By Charles Russell, Senate ‘43
Many Americans are fond of the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” directed by Frank Capra. It established leading man Jimmy Stewart as a major star. Today we find the depiction of the hero and his victory over a bumbling Senate dated, almost quaint, but at the time of its release by Columbia Pictures in 1939 it was considered controversial. It went on to be a big box-office success and received 11 Academy Award nominations.
What most people don’t know is that the Senate Page Corps, of which I was a new member, was almost in the movie.
I became a Page in September 1939. Hitler had just invaded Poland, war had broken out in Europe and President Roosevelt had called Congress out of its recess for a special session. We were to consider such emergency bills as repeal of the Neutrality Act, Selective Service (the draft), and the “Lend-Lease” plan to aid Britain. The session was forecast to last only 30 to 60 days. I was one of a number of boys from nearby who were recruited to serve for that brief time, as many of the Pages were at home with their parents, far from D.C.
At the same time, Columbia Pictures had begun work on the picture and was casting the movie, which was to be shot in Hollywood. A replica Senate floor was built in California.
Columbia decided to ask the real Pages, or as many of them could get parental consent, to be in the picture. The studio offered to pay transportation, lodging and food for the trip, which was expected to last about a week. The studio – like the rest of the nation – assumed that Congress would by then have completed its urgent business and adjourned for the year. We Pages were really excited! We had the uniforms – now we could be stars!
Fate decided otherwise. The debates continued and the Pages remained at their posts. Hollywood recruited young “extras” to play our roles and they did a very good job of it. Congress remained in almost continuous session thereafter, with very brief recesses until the war ended. I withdrew from my junior high school in Arlington, Va. and studied at Capitol Page School in the Capitol building until my graduation in 1943. At the ceremony, Mrs. Roosevelt handed us our diplomas.
Mrs. R was very kind and attentive to the Pages. After missing out on the movie opportunity, she invited the Senate Pages over for lunch in the White House Rose Garden. After lunch, we were escorted by two Secret Service officers to the private office FDR used on the second floor. (He used the Oval Office only for official functions because of his physical disability.) Mrs. R had told us not to shake hands with FDR because it was tiring for him. We crowded into the tiny office and arranged ourselves around the walls. FDR beamed at us, put down his signature cigarette holder and said, “Boys, come over here and sit around my desk so I can shake hands with you.” We complied gingerly. Then he said, “Boys, I think it’s a great pity that you didn’t get to be movie actors. The problem is – Congress just won’t go home. I think it would be a pious idea if they would just go home and let us run the country. You could run it from up on the Hill, I could run I from here, and between us we would do a very good job of it!”
I’m sure that none of us Pages ever forgot that experience. We may have missed Hollywood stardom. . . but being in the White House that day, so close to FDR’s stardom, more than made up for it.