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"Mr. Smith" Comes to Washington

October 17, 1939

Poster Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

From a back-row desk on the Democratic side of a crowded Senate Chamber, the idealistic freshman member labored into the 24th hour of a one-man filibuster. His secretary sat in the gallery frantically signaling which rules would keep him from losing the floor. The vice president was in his place and so was every senator. No one moved. Finally the freshman's leading antagonist, a cynical old-timer, rose to seek a unanimous consent agreement. He asked the Senate's permission to bring into the Chamber 50,000 telegrams, from all sections of the nation, demanding that the young senator end his futile crusade. Distraught, but vowing to continue his fight against an entrenched political establishment, the exhausted senator then collapsed.

As overturned baskets of telegrams cascaded paper over the junior member's prone body, the senior senator suddenly changed course. Shaken by what he had just seen, he dramatically confessed to corrupt deeds and demanded that the Senate expel him instead of his idealistic younger colleague. Recognizing the freshman senator's vindication, the Chamber erupted with joyful shouts as the vice president lamely tried to restore order.

The credits rolled and the lights came on. The audience that packed Washington's Constitution Hall on October 17, 1939, included 45 real-life senators and 250 House members. They had come to a world premiere of the Columbia Pictures film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The film starred 30-year-old Jimmy Stewart as the noble-minded "Mr. Smith," Claude Rains as the corrupt-but-redeemed senior senator, and Jean Arthur as Smith's loyal secretary.

Paramount Pictures and MGM had previously turned down offers to purchase the story, fearing that its unflattering portrayal of the Senate might be interpreted as a "covert attack on the democratic form of government."

Most of the senators attending the premiere responded with good humor to the Hollywood treatment, with its realistic reproduction of the Senate Chamber. Several, however, were not amused. Majority Leader Alben Barkley described the film as "silly and stupid," adding that it made the Senate look like "a bunch of crooks." Years later, producer Frank Capra alleged that several senators had actually tried to buy up the film to prevent its release.

Mr. Smith was an immediate hit, second only to Gone with the Wind in 1939 box office receipts. A congressional spouse named Margaret Chase Smith particularly enjoyed the premiere. Friends suggested that perhaps the time had come for a real-life story entitled “Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington.” Within eight months, the death of her husband and the voters of Maine’s Second Congressional District allowed the 42-year-old Mrs. Smith to begin writing that script.