By David Langbart
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is considered one of the great motion pictures produced by the American movie industry. In 1989, the Library of Congress added this masterpiece to the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The movie, starring James Stewart as Jefferson Smith (the “Mr. Smith” of the title), tells the story of a political innocent who becomes a Senator and is caught up in shenanigans and corruption in Washington but ultimately prevails. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” premiered in Washington on October 17, 1939. Despite some early controversy surrounding its portrayal of the American political system, “Mr. Smith” quickly became an uplifting and popular hit. Most of the initial objections came from the community of politicians portrayed in a less than flattering light by the movie.
After viewing the motion picture, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy sent a telegram to Will Hays, a leading force in the motion picture industry. Hays was head of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, an organization aimed at improving and protecting the image of the movie industry. Earlier in his career, Kennedy had spent time in and made major investments in Hollywood and probably believed he was qualified to judge the movie. Kennedy sent the following telegram to Hays on November 12, 1939:
Motion Picture Producers
44th Street, New York City
I have just seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. STOP. I consider this one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen done to our country. STOP. To permit this film to be shown in foreign countries and to give people the impression that anything like this could happen in the United States Senate is to me nothing short of criminal. STOP. I am sending a copy of this wire to the President of the United States.
JOSEPH P. KENNEDY
In response, Kennedy received a telegram from Harry Cohn and Frank Capra, respectively head of Columbia Pictures and director of the movie. They wrote, in part, as follows:
Because we value your good opinion and judgment greatly we are deeply concerned with expressions conveyed in your cable to Hays. Newspaper opinion throughout country editorially as well as in reviews have boldly and enthusiastically stated “Mr. Smith” has great patriotic lift. We do not believe this picture could have been given such vast acclaim as it has received if content or theme were either unpatriotic or constituted attack on our form of Government. We believe and countless newspaper comments agree that picture develops theme of true Americanism showing how under our democratic procedures least experienced of peoples representatives could arise in highest legislative halls, expose political chicanery and through existing Senate rules and with sympathetic aid of presiding Senatorial office make justice triumph over one crooked Senator.
Cohn and Capra closed their telegram with positive quotations about the movie from the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, the Boston Transcript, the Atlanta Constitution, the Cleveland News, and the Cincinnati Inquirer. They also mentioned that the Hearst newspaper chain viewed the movie favorably and encouraged readers to see it. The quotation of reviews ended by noting that the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae “states in its review that this is great screen achievement which only a Democracy could present.”
The records include no subsequent documentation so it appears that the matter ended there.
Kennedy’s reputation as a diplomat is not a positive one. After World War II broke out in September 1939, he took a defeatist attitude and was ultimately forced out of his position in November 1940. In retrospect, it seems clear that Ambassador Kennedy’s comments as a movie critic were as astute as the analyses of the international situation he made as a diplomat.
[Source: All documents quoted and reproduced here come from File 840.6 in the 1939 GENERAL RECORDS of the U.S. Embassy in Great Britain (Entry UD-2599A, NAID 1667799), part of Record Group 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.]