Hollywood stages an amazing reproduction of the Senate in making pictures of Washington, politically timid Hollywood long confined its efforts to the eras preceding President Lincoln’s assassination. Its few glances at the contemporary capital have been imaginative rather than reportorial, and unconvincing to anyone familiar with its scene. Now in Frank Capra’s new picture, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the architecture, artifacts and anthropological curiosities of that city are recreated with almost fanatical authenticity.
Under the exacting critical eye of Mr. Capra’s technical adviser (see p. 74), craftsmen built a full- scale reproduction of the Senate Chamber, complete to the last acanthus leaf and arabesque. Inkwells, desks, pencils, even the legislators themselves were painstakingly duplicated. No effort was made to find doubles for individual Senators, but with academic conscience Columbia’s casting office calculated the proportions of the “average Senator” and filled its chamber with actors-each about .5’2 years old„5 ft. 11 in. tall, 174 lb. in weight, with graying hair.
Against this impressive background is spun the story of young Mr. Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), who, appointed to a vacant seat by State politicians in need of a stooge, exposes grafters at home, successfully combats treachery and emerges from his difficulties a national hero. No great historic issues are involved. Graft is the villain, and the scenarists carefully avoid indicating either the grafters’ home State (Montana in the original story) or the party to which they belong. The climax of the picture, during which Senator Smith faints on the floor and another Senator tries suicide, is probably as exciting as any single day’s session of Congress since the British invaded ‘Washington in 1814.
Mr. Capra is at his best with stories of nice but seemingly helpless young men braving the hazards of a cynical world (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). In this, perhaps his last picture for Columbia, he has joined melodrama and background, Hollywood and Washington, fiction and fact, with spectacular success
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Excerpt from LIFE Magazine October 16, 1939
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