New Perspectives on the Reception of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is without a doubt one of the most popular movies of the Classical Hollywood era. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and is considered to be one of Frank Capra’s finest films. It tells the story of Jefferson Smith, a Boy Scouts leader who was appointed to the US Senate by a corrupt political machine. As the plot progresses, Smith realizes what he has been involved in and attempts to fight the corrupt politicians. The movie is a classic tale about American democracy, idealism and, like many other Capra’s movies, the struggle between the common man and the corrupt system. With the help of Saunders, his female assistant, Jefferson Smith goes to battle for the soul of America. The film benefits from a distinctive combination of comedy, melodrama and romance. This, along with Capra’s established status and the masterful performances of James Stewart and Jean Arthur, makes Mr. Smith a landmark, classic film that is worth academic consideration.
The film has been widely written on by scholars who proposed different readings of the film. One of the interpretations says that the movie questions representative democracy as a system of government.1 Not only does the film not end on a unanimously good, positive note, but it also shows the US Senate as corrupt. Joseph Kennedy, then US ambassador to the United Kingdom, believed the film should not be released abroad as it undermined democracy in already difficult times when fascism was on the rise in Europe.2 Yet, today this movie is considered to be one of Capra’s masterpieces.
Frank Capra, born in 1897 in Sicily, emigrated to the US at the age of five. Capra always idealized America and its symbols, especially the Statue of Liberty, which was apparently one of the first things he saw in the United States.3 Capra attempted to create a personal mythology around himself which was largely exposed by his biographer, Joseph McBride. While Capra was not a self-made man who lived in the ghetto, as he liked to claim,4 it cannot be denied that Capra went through several jobs to fund his college education.5 His life experiences as an Italian immigrant certainly enriched his directorial abilities. Capra knew America well, and this enabled him to sell his vision of the country to his audiences, which contributed largely to his success as a director.
Capra himself said that his films are non-political,6 but this is hard to believe this for several reasons. First of all, Capra made his political sympathies quite open. He stated outright that he consistently supported Republican candidates for president, even in 1936-the year of one of America’s greatest election landslides in history.7 Furthermore, Capra initially wanted to make Jefferson Smith a senator from Illinois, who would be fighting the notorious Cook County Democratic political machine, which exposes his personal views.8 This leads to the conclusion that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington must be interpreted as a political movie.
This article will concentrate on studying the reception of Mr. Smith at the time of its release. The time span of this work is limited to those years because contemporary events such as the economic crisis had a decisive influence on how audiences received the film. The movie’s message without a doubt resonated better with Americans living in the late 1930s or early 1940s than any time later. When the film was released, the US was still at a crossroads and the country was going through one of the decisive periods in its history. This, as will be demonstrated, had an enormous influence on how the movie was received. This article also hopes to become a blueprint for future scholars who would like to reconsider Classic Hollywood movies by reconsidering them through the lens of contemporary politics.
The Reception Studies methodology allows film historians to consider the relationship between the filmmaker, culture, history and audiences. Works by Eric Smoodin and Janet Staiger, among many others, contributed to Reception Studies becoming a prominent way of analyzing cinema. This study of the reception of this movie will naturally be informed both by the most important political events of the 1930s USA and by the movie’s ideology. Staiger argued in one of her books that reception studies must treat the viewer as influenced by contemporary political factors.9 For this reason, when analyzing the reception of Mr. Smith, many possible explanations for the movie’s popularity among specific audiences will be proposed. The leading argument in the article will be that because the movie is so ideologically mixed, it was able to enjoy broad approval in both Republican and Democratic areas, as later analysis will show. Furthermore, because of its universal messaging, it appealed to both rural and urban America.
The only academic reception study of Mr. Smith has been written by Eric Smoodin as one of the chapters in Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930-1960.10 While it is a commendable piece of work, Smoodin’s analysis of the film’s reception in America at the time of its release is too broad. He does not give enough attention to specific political events of the time that contributed to the movie’s reception. What makes this article interesting is that it offers a new approach to the reception of Mr. Smith. More attention will be given to Americans’ voting behavior and American history of the late 1930s. Like Smoodin’s, this study is informed by the “What The Picture Did For Me” column from The Motion Picture Herald to analyze the movie’s reception in small-town America. In addition to that, critical reviews and articles published in local newspapers will be considered. By looking at the reception of the film in different parts of America, with different voting patterns and cultural backgrounds, it will be proved that, due to its ideological ambiguity, the film was enthusiastically received all around the United States.
To begin with, it is important to remember that by 1939, Frank Capra was already a well-known director with an established reputation among Americans. Prior to the release of Mr. Smith, Capra released such hits as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Because Capra’s pictures were held in high regard by American cinemagoers, it is clear that audiences had very clear expectations when going to see Mr. Smith. Both James Stewart and Jean Arthur were already rather well-known movie stars at the time, which, combined with Capra’s reputation, had set high expectations among audiences.
It is also important to note that exhibitors were encouraged to make the movie seem as realistic as possible. Showmen’s Trade Review recommended numerous stunts through which cinema owners could create a realistic background for the movie. These included organizing parades with senators, convincing mayors to proclaim “Smith days”, involving local Boy Scouts or referencing upcoming elections when advertising the picture.11 There is no doubt that these advertising methods had an influence on the reception of the movie and helped to create an aura of authenticity around it. Eric Smoodin argues that this created an atmosphere that made watching the movie an exercise in citizenship and a patriotic act.12
Among the American press, the consensus seemed to be that the movie was indeed an exercise in citizenship and an entertaining one as well. The reviews of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in American newspapers from different states prove that the movie was indeed universally approved of. One reviewer from The Miami Herald said that “[…] this film takes the ideals of liberty and freedom out of the history book, dusts them off, and makes them live again in modern America.”13, while The New York Times’s Frank Nugent called Capra a true believer in democracy.14 Not only do those reviews praise the film, but they also see it as embodying American ideals, a picture that everyone should see. Even the communist Daily Worker enthusiastically praised the movie as the best picture of 1939.15 Other newspapers saw the movie as a genuine warning about how Americans could lose their freedoms because of political corruption.16 The fact that both the mainstream American press and a newspaper such as Daily Worker gave praise to Mr. Smith proves that Capra’s film had a unique appeal. Not only Democrats and Republicans, but even people from the far-left of the political spectrum could find something positive in the movie.
In addition to that, negative responses to the movie from some American senators contributed to its popularity. Most notably, Senator Alben Barkley called the film “silly and stupid” and said that the picture “makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks”.17 Given the general distrust of the government in the aftermath of the Great Depression, it is clear that such comments coming from a senator could serve as an endorsement for the movie as they only dragged further attention towards it. The State Department was also critical of the film as it thought that it ridiculed the American system of governance.18 Furthermore, one Washington correspondent described the movie as “little short of an affront both to our representative form of government and to the Washington newspaper fraternity.”, calling the movie a fantasy that plays into Stalin’s, Hitler’s and Mussolini’s narrative about democracy.19
Again, the problem here is that the criticism comes from a Washington correspondent-someone who can be labeled as an insider. Since the movie criticizes elites per se, it is rather expected that members and allies of the Washington establishment would dislike it. Unsurprisingly, that such reviews had no impact on the reception of the movie by most Americans, as will be shown in the following paragraphs.
Those reviews that were at least somewhat skeptical about the movie were much gentler in their tone in comparison to those mentioned above. Herbert Cohn appreciated the film but said that its story is not very probable,20 and Donald Kirkley called it naïve.21 The Los Angeles Times thought that while the movie is praiseworthy, it is not an actual representation of how the Senate works.22 These examples show that while some reviewers did not treat the movie as exposing Washington’s corruption, they still recommended the film to their readers. It is clear, therefore, that Mr. Smith never received harsh criticism from the popular press at the time. This further reinforces the argument that Capra’s film was universally enjoyed in America at the time. The only individuals who were genuinely upset at the movie were those whom the film allegedly exposed. One Texas editor believed that one of the reasons why Mr. Smith saw high attendance was because Washington insiders disliked it.23 For a movie that is often labeled as “Populist” by scholars,24 there is no greater praise than being criticized by those who are targeted by it.
As demonstrated, the movie received very positive reviews from newspapers based in major American cities from Texas to New York. These newspaper reviews prove that Capra’s film achieved great popularity among Americans from all parts of the country, which, considering the cultural differences between various regions of the United States, is no easy task. However, to obtain a full picture of the movie’s reception and prove the argument that the movie was approved both by Democrats and Republicans, it is imperative to consider how small-town America viewed Mr. Smith.
The most useful tool to do that is the “What the Picture Did For Me” column in the Motion Picture Herald, which allowed small-town exhibitors to share their thoughts about specific movies that they have screened. As Kathryn Fuller-Seeley says, the column featured letters from theatre operators from towns of 5,000 or fewer inhabitants, mostly from the Midwest and Mountain states.25 The exhibitors themselves believed that their audiences accurately reflected the demographics of their towns-mostly White and with roughly as many men as women.26 This makes the column the best source for studying small-town audiences in America that is available to film historians.
Analysis of these columns from the movie’s premiere up until late 1940 confirms the argument that the movie was well-received in various parts of America. As it will be now proved, viewers from counties with very different voting patterns praised the movie equally. Regardless of political allegiance, Americans found reasons to enjoy the movie. Unlike many other films, Mr. Smith was also enthusiastically received to the same extent among small-town and urban audiences which, as Fuller-Seeley shows, was rarely the case.27 This shows that Capra’s picture enjoyed universal approval both in urban and rural America.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic response to the movie came from Waldoboro in Maine. Interestingly, Lincoln County, in which the town is based, was Alf Landon’s eleventh strongest county (and second strongest among counties with a population of more than 7,000 inhabitants) in the entire United States in the 1936 election.28 He received a stunning 72.62 percent, as compared to the miserable 36.5 percent that he received nationwide. The exhibitor wrote that Mr. Smith brought tears to his eyes and went as far as to propose that every member of Congress should be obliged to watch the movie.29 Generally speaking, it can be argued that if the exhibitor enjoyed the film that much and was inspired by it enough to write to The Motion Picture Herald, then the audience definitely also appreciated the picture. As was mentioned, Lincoln County was overwhelmingly Republican at the time, only voting for a Democrat in 1912 due to the split in the Republican vote.30
Janet Staiger argued in one of her books that reception studies must focus on the historical circumstances that led the audience to react in a particular way.31 Keeping in mind the exhibitor’s comment about the proposed compulsory showing of the film to members of Congress, one explanation behind the movie’s popularity in this county comes to mind. Quite probably, the county’s Republican population enjoyed the film’s anti-corruption message which is prominent throughout the plot. As Richard Hofstadter argues, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did little to combat political machines and was criticized for it during his presidency.32 The county’s rural character, without a doubt, also contributed to the anti-corruption appeal of the film. Within the American political tradition, cities were traditionally seen as centers of corruption.33 The traditional suspicion of big cities that rural areas held, along with contemporary criticisms of President Roosevelt, helps to explain the movie’s appeal in this county since Jefferson Smith is the embodiment of small-town values of anti-corruption.
Another example of the movie’s popularity in Republican areas is a contribution from an exhibitor from Alfred, NY. The owner testifies that “everyone except few [sic] senators liked it” and that some customers saw the movie multiple times, describing his patronage as small college town and rural.34 The town of Alfred is in Allegany County which never voted for a Democrat except for 1964. In 1936, Landon received 70.89 percent of the vote there.35 This contribution suggests that the exhibitor was aware of comments made by some American senators about the film, which were mentioned earlier. This supports the argument that criticism of the movie flowing from Washington only helped it in other parts of the country.
Apart from the corruption issue, another explanation behind the movie’s popularity could be the anti-New Deal hints that the movie contains. It was a common argument among conservatives at the time that the New Deal government handouts would destroy the fabric of American society.36 The movie promotes self-reliance rather than government intervention since Smith’s Boy Scouts are expected to pay back the money used for their camp according to the bill proposed in the Senate by the protagonist. This is another way in which the movie promotes the ideals of small, autonomous, rural communities. Considering the movie’s patronage in the county, it is obvious why Mr. Smith resonated so well with the local audiences.
As for the other side of the political spectrum, The Motion Picture Herald also contains stories of exhibitors from rather Democratic areas who enjoyed the movie just as much. One exhibitor from Nebraska said that the movie was a pleasure for both the exhibitor and the viewer and confessed that his small-town audience was very content with the film.37 He was writing from Sheridan County, which gave 54.14 percent to Roosevelt in the 1936 election.38 An exhibitor from Licking County in Ohio said about the movie that “The Lincoln Memorial scenes alone will sell more America to them than any book or story ever published.”39 The county gave Roosevelt a decent 58.56 percent in 1936.40 Finally, an exhibitor from Detroit praised the movie and mentioned the above-average crowds, saying that the ending should be altered so that Smith would come back to his town as a hero.41 In Wayne County, where Detroit is situated, Roosevelt received 64.53 percent of the vote and ever since 1932, the county has been a Democratic stronghold.
One of the reasons why Mr. Smith resonated with Democratic voters could be the fact that it touched on the problem of distance between the people and their representatives, as demonstrated in the scene in which members of the corrupt political machine try to appoint a new senator without any regard for their constituents.42 The New Deal sought to intervene in people’s lives much more than previous administrations and represented a sharp break with past models of governance.43 Roosevelt was the first American president to build such a close relationship with the public and his Fireside chats, in which he would explain his policies over the radio to millions of Americans are just one example.44 Therefore, it is clear that Democratic voters interpreted Mr. Smith as a plea for more honest and direct government, which is more or less what Roosevelt and the Democratic Party preached at the time.
The way in which Capra’s film treats the issue of race also arguably contributed to its positive reception in certain parts of the country. Non-White characters in Mr. Smith are scarce and insignificant. For example, in the scene where Smith’s Boy Scouts mobilize to help him combat disinformation in his home state, the audience sees a Black boy’s face for a brief second. His presence, however, is barely noticeable and can be interpreted as a minimalistic and negligible attempt at promoting diversity. Another example could be the Black man visiting the Lincoln Memorial with a child, probably his grandchild. In the scene, the man does not speak a single word, and the camera focuses on tears in his eyes as he looks upon the statue of Lincoln. Thus, the man is shown as humble and unharmful. That this approach to the issue of race resonated well with audiences is demonstrated by responses to the movie coming from Southern states. An exhibitor from Reidsville in North Carolina called the movie one of the best in 1939.45 The town is a part of Rockingham County, which gave 81.84 percent of the vote to Roosevelt in 1936. Interestingly, it later went on to vote for the segregationist candidate George Wallace in 1968, which proves that it was a stronghold of the conservative, Southern Democrats. In addition to that, one article from Alabama’s The Birmingham News reported that Mr. Smith was showing at a local cinema for the sixth week in a row.46 Birmingham served years later as an important site of racial violence during the Civil Rights era, which suggests that local audiences were largely segregationist in 1939. Yet, both in North Carolina and Alabama, audiences enjoyed the movie and the presence of Black characters did not upset them. This, of course, was largely due to the fact that those characters were portrayed as humble or barely noticeable.
Capra’s movie also contains elements that have a broad, bipartisan appeal. One example could be the Lincoln Memorial scene, which has been mentioned by one of the contributors to “What The Picture Did For Me”. The movie’s symbolism revolves quite a lot around the mythology of great men in American history, such as Lincoln or the Founding Fathers, with the US Constitution also appearing on the screen at one point. By focusing on this kind of non-divisive symbolism, Capra sought to idealize American democracy. In times of hardship that the Great Depression brought around, Mr. Smith offered consolidation and a message of hope to all Americans by reminding them of the country’s pre-Depression values.47 As Dickstein argues, this was a common feature in popular culture at the time, as it attempted to distract people from widespread poverty and unemployment.48 Without a doubt, this escapist sentiment, and the movie’s focus on American ideals, contributed to the film’s warm reception.
The film’s use of symbolism and American values might be interpreted not only as nostalgia for the pre-Depression era but also as a protest against some of Roosevelt’s policies. One author interprets Mr. Smith as a criticism of FDR in the wake of the Supreme Court crisis.49 This argument seems quite plausible, as even Roosevelt’s voters opposed his plans to reform the Supreme Court, which was at the time viewed as an almost sacred institution. One poll from late 1937 found that only 24 percent of Democrats supported Roosevelt on this issue.50 Without a doubt, Americans who saw Capra’s film were influenced by the Supreme Court controversy and no matter their political affiliation, appreciated the patriotic symbolism of the movie and its defense of traditional American institutions, values and figures.
These findings prove that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington enjoyed universal approval across the United States. Both in major newspapers and among small-town exhibitors, Capra’s film was noticed for its patriotic message and for giving audiences a lesson on American values. Only Washington insiders and some senators seriously criticized the picture, which in my opinion further contributed to the movie’s success. Contemporary events and ambiguous political messaging of the movie allowed both Democrats and Republicans to admire the film.
The main goal of this article was to shed a new light on the reception of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This article provides a much-needed addition to existing scholarship. The analysis of voting patterns of small towns from which exhibitors gave their opinions on the movie is a method that has not been used before to analyze the reception of this movie. Combined with newspaper reviews from big cities, this makes for a more complete reception study of the movie than what has been done before. This article proves that because of the movie’s ideological ambiguity, it was able to appeal equally to one of the most Republican counties in the United States, and Democratic Party strongholds simultaneously. At the same time, this article’s findings were informed by consideration of contemporary political issues and conditions that contributed to the movie’s reception in particular states. Using the example of Mr. Smith, this article demonstrates how cinema and politics are closely intertwined and how one’s political views can substantially influence the way a picture is interpreted. In this article, I have demonstrated that by using the Reception Studies methodology, scholars can unveil previously overlooked connections between movies and politics.
1 Glenn Alan Phelps, “The ‘Populist’ Films of Frank Capra,” Journal of American Studies 13.3 (1979): 377-392 www.jstor.org/stable/27553741.
2 Charles Wolfe, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Democratic Forums and Representational Forms,” in Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System, ed. by Robert Sklar and Vito Zagarrio (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 197.
3 Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (London: Faber, 1992), 30.
4 McBride, Frank Capra, 34.
5 McBride, Frank Capra, 71.
6 McBride, Frank Capra, 259.
7 McBride, Frank Capra, 334.
8 McBride, Frank Capra, 410.
9 Janet Staiger, Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1992), 10.
10 Eric Smoodin, Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930-1960 (Duke University Press: Durham, 2004), 119-159.
11 “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Showmen’s Trade Review, October 21, 1939, 9.
12 Smoodin, Regarding Frank Capra, 127.
13 “’Mr. Smith’ Is Tribute To Ideals of Democracy,” The Miami Herald, November 16, 1939, 14.
14 Frank S. Nugent, “The Screen In Review,” The New York Times, October 20, 1939, 30.
15 Howard Rushmore, “Capra’s ‘Mr. Smith’ Is Five Star Film of 1939,” The Daily Worker, October 20, 1939, 7.
16 Benjamin De Casseres, “The March of Events,” San Francisco Examiner, November 17, 1939, 14.
17 “Film ‘Silly and Stupid’, Senator Barkley Says,” The Buffalo News, October 24, 1939, 26.
18 Smoodin, Regarding Frank Capra, 137.
19 Frederic William Wile, “Washington Observations,” Evening Star, October 20, 1939, 9.
20 Herbert Cohn, “Frank Capra Scores With Gay ‘Mr. Smith’,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 20, 1939, 11
21 Donald Kirkley, “The Screen,” The Baltimore Sun, November 6, 1939, 6.
22 Edwin Schallert, ”’Mr. Smith’ Evidences Wizardry of Frank Capra,” Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1939, 15.
23 Bess Stephenson, ”’Mr. Smith’,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 18, 1939, 3.
24 Neve, Film and Politics in America, 29.
25 Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, Hollywood in the Neighborhood: Historical Case Studies of Local Moviegoing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 186.
26 Fuller-Seeley, Hollywood in the Neighborhood, 194.
27 Fuller-Seeley, Hollywood in the Neighborhood, 197.
28 Dave Leip, “1936 Presidential Election Statistics,” Dave Leip’s Atlas of US Presidential Elections, 2019 uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/stats.php?year=1936&f=0&off=0&elect=0.
29 “What The Picture Did For Me,” Motion Picture Herald [Hereafter:” WTPDFM”, MPH], November 4, 1939, 57.
30 Dave Leip, “1912 Presidential Election Statistics,” Dave Leip’s Atlas of US Presidential Elections, 2019, uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/stats.php?year=1912&f=1&off=0&elect=0.
31 Staiger, Interpreting Films, XI.
32 Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 310.
33 Turner, “Contributions of The West to American Democracy,” 39.
34 “WTPDFM,” MPH, January 27, 1940, 63.
35 Leip, “1936 Presidential Election Statistics”.
36 Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, 317-318.
37 “WTPDFM,” MPH, February 24, 1940, 45
38 Leip, “1936 Presidential Election Statistics”.
39 “WTPDFM,” MPH, November 25, 1939, 51.
40 Leip, “1936 Presidential Election Statistics”.
41 “WTPDFM,” MPH, March 16, 1940, 51.
42 Scott, American Politics in Hollywood Film, 49.
43 Badger, The New Deal, 10.
44 Allswang, The New Deal and American Politics, 22-23.
45 “WTPDFM,” MPH, April 13, 1940, 57.
46 Vincent Townsend, ”’Babes In Arms’ and ‘Mr. Smith’ Held, Burns Back,” The Birmingham News, November 23, 1939, 23.
47 Neve, Film and Politics in America, 1.
48 Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (W.W. Norton: New York, 2009), 4.
49 Giuliana Muscio, “Roosevelt, Arnold, and Capra, (or) the Federalist-Populist Paradox,” in Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System, ed. by Robert Sklar and Vito Zagarrio (Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1998), 181-182.
50 Allswang, The New Deal and American Politics, 39.