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Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
Only one of this year’s Oscar nominated films was shot in Washington D.C. — and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is only up for three technical awards.
The location shoot, right down the street from the U.S. Capitol, was reportedly a disaster. The bomb squad was on its way to a call and drove straight into one of the stars: the bright yellow Bumblebee car.
But it’s tough to shoot a movie in D.C. these days — and not for the reasons you might think.
The most famous film about Washington, D.C. never got an Oscar. U.S. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says Jimmy Stewart was nominated for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but didn’t get the gold statue, "much to his dismay."
But Stewart wouldn't have to wait long — the actor won an Oscar the following year for “The Philadelphia Story.” Ritchie says everybody thought it was really given to him for the previous year's omission, "but they were just a little late in doing it."
Ritchie says much of the film really was shot in and around the U.S. Capitol, but not the famous filibuster scene that supposedly happens inside the Senate.
He says the movie Senate Chamber was a Hollywood set that’s about one-third smaller than the actual chamber. But, as viewers can see, it's a fairly good depiction of the Senate of the 1930s, with the pages on the floor and the press up in the gallery.
Hollywood returned to the Capitol in 1962 to shoot Otto Preminger’s political drama “Advise and Consent.”
In fact, they used the same Senate Chamber set that “Mr. Smith” had used, although they had to change it because the actual Senate Chamber had undergone renovation in the interim.
Most of the extras in the film were real Capitol Hill staffers, policemen and reporters. Peter Lawford, President John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law, played the womanizing senator. And one elderly senator in the film who is always asleep and must be woken up to vote was actually played by Henry Fountain Ashurst, a former senator from Arizona.
Most of the film was shot in the Russell Senate Office Building, but also in Statuary Hall inside the Capitol. Ritchie says that was always a problem "to try to get a quorum in some of the committees if the senators were drawn like moths to the flame when they saw those lights set up."
After that shoot, the Senate Rules Committee decided the Capitol was not a movie set.
But nevertheless, Hollywood came back to the Hill for the 1978 film "F.I.S.T." It featured Sylvester Stallone as a Jimmy Hoffa-type union organizer. Ritchie says the Hollywood folks came around Capitol Hill, looking for anybody "with short hair."
"And [they] asked them if they could show up on a Saturday wearing a flannel shirt, and that they could therefore look like a Teamster," Ritchie says.
But Hollywood doesn’t come calling much anymore. You’re more likely to see L.A. City Hall stand in for the halls of Congress these days.
Ritchie is quick to point out that that’s not to say Washington has turned its back on the movies. He says the Senate curator’s office recently purchased one of the desks: the desk that was used by Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It's not the elegant desk you think it is, though.
"It’s made of plywood and painted orange," Ritchie admitted. "And of course, the movie was black and white, so that passed as a mahogany desk in those days."
It’s not on display — yet. But stay tuned.