they see in American-made pictures. They're going to get a fine idea of the United States Senate when they take a squint at Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They're going to get the idea that we reach into jails for our Senators and into the insane asylum for our reformers. ..
Kansas City Journal:
. The bewildered young Senator Smith symbolizes those figures who arise occasionally to challenge the dragons. Those they would dethrone brand them as radicals and eccentrics and seek to discredit their motives. There is a distressing amount of evidence that without them, there would be government of, by, and for boodlers.
. . . The Freedom of the Press has used its liberties to the hilt in printed denunciations which would make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington taste like orange juice to arsenic . . . Let him go again and again, say I, and rip the Capitol Dome wide open, if it gives us pictures like this latest of Frank Capra....
The high privilege of being an American citizen finds its best and most effective expression in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Its real hero is not calfy Jeff Smith, but the things he believes, as embodied in the hero of U.S. Democracy's first crisis, Abraham Lincoln. Its big moment is . . . when Jefferson Smith stands gawking in the Lincoln Memorial, listening to a small boy read from a tablet the question with which this film faces everyone who sees it: "Whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."
The National Board of Review, October 1939:
Never before has he [Capra] touched upon anything closer to what Americans should take a vital interest in than this story of the adventures of Mr. Ordinary Citizen in the legislative halls of the nation....
Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Best of all, it deals with "us," with our "lives," with "our form of government"; it is exciting, patriotic, and hard-hitting all the way through . . . Time after time Mr. Capra stresses that only in America could one man fight this lone battle and win. . .
New York Daily Mirror's Editorial Page:
There is a great movie at the Radio City Music Hall . . . Mr. Smith Goes to Washington . . . That respect for the traditions of democracy, that persistent overtone of the spirit that fired every great American in history, is not present in this movie by accident. One man is responsible....
Frank Capra does with a movie what Sinclair Lewis does with books, what Arthur Brisbane did with a column, what Will Rogers did with his wit. He "holds the mirror" up to America . . . [His] achievement in translating America onto film is all the more remarkable, because . . . he was born in Sicily.
Let his simple devotion to America be an example to the Browders and the Kuhns.
. . . Mr. Smith presents one of those dazzling simple revelations of human values in which Mr. Capra excels. His creed has always been, blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Homely kindness, shy good sense, and just a touch of dogged reverence, are always for him the panoply of heroes. Chesterton's little Father Brown could have walked and talked with such men, and shared their silences, and loved them. .
Mr. Capra Goes Someplace
Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is going to be the big movie explosion of the year, and reviewers are going to think twice and think sourly before they'll want to put it down for the clumsy and irritating thing it is. It is a mixture of tough, factual patter about Congressional cloakrooms and pressure groups, and a naive but shameless hooraw for the American relic--Parson Weems at a flag-raising. It seems just the time | for it, just the time of excitement when a barker in good voice could mount the tub, point toward the flag, say ubbah-ubbah-ubbah and a pluribus union? and the windows would shake. But where all this time is Director Capra?
I'm afraid Mr. Capra began to leave this world at some point during the production of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, his best picture. Among those who admired him from the start I know only Alistair Cooke who called the turn when Deeds came out. Writing in England, Cooke confessed to "an uneasy feeling he's on his way out. He's started to make movies about themes instead of people." When Lost Horizon appeared, I thought our Mr. Capra was only out to lunch, but Cooke had it. You Can't Take It with You in the following year (1938) made it pretty evident that Capra had forgotten about people for good. He had found out about thought and was going up into the clouds to think some. From now on, his continued box-office triumph and the air up there being what they are, he is a sure thing to stay, banking checks, reading Variety, and occasionally getting overcast and raining on us. Well, he was a great guy.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the story of how a leader of Boy Rangers was sent to the Senate by the state political machine because he was popular, honest, and dumb. Washington is a shrine to him. So as he gawps around lost for a whole day, throw in thousands of feet of what can only be called a montagasm, buildings, monuments, statues, immortal catchphrases in stone. But before we go any farther, what's the payoff? It is that this priceless boy scout grew up as the son of a small-town editor so staunchly against the interests that they shot him for it under the boy's nose; after which he read American history so widely and fiercely that he knew the Constitution and the cherry tree by heart.
The story goes farther, of course, more than two hours' worth. The boy thinks he falls in love, and then falls in love without thinking so. From these personal relations he learns that he has been a chump. He starts a filibuster (the honest-man-in-court scene Capra has found so successful he won't be without it) in which he says some fine things for liberty and the better world. And it is so harrowing on all concerned that just after he passes out his colleague shoots himself, and the American way is straight again.
Politically, the story is eyewash. The machinery of the Senate and the machinery of how it may be used to advantage are shown better than they ever have been. But the main surviving idea is that one scout leader who knows the Gettysburg Address by heart but wouldn't possibly be hired to mow your lawn can throw passionate faith into the balance and by God we've got a fine free country to live in again. There are some fine lines and there is a whole magazine of nice types; but the occasional humor is dispersed and the people are embarrassed by just the slugging, unimaginative sort of direction that Capra became famous for avoiding. When the hero is supposed to be made innocent, they write him down an utter fool; when there is supposed to be evil, wickedness triumphs as slick as pushing a button. James Stewart was made fairly ridiculous; Jean Arthur couldn't be; Edward Arnold, Thomas Mitchell, and Eugene Pallette also withstood all such assaults. Claude Rains for once was just right for the part, and Harry Carey was there, fine as ever. But it was everybody for himself, which is a hell of a state of things in movies. The only good sequence was the lovely bit where Miss Arthur and friend got very tight by degrees, and by degrees more reckless and tearful, until they weave up to tell little boy blue that somebody swiped his horn. This seems a case of winning by a lapse; it is like the old Capra, and pretty lonesome.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Here is Capra, without the help of Riskin, back to his finest form--the form of Mr. Deeds. It has always been an interesting question, how much Capra owed to his faithful scenario writer. Now it is difficult to believe that Riskin's part was ever very important, for all the familiar qualities are here--the exciting close-ups, the sudden irrelevant humour, the delight--equal to that of the great Russians--in the ordinary human face. (Claude Rains has not got an ordinary human face, and for that reason he seems out of place and histrionic, great actor though he is, in a Capra film.)
The story is regulation Capra in praise of simplicity and virtue and acting naturally. As a tale it is a little Victorian: it is not that we are less moved by virtue in these days, but we are more aware of how the author cheats--virtue is not bound to win, and the easy moral of a Capra tale comes dangerously close to a Benthamite apothegm about honesty being the best policy. Young Jefferson Smith, acted with a kind of ideal awkwardness by James Stewart, is appointed a senator to fill an unexpired term: he is a leader whose guilelessness is considered useful by the other State Senator, Joseph Paine, and his business boss, Jim Taylor.
They are putting over a tricky piece of graft and they don't want a new senator who can see his way. So Smith goes up to Washington with his naive ideals and his patriotism (he knows Lincoln's speeches off by heart) and his sense of responsibility: he feels rapture at the sight of the Capitol dome, stands like a worshipper below the bony marble fingers of the Lincoln statue, and Paine entertains him and sidetracks him.
Then suddenly Smith's secretary, with all the harsh, don't-give-a- twopenny-curse charm of Miss Jean Arthur, opens his eyes to the real Washington, where you can't look round a monument without starting a grafter. He refuses to be a party to fraud and Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) proceeds to break him--papers are forged, witnesses perjure themselves, he is declared by a Committee of the Senate unworthy to hold his seat. "Beautiful," says a reporter at the framed inquiry, "that Taylor machine." But Smith won't surrender; when the Senators refuse to listen to him, he takes advantage of the Constitution and holds the floor for 23 hours, hoping that his State will support him--in vain because the newspapers have been bought by Taylor. This constitutional battle of one man against the Senate is among the most exciting sequences the screen has given us. But it is a fairy tale, so Smith wins: Joseph Paine, like a Dickensian Scrooge, is caught by conscience, and I imagine it is easier for us, than for an American who knows his country's politics, to suspend disbelief.
It is a great film, even though it is not a great story, acted by a magnificent cast, so that Capra can afford to fling away on tiny parts men like Eugene Pallette, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell and Harry Carey. A week later one remembers vividly the big body of Pallette stuck in a telephone box, the family dinner of the weak crooked Governor (Kibbee) whom even his children pester over the nomination, the whole authentic atmosphere of big bland crockery between boss and politician--the "does" and the "Jims," the Christian names and comradeship, the wide unspoken references, and one remembers too the faces chosen and shot with Capra care--worried political faces, Grub Street faces, acquisitive social faces and faces that won't give themselves away.
The London Sunday Graphic, November 19, 1939
I doubt if any government in the world today would allow itself to be so freely criticized in the press, in pictures, on the air, as does the American. And Capra, Italian-born immigrant who once sold newspapers, is exercising every American's privilege in lambasting certain phases of life in the country of his adoption.
That doesn't mean, however, that Capra isn't a thoroughly patriotic American.
On the contrary.
I'd call Mr. Smith Goes to Washington just about the best American patriotic film ever made. There's only one that might equal it, if Frank could ever be persuaded to make it, and that is Mr. Capra Goes to America.
The Hollywood Reporter, November 4, 1942
"When the ban became known," the Nachrichten's correspondent reveals, "the French people flocked to the cinemas to get seats for the last showing of an American film. In many provincial theatres Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in the original English version, was chosen for the occasion and a special farewell gala performance was staged."
Storms of spontaneous applause broke out at the sequence when, under the Abraham Lincoln monument in the capital, the word "Liberty" appeared on the screen and the Stars and Stripes began fluttering over the head of the great Emancipator in the cause of liberty.
Similarly cheers and acclamation punctuated the famous speech of the young senator on man's rights and dignity. "It was," writes the Nachrichten's correspondent, "as though the joys, suffering, love and hatred, the hopes and wishes of an entire people who value freedom above everything, found expression for the last time . . ."
Amplifying on this defiance of Nazi oppression, the Army News Service sent me word that one theater in a French village in the Vosges Mountains played Mr. Smith continuously during the last thirty days before the ban.