Within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1939 is widely regarded as Hollywood’s greatest year, with some of the most beloved movies of all time amongst the Best Picture nominees —including The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, but because of the intense competition, it came away with one Oscar, the Oscar awarded to Lewis Ransom Foster for the original story behind Frank Capra’s “stirring and even inspiring testament to liberty and freedom, to simplicity and honesty and to the innate dignity of just the average man” (Frank S. Nugent, New York Times Review, 20 October 1939).
Formerly a newspaper journalist in San Francisco, Lewis R. Foster entered Hollywood in 1923 as a prop man. In 1929, he directed his first movie and throughout his prolific, 36-year career, he continued to direct, compose music and write screenplays. Foster penned the original story for Mr. Smith, titled The Gentleman from Montana and obtained the copyright in 1938. While it does differ from the final screenplay, the storyline and main characters are defined clearly in the unpublished novel. Foster tells the story of Scout Master John Wilbur Smith who, following the death of Senator Foley, is selected by the Governor and his political cronies to temporarily replace him for three months during the Congressional Session. Patriotic, passionate and naïve, Senator Smith finds the political system in Washington, D.C. “something rotten and decayed, boiling corruption like a sore” (The Gentleman from Montana, pg. 62). The graft in the political system is anathema to his old-fashioned American values, but despite his disappointment and heartbreak, Smith stands up to the system and reminds the Senate and the citizens of the real meaning of democracy.
The explicit criticism in The Gentleman from Montana initially prompted a warning from Joseph Breen, the director of the Production Code Administration, in which he suggested that the subsequent movie "might well be loaded with dynamite … which might well lead to such a picture being considered, both here, and more particularly abroad, as a covert attack on the Democratic form of government.”
The warning was given after both MGM and Paramount submitted Foster’s unpublished novel for approval, but it was Columbia that won the rights to the story. Frank Capra was selected to be the director and it was first conceived of as a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, starring Gary Cooper. When Cooper was unavailable, Capra brought in James Stewart from MGM, and Stewart inaugurated his now familiar role as the stalwart idealist. Sidney Buchman turned the original story into a screenplay, changing John Wilbur Smith into Jefferson Smith, introducing a more consciously comedic element, and de-emphasizing the corruption of the government to comply with censorship restrictions. Breen revised his earlier critique of the film, pointing out that “Out of all Senator Jeff's difficulties there has been evolved the importance of a democracy and there is splendidly emphasized the rich and glorious heritage which is ours and which comes when you have a government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.’” Even so, in Capra’s autobiography he recounts that during the 17 October 1939 premier of the movie at Constitution Hall, disgruntled senators walked out of the theater, and Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley insisted that the film “makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks.”
Seen as a movie that restores faith in democracy and emphasizes the perseverance and strength of one man standing up to injustice, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is consistently listed as one of the best political movies of all time and has been called “the top Washington-related movie” by the Washington Post.
In part because of the Academy’s restrictions on the sale of Oscars, the statuettes are increasingly rare on the market, especially for historically iconic films. In 2011, the Oscar awarded to Orson Welles for Citizen Kane, the only Oscar won by that film, was sold for just over $861,000. A testament to the rarity, the standing record for an Oscar sold at auction was achieved in 1999, when Sotheby’s sold David O. Selznick’s 1939 Best Picture Academy Award for Gone With the Wind for $1,542,000—just over five times the high estimate of $300,000.