Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Revisited

(Welcome to 1939: Revisited, a column dedicated to taking a look back at some of the films of one of the most highly-praised years in film history and explaining why they still matter today. In this entry: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells a story of political corruption that resonates 80 years later.)

So far in this series, we’ve talked about movies that were either literal fantasies, like The Wizard of Oz, or, like The Women, set in an era and class so distant from our own that it might as well be a fairy tale. However, the next film is set in a place far more real, and far scarier: Washington, D.C.. It’s a film with a clear, uncomfortable message, but it’s still hopeful at its core: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Released in October of 1939, the movie launched its star, James Stewart, into the Hollywood stratosphere, and marked a turning point for its director, Frank Capra. It not only made waves in Hollywood, it set dominoes falling in Washington that partially led to the collapse of the studio system and even foreshadowed the dark era of the Hollywood blacklist. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington told a story about everything wrong with American government. The content of the film and its reception in Washington and the greater world say a lot about how media can bring light to uncomfortable truths – and what people do when faced with them. 

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