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Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” reveals a new level of clarity in 4K

Updated: Oct 29, 2022


James Stewart plays U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith of Montana, who conducts a 24-hour filibuster on the Senate floor, to expose the corrupt political powers of his own state.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Copy; 1939; unrated; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: Commentary with Frank Capra Jr., son of the legendary director

JAMES STEWART didn’t sound hoarse enough for his climactic filibuster on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

So director Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) swabbed his star’s throat with mercury chloride, aggravating Stewart’s vocal chords. It worked flawlessly, helping him give one of Hollywood’s most commanding moments as the exhausted Sen. Jefferson Smith of Montana, whose 24-hour filibuster – covering everything from the Constitution to the Bible – helps expose the corrupt political powers of his own state, those who want to build a dam to line their pockets.

Jefferson Smith is no less than the champion of Capra’s ideal American, the kind of man or woman every American hopes to represent him.

The 31-year-old Stewart was nominated for Best Actor, one of 11 Oscar nominations for “Mr. Smith,” including Best Picture and Best Director; it won for Best Writing, Original Story. Stewart’s performance – alongside the likes of Edward Arnold (Jim Taylor) and Claude Rains (Sen. Joseph Paine) – launched him into full-blown stardom. The next year, Stewart, the son of a hardware store owner, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for “The Philadelphia Story.”

“Capra probably had more to do with helping Stewart invent his acting persona…as anybody,” director Robert Altman (“Nashville”) says in the nearly-two hour documentary, “Frank Capra’s American Dream,” carried over from previous editions.

(1) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington received 11 Academy Award nominations for Columbia Pictures. (2) Montana Governor Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) must select a new junior U.S. Senator after the untimely death of Senator Foley. (3) Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) and newspaper tycoon Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) have their own plans for the senate seat. (4) Gov. Hoppers sons suggest Boy Rangers leader Jefferson Smith as the perfect candidate.


4K Ultra HD vs. Blu-ray

Top: 4K extracts a higher level of film grain and the mid-tones are more pronounced, as Gov. Hopper introduces Jefferson Smith as his appointed for the U.S. Senate. Bottom: The Blu-ray has less definition.


Mr. Smith” premiered in Washington, D.C., with red-carpet celebrations and screenings for Washington’s elite. The response, however, was outrage. One report read, “How dare Hollywood suggest that a senator of the United States Congress could possibly be corrupt?” There was even talk of a retaliatory bill against “Mr. Smith.” Capra and Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn was shocked.

Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to the U.K. (and father of JFK and RFK), sent a letter to Will Hayes, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distribution, demanding it not be shown overseas: “I have just seen ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ I consider this one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen done to our country. To permit this film to be shown in foreign countries and to give people in the impression that anything like this could happen in the United States Senate is to me nothing short of criminal.”

Capra wrote in his autobiography years later, “Harry Cohen paced the floor, as stunned as Abraham must have been when the Lord asked him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.”

The public’s reaction was just the opposite. “Mr. Smith” was a mega-hit, although it marked the end of Capra’s decade-long association with Cohn. The two had had a feud two years earlier during the over-budgeted “Lost Horizon.”

Part of the six-film Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD – Volume One Collection, “Mr. Smith” was an extremely ambitious project for the studio, which was considered one of the smallest and with the least amount of money. It only had one star and “that was my father,” says Frank Capra Jr. Few if any actors or directors were on contract. Cohn was always betting on Capra, the most celebrated director in Hollywood, to deliver.

The enclosed coffee-table book also includes an excerpt from Capra’s autobiography in which he recalls visiting the Lincoln Memorial as “Mr. Smith” was hitting theaters.

“And there in the majestic shrine we have in America, sat the colossal marble figure of our greatest man – rumpled, lanky, homely – his eyes daily filling the hearts of thousands of Americans with the deep, deep compassion that seemed to well out from his own great soul; eyes that seemed to say: ‘Friend, I have seen it all, it is good.’”

Capra left the memorial even more committed to his film.

“The soul of our film would be anchored in Lincoln. Our Jefferson Smith would be a young Abe Lincoln. Tailored to the rail-splitter’s simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor, and unswerving moral courage under pressure.” – Frank Capra

(1) Once Smith arrived in Washington D.C., his first stop was the Lincoln Memorial. (2) The D.C. media surround Smith and make him the laughing stock in the next days newspapers. (3) Smith prepares to enter the U.S. Senate Chambers for the first time. (4) Cynical secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) shows Sen. Smith the Deficiency Bill: Section 40 for the Willet Creek Dam, to be built on the site of Smiths national boys camp.



Sony’s 4K restoration started in 2013 in preparation for “Mr. Smith’s” 75th anniversary a year later. The majority of the original 35mm camera negative (1.37:1 aspect ratio) was bathed in a solution as each frame passed over light and was digitally scanned. The 1990s analog restoration was supervised by the Library of Congress using a photochemical process that forced second- and third-generation prints to sub for damaged sections; this time the worst sections were scanned using duplicate negatives and Capra’s personal first-generation print, which Sony recovered in the mid-90s. Once the 4K files were captured in New York City, the folks at Sony’s facilities in California spent months repairing each frame.

The 4K/HDR presentation would require an additional round of restoration since the HDR toning extracted another level of detail. The film grain is much more pronounced, which is a good thing. (Plus, Sony doesn’t believe in reducing grain to appease folks who don’t appreciate it.) The overall grayscale has more definition in the mid-tones, giving Stewart’s face more clarity, the blacks are darker while holding detail and the highlights brighter and balanced with Joseph Walker’s cinematography. The wide shots of the Senate chambers filled with senators, spectators and the media have more precision, putting the 4K sharpness a couple of notches over the HD version.


The restored original mono track is front and center as it should be; pops and noise were removed for a clean listening experience.

(1&2) Taylor and Sen. Paine make false acquisitions against Sen. Smith, in which the charges are brought in front of the Committee on Privileges and Elections. (3) Smith is heartbroken by the claims.



The Columbia book devotes 12-pages to “Mr. Smith” with high-gloss photography from the set and an entertaining essay. The commentary track with Frank Capra Jr. is quite revealing, with stories about how his father originally wanted to make a movie about 19th-century composer Frederic Chopin. Cohn put the brakes on that idea, instead steering the director to a two-page synopsis of “The Gentleman from Montana,” the film’s original title. Capra realized it would be an ideal sequel to his 1936 film, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” which starred Gary Cooper.

Capra Jr. says his father didn’t do screen tests, he interviewed actors one-on-one. “It was instinct with him, knowing the actor for the part.” He knew Stewart (borrowed from MGM) would make the perfect Jefferson Smith and that Jean Arthur (“The More the Merrier,” “Shane”) would excel as his cynical secretary. Both had starred the year before in Capra’s Oscar winner, “You Can’t Take It with You.”

From the essay, we also find out how a full-scale replica of the Senate chamber was constructed in Hollywood, faithfully matching even the scratches on the senators’ desks, and how “Capra filled the set with believable faces. The other 95 senators shown on-screen look like they have really been in the Senate for years.” Legendary cowboy actor Harry Carey (“Red River”) was one of those faces, playing the president of the Senate (i.e., the vice president).

“Mr. Smith” is reason No. 2 not to miss the Columbia Classics 4K box set. “Lawrence of Arabia” is the first and “Dr. Strangelove” is No. 3. 

― Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1&2) Sen. Smith prepares to start his 24-hour filibuster in the full Senate Chambers. (3) President of the Senate (Harry Carey) listens to the filibuster that covers everything from the Constitution to the Bible.


(1&2) Sen. Smith confronts Sen. Paine during the final moments of the filibuster. (3-5) The Senate pages and Clarissa Saunders listen to his final words before he collapsed.


4K Ultra HD trailer



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