In honor of the 70th anniversary of what is widely considered Hollywood’s greatest year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is screening all ten of the best picture nominees of 1939 through August 3. On July 20, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington unspools at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
Directed by Frank Capra, the film stars James Stewart as Senator Jefferson Smith and features a score by Dimitri Tiomkin. At the time, Capra and Tiomkin had been friends for a half dozen years and already had collaborated on 1937’s Lost Horizon. In preparing Tiomkin to score Mr. Smith, Capra told the composer to forget Borodin and Mussorgsky and think instead of John Philip Sousa, Stephen Foster, and American folk songs.
Tiomkin promptly began researching pre-jazz American music dating back to colonial days. According to Tiomkin’s autobiography, Capra introduced the composer to a songbook titled What America Sings. Tiomkin is probably referring to two seminal songbooks, The Songs We Sing (1936) and The Songs America Sings (1939), both compiled by Hendrik Willem van Loon and Grace Castagnetta. Loon was a Dutch American author best known for his book The Story of Mankind, and once was a journalist for the Russian bureau of the Associated Press.
In the course of his research, Tiomkin discovered The American Songbag, a 1927 compilation by the American poet Carl Sandburg. This early collection of American folk music included 280 songs, many of which had never before appeared in print. Tiomkin wasted no time immersing himself in early American music, from New England hymns, fiddler tunes, the working songs of cowboys and Southern mountaineers, to Revolutionary War ballads, Negro spirituals, and minstrel songs.
Armed with his newfound musical palette, Tiomkin set to work crafting the Americana pastiche sought by Capra. Tiomkin would later express his gratitude to the director for helping him move to this next level of his musical education. A handful of aptly named music cues make up the bulk of the underscore: “In Memory of Old Times,” “Writing of the Bill,” “Children’s Crusade.” In one poignant scene set at the Lincoln Memorial, Tiomkin based his music on an American slave song.
In addition to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Tiomkin scored nine other films nominated for best picture from 1937 to 1961.
Tickets for unreserved seating for the screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington can be purchased for US$5. The first and last films in the Hollywood’s Greatest Year series, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, are sold out. The New York City screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, hosted by Robert Osborne, will take place August 10 at the Academy Theater at Lighthouse International. For more information, log on to www.oscars.org or contact AMPAS at (310) 247-3600.
- Please Don’t Hate Me by Dimitri Tiomkin and Prosper Buranelli (Doubleday, 1959)
- The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography by Frank Capra (Macmillan, 1971)
- “The Carl Sandburg Historic Site”