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‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’: THR’s 1939 Review

The Hollywood Reporter logo The Hollywood Reporter 10/17/2021 Erik Hayden

On Oct. 17, 1939, Frank Capra’s drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring James Stewart, premiered in the nation’s capital. The film went on to earn 11 Oscar nominations at the 12th Academy Awards, winning in the original story category. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, titled “‘Mr. Smith Goes to Town; Due for BoxOffice Success,” is below:

Frank Capra has another smash hit in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It is an accomplishment for which Capra and all of his aides may well take unstinted pride. Capra misses nothing in transplanting to the screen Lewis Foster’s story of the young senator, whose belief in the constitution of the United States remains unshattered, even though every member of the crooked machine of Washington politics strikes at with force imaginable. There is flag waving, but not too much of it. Mr. Capra manages to interpolate it in the picture in just the right dose.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as it emerges on the screen is the story of a young man with high ideals and principles, who, through no choice of his own, is appointed a senator by his state. With these ideals and principles, Mr. Smith arrives in Washington only to be stopped every where he turns by the machine that wants to use him. Broken and discouraged, he is about to give up when his secretary gives him that little pep talk that inspires him to fight back. He does just that and after a bitter fight on the senate floor, he succeeds in breaking the machine.

James Stewart is the perfect choice for the role of the naive, idealistic Mr. Smith. Under Frank Capra’s guidance Stewart turns in the finest performance of his career. Jean Arthur in the role of “Saunders,” the secretary, is magnificent. She keeps right in step with Mr. Stewart for the acting honors.

Claude Rains gives an excellent performance as the senator who once had the same ideals and principles of Mr. Smith; but was turned by the machine in order to hold office. Edward Arnold in the role of the newspaper publisher and head of the machine, too, gives a fine performance as do Guy Kibbee, as the governor, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi and Ruth Donnelly. Thomas Mitchell does superbly. Other supporting players, too numerous to mention, contribute immeasurably toward the success of the picture.

Aiding Capra capably in the execution of the production was the out standing contribution of Joseph Walker in photography, which plays an important part in making this picture one of the outstanding achievements Of the year. The musical contributions, also, deserve high commendation. — Staff review, originally published Sept. 8, 1939. 

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