TIME Style

‘Oscar’s Hairdo’: How to Create de la Renta’s Signature 1969 Updo

Society Ball New York
The society ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York City on Jan. 19, 1970. A woman wears "Oscar's Hairdo." Ron Frehm—AP

Get a TIME tutorial on the vintage style named after the late, great designer

Oscar de la Renta, the acclaimed fashion designer who died Monday at 82, will likely be best remembered for providing dresses for First Ladies and movie stars alike. In the late 1960s, however, he was also famous for something that was a lot less complicated than a couture gown: a messy hairdo.

The style — what might be called a “messy bun” in today’s YouTube hair tutorial lingo — was known in the U.S. as “Oscar’s hairdo” because, in November 1969, he had every model in his spring collection wear the style. The look, which TIME described as “skillfully composed to look as if it had been dragged through a thornbush backward” was alternately known as Belle Époque (because it resembled ‘dos of that era), the Onion (for British fashionistas), the Char (because it made you look like a charwoman, or cleaning lady), Concierge (in France) or Goulue (after the can-can dancer). LIFE Magazine even added it could be called “The Washerwoman.” It was originally conceived by Paris coiffeur Christophe Carita in 1968, perhaps inspired by Brigitte Bardot, and New York hairdresser Kenneth told TIME that its sex appeal may have come from the idea that if you could find the hairpin that’s holding it up “in a matter of seconds it will all be out on the pillow.”

Here’s how you create the look, as per TIME:

The front is pulled loosely up and back into a topknot. Underneath, along with the remainder of the hair, can generally be found several ounces of wool twine or a nylon mesh cushion, the better to swell the structure to second-head proportions. Hanging down at strategic intervals (at the temples, around the ears, and down the back of the neck), are separate, curling tendrils of hair. The whole thing may look like the work of a bird who flunked nest building.

Despite the many ironic names for the style, and this magazine’s implication that it was a ridiculous idea to pay to end up with messy hair — $17.50 at a Manhattan salon, a price that might cause today’s New Yorkers to faint in gratitude — Oscar’s Hairdo has proved to have staying power: Glamour has declared that the “coming-undone style” will be one of next spring’s hottest looks.

Read TIME’s review of Oscar de la Renta’s 1993 debut as the first American designer to head a Paris couture house, here in the archives: Mais Oui, Oscar!

TIME technology

How Edison Invented the Light Bulb — And Lots of Myths About Himself

First Light Bulb
Still life of the first electric light bulb, invented by Thomas Alva Edison in 1879 and patented on January 27, 1880. Welgos / Getty Images

Oct. 21, 1879: Thomas Edison invents a commercially viable electric light

The electric light wasn’t Thomas Edison’s first invention, nor was he the first to create an alternative to gaslight. Electric lights already existed on a streetlight scale when, on this day in 1879, Edison tested the one he’s famous for. Though he didn’t come up with the whole concept, his light bulb was the first that proved practical, and affordable, for home illumination. The trick had been choosing a filament that would be durable but inexpensive, and the team at Edison’s “invention factory” in Menlo Park, New Jersey, tested more than 6,000 possible materials before finding one that fit the bill: carbonized bamboo.

Edison bragged about the filament’s efficacy and economy to a New York Times reporter who toured the factory just after his successful test run:

“As there is no oxygen to burn,” said Mr. Edison, “you can readily see that this piece of carbon will last an ordinary life-time. It has the property of resisting the heat of the current of electricity, while at the same time it becomes incandescent, and gives out one of the most brilliant lights which the world has ever seen. The cost of preparing one of these little horse-shoes of carbon is about 1 cent, and the entire lamp will cost not more than 25 cents.”

While Edison considered the invention his “crowning triumph,” it joined the long list of contributions that made him a record-holder for sheer number of U.S. patents — 1,093 — until the 21st century. His creations included the movie camera and the microphone, the phonograph and the mimeograph, the stock ticker and even the “stencil-pen,” a precursor to the tattoo gun.

And although his accomplishments spoke for themselves, Edison was equally prolific, and ambitious, in inventing myths to boost his reputation as a larger-than-life innovator, as a 1979 TIME profile notes. As a result, his inventions weren’t just scientific discoveries, but also prevarications. For one thing, he often claimed to be entirely self-taught, having never attended a day of school.

“Untrue,” says TIME. “He had at least three years of formal education as a child — a stint that was not unusually short in the rural Ohio and Michigan of his youth. As a budding inventor, he also attended classes in chemistry at New York City’s Cooper Union after realizing that his self-taught knowledge of that science was inadequate.”

He also boasted of never needing more than three hours of sleep a night. That’s a half-truth, although the full story may be even more impressive: He managed to piece together a full night’s rest by napping artfully throughout the day. Per TIME:

When the Ford Motor Co. archives were opened in 1951, researchers found many pictures of Henry Ford and his pal Edison in laboratories, at meetings and on outings. In some of these photos, Ford seemed attentive and alert, but Edison could be seen asleep — on a bench, in a chair, on the grass. His secret weapon was the catnap, and he elevated it to an art. Recalled one of his associates: ‘His genius for sleep equaled his genius for invention. He could go to sleep any where, any time, on anything.’

Read TIME’s piece on the 100th birthday of the light bulb, here in the archives: The Quintessential Innovator

TIME fashion

‘Death Becomes Her:’ 100 Years of Exquisite Mourning Dresses

Widow's wear was once a rigidly codified corner of the fashion world

“Widows are all much in demand,” sings the titular character in an English-language translation of The Merry Widow. “And if the poor things should be rich / Then there’s no end to the suitors at hand!”

And with so many gawkers gawking, a widow ought to be well dressed.

Mourning attire from 1815 to 1915 is the subject of a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” opening Tuesday in New York. And though Harper’s Bazaar urged “nun-like simplicity” of widow’s weeds in 1868, many of the frocks on display are very grand, embellished with lace, fringe and beads.

The period’s dichotomy of dress reflects the opposing aspects of widowhood: on one hand, a widow’s two years of wearing black reflected her chaste sadness. On the other, it signaled that she was sexually experienced, maritally unattached and possibly endowed with a new fortune of her own.

Some also found all-black attire to be quite fetching. After Queen Victoria’s death, Consuelo Vanderbilt’s husband observed her in her mourning outfit and paid her a “rare compliment:” “If I die, I see you will not remain a widow long.”

Upper-class women like Vanderbilt could afford to have black gowns made in the contemporary fashion, reflecting current trends in all but color. If one could not afford a new wardrobe of mourning clothes, one might apply some advice from the Rolling Stones to their existing wardrobe and “Paint It Black” (or dye it, anyway).

Different expectations of attire were in place depending on what family member a woman lost — a husband’s death required the most, a parent or sibling’s a bit less. As they moved into later mourning periods, they might incorporate white or gray stripes, checks and accents and even mauve was considered acceptable.

The strict codification of mourning attire only eased up during and after World War I, when so many lost husbands, fathers and sons. As Vogue noted in 1918, “Women felt, and rightly, that the indulgence of personal grief, even to the extent of wearing mourning, was incompatible with their duty to themselves, to their country, and to the men who cheerfully laid down their lives.”

TIME Opinion

50 Years Later: Why My Fair Lady Is Better Than You Remember

Audrey Hepburn In 'My Fair Lady'
Audrey Hepburn in a scene from the film 'My Fair Lady' Archive Photos / Getty Images

Think it's a sexist relic? Think again

I know what you’re going to say about Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. A snobby British guy in a Sherlock suit tries to “improve” a working woman by teaching her to talk pretty and look bangin’ in necklaces?! Screw you, Henry Higgins! Lean in to the flower business, Eliza! There’s nothing “loverly” about misogynistic woman-shaping narratives! Put My Fair Lady in a folder with all the other movies that “send bad messages,” like Grease and Gone With the Wind!

Screw Henry Higgins, indeed, but please do not underestimate My Fair Lady, a movie that, on Tuesday, celebrates the 50th anniversary of its premiere. And although it may be easy to dismiss the 1964 movie musical as an outdated rom-com from the shady period before feminism got rolling, it’s much more than just a relic of a sexist time. The movie itself isn’t misogynistic– it’s about misogyny.

First, a little history: The 1964 Audrey Hepburn movie version of My Fair Lady is based on the Broadway musical (starring Julie Andrews) with songs written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. The musical was based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion, which was itself based on the part in Ovid’s Metamorphosis when a sculptor named Pygmalion falls in love with his statue of the perfect woman. That part of Metamorphosis was based on every guy who ever thought he could create the girl of his dreams (specifically, Freddie Prinze Jr. in She’s All That, of which Ovid was reportedly a mega-fan).

Even studio execs are always trying to cultivate the perfect girl, and that led to a bit of behind-the-scenes drama when it came to casting Eliza Doolittle. Julie Andrews had played Eliza on Broadway, and had already mastered the character and the vocals, and her stage co-star Rex Harrison was going to play Higgins in the movie. But studio head Jack Warner didn’t think Julie Andrews had the name recognition or glamor to carry a major motion picture. “With all her charm and ability, Julie Andrews was just a Broadway name known primarily to those who saw the play,” Jack Warner wrote in his 1965 autobiography My First Hundred Years in Hollywood. “I knew Audrey Hepburn had never made a financial flop.” But Andrews got the last word — losing the My Fair Lady role allowed her to make Mary Poppins, for which she won a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Actress.

Audrey herself was still pretty good, even if she had to have her songs dubbed by another singer. As TIME wrote after the movie came out in 1964:

The burning question mark of this sumptuous adaptation is Audrey Hepburn’s casting as Eliza, the role that Julie Andrews had clearly been born to play….after a slow start, when the practiced proficiency of her cockney dialect suggests that Actress Hepburn is really only slumming, she warms her way into a graceful, glamorous performance, the best of her career.

From Ancient Greece to Edwardian England to 1960s Hollywood, the narrative remains the same: an overbearing male “genius” who transforms a pliable (read: vulnerable) woman from her meager, inadequate self into his personal ideal of womanhood. But thanks to Lerner and Loewe’s songs, My Fair Lady critiques that narrative as much as it upholds it. Their musical is not about a genius attempting to transform a weak woman. It’s about a strong woman attempting to retain her identity in spite of the controlling machinations of a small-minded man.

Take, for example, the undisguised misogyny in nearly all of Henry Higgins’s songs (spoken, with droll irony, by Rex Harrison). This is from a song near the end, fittingly titled “A Hymn to Him,” in which Higgins asks “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”:

Why is thinking something women never do?
Why is logic never even tried?
Straightening up their hair is all they ever do /
Why don’t they straighten up the mess that’s inside?

This comes shortly after he says women’s “heads are full of cotton, hay and rags” calls men a “marvelous sex.” That’s not the only song where he drones on about how amazing he is compared to women: in “You Did It,” he takes complete credit for everything Eliza does, and in “I’m an Ordinary Man,” he idealizes his woman-free “bachelor” life.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Lerner and Loewe were themselves misogynistic jerks, and these songs were meant as appreciative bro-anthems. Maybe if they had been alive today, the music videos would have featured naked models on leashes. But more likely, they wrote these songs to humiliate Henry Higgins, to show the audience that he’s a jerk and they know it.

And Eliza Doolittle has plenty of songs that demonstrate she is anything but a statue; after all, the entire musical is written largely from her perspective. By far the best is “Without You,” which is pretty much the Edwardian-showtune version of Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable:”

Without your pulling it, the tide comes in
Without your twirling it, the Earth can spin
Without your pushing them, the clouds roll by,
If they can do without you, ducky, so can I.

There’s also “Show Me” (where she tells her loser boyfriend Freddy that actions speak louder than words) and “Just You Wait” (where she fantasizes about leaving Henry Higgins for him to drown in the ocean while she goes to meet the King). Lerner and Loewe could easily have made Eliza into a love-sick ingenue, just by writing a few more songs like “I Could Have Danced All Night” (where she’s crushing on Higgins because they danced for a hot second, remember it’s 1912.) But they didn’t.

Of course, the whole Eliza-is-a-strong-woman argument gets compromised by the ending. Because after all her proclamations that she can “stand on her own,” Eliza comes back to Higgins. And when he asks “where the devil are my slippers?” she brings them to him. It’s an ending with the same ashy taste as the ending of Grease, because it seems incongruous: Eliza has no business being with Higgins, and it’s clear she’s independent-minded enough to know it.

Except, it’s 1912. And Eliza has no family connections, no money and no formal education, which means she has nowhere to go but back to the streets (or away with the insipid and financially dubious Freddy). She isn’t brainwashed or stupid — when given the choice between an emotionally abusive man and destitution, she chose the man. Choosing the man doesn’t make My Fair Lady a sexist movie; it makes it a movie about a sexist time.

Of course, 50 years later, there’s another version of My Fair Lady: Selfie, on ABC, is the newest to take up the Pygmalion mantel, when a male marketing exec “rebrands” a girl who has fouled up her social media presence. Let’s see how they do it without Lerner and Loewe.

Read TIME’s 1964 review of My Fair Lady, here in the archives: Still the Fairest of Them All

TIME health

What Does It Mean for an Ebola Outbreak to End?

West Africa Ebola
A Nigerian port health official speaks to a passenger at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria, Aug. 6, 2014. Sunday Alamba—AP

And how does the World Health Organization decide when that happens?

Nigeria’s most recent outbreak of Ebola is over, the nation’s government and World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Monday.

But — with fear of Ebola continuing to grip the world — what does that even mean? How does the WHO know that Nigeria is in the clear?

The answer, it turns out, is very specific: The WHO says a country can declare their outbreak to be over when it makes it through 42 days without a new case. That’s two incubation periods for the Ebola virus, so as long as 42 days have passed, during which the country had in place active surveillance and diagnostics but discovered no new cases, the WHO says it’s enough time to confidently say an outbreak is over. For health care workers to be considered “in the clear” they have to be monitored for 21 days after their last possible exposure to the virus, even if they were wearing full protective gear. Health care workers’ date of last contact is considered the day when the final patient with Ebola tests negative for the disease.

“Recent studies conducted in West Africa have demonstrated that 95% of confirmed cases have an incubation period in the range of 1 to 21 days; 98% have an incubation period that falls within the 1 to 42 day interval,” said WHO in a statement. “WHO is therefore confident that detection of no new cases, with active surveillance in place, throughout this 42-day period means that an Ebola outbreak is indeed over.”

MORE: Nigeria is Ebola-free: Here’s What They Did Right

This is not the first time WHO has declared Ebola outbreaks over using this particular standard — Senegal was declared Ebola-free on Oct. 17, and the strategy has proven effective in prior, unrelated, outbreaks.

In 1995, there was an Ebola outbreak in the country then called Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo); it was declared clear on Aug. 25 of that year. The New York Times reported at the time:

The World Health Organization declared today that an outbreak in Zaire of the deadly Ebola virus was officially over after killing 244 of its 315 known victims.

The United Nations agency, which is based here, said that 42 days, the equivalent of two maximum incubation periods, had passed without any new cases reported. It said it was still not known where the Ebola virus existed between human epidemics, although samples from some 3,000 birds and mammals collected in the Kikwit area, the center of the outbreak, were now being analyzed.

It’s important to have definitive parameters for declaring outbreaks over because, as the current and former outbreaks have shown, oftentimes an outbreak will appear to be extinguished, only to reappear in full force a couple weeks later. This past April, Guinea’s health ministry thought the outbreak was slowing, which turned out to be false; in the 1995 outbreak, public health experts were also fooled. As TIME reported:

For a while last week it looked as though the outbreak might soon be brought under control. The plague police-medical teams dispatched by who in Geneva, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and other public health groups-had set up an effective isolation ward at the main hospital in Kikwit, where the first case had been identified. Belgium’s Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) rushed in loads of gloves, gowns, masks and other essential equipment to restore hygiene to filthy clinics. But when the strike forces, aided by local medical students, fanned out through the countryside around Kikwit, trying to follow the path of the fever, it became clear that the danger was far from past.

In an announcement made Monday morning, WHO called Nigeria a “spectacular success story,” citing proof that Ebola can be contained. “The story of how Nigeria ended what many believed to be potentially the most explosive Ebola outbreak imaginable is worth telling in detail,” WHO says in a statement.

To read more about how Nigeria contained their most recent outbreak of Ebola, check out our coverage, here.

TIME politics

Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan and the Fear of Hollywood Communism

HUAC quote
Director Sam Wood, quoted in the Oct. 27, 1947, issue of TIME TUNE

Oct. 20, 1947: The House Un-American Activities Committee opens hearings into communist infiltration of the motion picture industry

Concern over the corrupting influence of the media is nothing new.

On this day — Oct. 20 — in 1947, members of the House Un-American Activities Committee began an investigation into alleged communist influences in the film industry as the post-World War II “Red Scare” ramped up towards its peak. (Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, the namesake of an era marked by anti-communist paranoia, was not involved with the Congressional committee, although their aims overlapped.) Fearing a conspiracy that would inject propaganda into productions and recruit movie-going Americans to communist causes, the committee subpoenaed more than 40 actors, directors, writers and studio executives, whom they grilled about their political affiliations and asked to name names of other Hollywood communists.

And while 80 celebrities — including Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly and John Huston — signed a petition denouncing the committee as un-American itself for probing the politics of individual citizens, the anti-communist momentum of the day carried the hearings forward.

Some of those subpoenaed cooperated fully with the committee, confirming its fears that subversives were at work in Hollywood. These “friendly witnesses” included Ronald Reagan, who testified that a “small clique” of communists “have attempted to be a disruptive influence” within the Screen Actors Guild, and Walt Disney, who declared that they had been behind a strike at his studio. Disney felt particularly vulnerable to the Red Menace, according to his testimony, in which he alleged that one communist agitator, the union organizer Herbert Sorrell, swore “he would make a dust bowl out of my plant if he chose to.” Disney knew Sorrell was a communist, he said, because of “having seen his name appearing on a number of Commie front things,” which then went on to smear Disney’s name.

On the other hand, ten screenwriters and directors refused to testify, arguing that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the freedom to belong to any political organization they chose. Congress didn’t see it that way, and a month later the men were cited for contempt and ultimately sentenced to a year in prison each.

In prison, one of the Hollywood Ten, as they came to be known, discovered warmer feelings for the committee. Director Edward Dmytryk testified a second time in 1951, outdoing even Reagan and Disney in his friendliness. As TIME reported in its coverage of the hearing:

This time Dmytryk not only admitted membership in the party in 1944-45; he also gave the committee a longer list of party members (26) than any other witness to date and the best summary yet of the Communists’ ‘Operation Hollywood.’

Those names joined a blacklist that destroyed hundreds of film careers. Dmytryk, however, speaking “with the surprised air of a man discovering sin for the first time,” said he believed the names should be known, and communism routed.

“This is treason and it means the party is committing treason,” he testified. “For this reason, I am willing to talk today.”

Read TIME’s 1951 coverage of Dmytryk’s change of heart, here in the archives: Operation Hollywood

TIME White House

Richard Nixon’s Comic Genius

NIxon's The One
Harry Shearer as Richard Nixon, with Henry Goodman as Henry Kissinger Ollie Upton—Sky Arts

Richard Nixon was imitating comedians, says the comedian who's imitating him

Most Americans think they have a pretty good idea of Richard Nixon: Checkers speech, Watergate, resignation.

Which is why Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons actor Harry Shearer decided to debut his Richard Nixon series, Nixon’s The One, in the U.K. The show, for which the scripts came from actual transcripts of Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, debuts for American audiences on YouTube on Tuesday — and people who think they know Nixon may be surprised, the actor says.

That’s because the Richard Nixon of Nixon’s The One is, in many ways, a comedian. Shearer and his co-writer Stanley Kutler, the historian who played a major role in getting those tapes released publicly, spent hundreds of hours listening to the tapes in search of “bizarre, funny, spooky, crazy, weird conversations” that weren’t necessarily about major world events but that shed a light on the President’s day-to-day character. Because many of the tapes had not been transcribed, as they were irrelevant to the Watergate investigation, they relied on logs of his Oval Office meetings to guess which tapes would contain conversations about the themes in which they were most interested; when they did listen, the tapes were often muffled and hard to decipher. And Shearer, who had played Nixon before, found that he had to do extra research in order to capture a relaxed version of the President, who was rarely seen in such a state publicly.

“One of the ways I try to figure out people is to figure out who are they imitating,” he says. “It struck me that the stance that I saw Nixon take when he was relaxed was imitative of the two most relaxed comedians of his era, Bob Hope and Jack Benny. He was sort of doing them, so I did him doing them.”

Nixon’s comedic side came out in particular in the scene prior to Nixon’s resignation, which was caught on camera rather than by Nixon’s audio recorder. In the minutes before he went on air, he joked with the camera crews, a choice that had long struck Shearer as odd, especially considering Nixon’s lack of affection for small talk. In the course of rehearsals, however, the actor came to believe that the joking was for a reason: “He thought, I believe, that these guys on the crew are going to go back home and talk to their families and say he wasn’t upset, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t sad, he was nice, he even wished us Merry Christmas,” Shearer explains. “It was the start of the next campaign, to rehabilitate his reputation.”

See an excerpt from that segment of Nixon’s The One:

And, says Shearer, the whole arc of Nixon is a comedy — or rather a tragicomedy — in its deep irony: Nixon was a self-made man, and then he became a self-destroyed man. “There’s something quite elegant about that,” Shearer says. “He sort of wrote the perfect punchline for his own joke.”

Read more: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About Richard Nixon

TIME White House

Ebola Czar Ron Klain Is a ‘Top-Flight Lawyer and Savvy Politician’

Lawyer and politcal operative Ron Klain on May 13, 2008 in New York City.
Lawyer and politcal operative Ron Klain on May 13, 2008 in New York City. Andrew H. Walker—Getty Images

The new Ebola czar is no stranger to making news

The White House confirmed Friday that President Obama has picked Ron Klain as the Administration’s “Ebola czar.” In his new role, Klain will be the point person for coordinating the nation’s response to the virus. The appointment marks a return to public life for Klain, who formerly worked under vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, but who has since spent several years in the private sector.

Though it’s a departure from his current job, the oversight role will no doubt draw on the skills that Klain has spent decades developing. In fact, back in 1994 TIME named Klain — then Chief of Staff to Janet Reno — to its list of 50 people who would make up the next generation of leadership. Here’s what we said about him back then:

In a city where name recognition is synonymous with success, Ron Klain has made a virtue of being unknown. As Attorney General Janet Reno’s chief of staff, he is all but invisible to the public but recognized in Democratic circles as the man to have on your side in a political or legal fight. A rare mix of top-flight lawyer and savvy politician, Klain shepherded the nominations of Reno and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg through the Senate and steered the omnibus crime bill through the turbulent legislative process. An honors graduate of Georgetown and Harvard Law, he clerked for Justice Byron White. Spurning six-figure law-firm offers, he signed on as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a job Justice Stephen Breyer once held on his road to the High Court. Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, an admiring former teacher, calls Klain ”one of the most politically talented and intellectually powerful students I’ve ever had” — one destined to lose his anonymity soon.

Over the decades that followed, that paragraph would not be the only time Klain would show up in the pages of the magazine. His name came up in 2000 when Al Gore was questioned about a 1996 campaign-finance scandal, and throughout that year as Bush v. Gore progressed; John Kerry praised his help on the campaign trail in 2004; he was named as a possible replacement for Rahm Emanuel in 2010; he even joked around with Joel Stein in 2012 after the Supreme Court cited a TIME article about Internet privacy.

Today, as the U.S. and the world continue to fight the Ebola outbreak, Klain’s name in the news is sure to be an even more regular event.

Read the introduction to the “50 for the Future” list that included such luminaries as Ron Klain, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates, here in the archives: The Real Points of Light

TIME movies

When Mr. Smith Took Washington by Storm

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'
James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

Seventy-five years ago, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' premiered in D.C. — and not everyone in the audience was happy about it

In 1939, Frank Capra had just won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director with his film of the Broadway hit You Can’t Take It with You. His 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town had also roused audiences with its story of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a naive bumpkin who inherits a fortune and is beset by big-city predators, including the tabloid press.

Capra had some capital to spend, and he spent it in the Nation’s Capital. His new film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, would send a Deeds-like naïf, James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith, to the U.S. Senate, where his dewy ideals collide with the invested power of corrupt lawmakers. When the film opened 75 years ago, on Oct. 19, 1939, the TIME reviewer noted:

This new Capra fable is as whimsical, the Capra directing as slick, the script as fast and funny as in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The acting of the brilliant cast is sometimes superb. But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is bigger than any of these things. Its real hero is not calfy Jeff Smith, but the things he believes, as embodied in the hero of U. S. democracy’s first crisis, Abraham Lincoln.

A U.S. Senator dies, and the state’s governor names Smith, editor of a Boy Scout-type newspaper called Boy’s Stuff, to fill the seat. That’s fine with Boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), who figures he can control Smith the way he has run, through bullying and bribes, the Governor, the local industry, the press, the state legislature and Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), the senior U.S. Senator. When Smith proposes a bill to set aside an area near Willet Creek Dam for a Boy Ranger park, Taylor instructs Paine to denounce Smith as “a contemptible young man with a contemptible scheme,” falsely charging him with secretly owning the land the park is to be built on. Scorned by the entire Senate, but encouraged by his wily Chief of Staff Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Smith launches an all-night filibuster to prove his innocence and righteousness.

Arthur, who had starred in Mr. Deeds and You Can’t Take It with You, was top-billed, but Stewart carries the film in his first career-defining role. With a plangent voice always breaking as if he’s on the cusp of puberty, Stewart’s Smith proves how a young man’s ideals can trump his own ignorance and the infernal forces aligned against him. Seven years later, Stewart would play an older, more desperate Smith type as George Bailey in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the all-TIME 100 Movies.

In the freewheeling, fire-breathing script by Sidney Buchman, Smith is an overgrown boy searching for a father figure; his own dad was “a struggling editor” whose efforts against men like Taylor led to his death — “slumped over his desk… shot in the back.” (If a politician thinks you’re in his way, he may kill you.) He thinks Paine might be a shining replacement, until he learns of the man’s craven fealty to Taylor. Paine’s rationalization — “I compromised, yes, so that all these years I could stay in that Senate, and serve the people in a thousand honest ways” — sounds like the forlorn words a weaselly Congressman shouts to himself in the bathroom mirror. Halfway through the film Smith realizes that his one and only father figure is the seated figure in the Lincoln Memorial.

Having castigated American governance as a do-nothing cabal of corruption (sound familiar?), Capra then had an even bolder idea: He would premiere Mr. Smith in a special showing hosted by the National Press Club in the capital, with members of the Cabinet and both Houses of Congress present. As TIME reported the following week:

When the picture was over, the audience applauded loudly. [But] Three Senators (who declined to be quoted) upheld Senatorial dignity with these pungent comments on the film: “Not all Senators are sons of bitches.” “Punk!” “It stinks!”

That translates as “How dare he!” — which had to be music to the nervy little Sicilian director. Like Jefferson Smith, Frank Capra had walked into the U.S. Senate, given it a stern civics lesson, endured the catcalls of its denizens and emerged triumphant. Mr. Smith would be nominated for 11 Oscars — winning only for Best Story (Lewis R. Foster) in the sweep year of Gone With the Wind — and became a popular, enduring hit. But Capra’s most savory memory had to be displaying the Senate’s venery to itself. What filmmaker today would have such big steels balls?

Read TIME’s full Oct. 1939 report on the D.C. premiere of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, here in the archives: Mr. Smith Riles Washington

TIME Crime

Al Capone Once Spent $6,500 on Meat

Al Capone
A November 1930 mugshot of Chicago gangster Al Capone PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Oct. 17, 1931: Al Capone is convicted of income tax evasion and later sentenced to 11 years in prison

Here’s a friendly regular reminder of why you should pay your taxes: Al Capone, the Chicago mob boss known for making the city’s bloody bootlegging business even bloodier, faced trial in 1931 — not for the dozens of murders he is suspected of engineering, but for the $215,000 in taxes he never paid on more than a million dollars in illegal earnings. Instead of a body count, prosecutors totaled the lavish expenditures that made Al Capone one of the flashiest figures of the Prohibition era.

According to the New York Times’ account of the trial, Federal Attorney G. E. Q. Johnson harped on the extravagance of Capone’s $135 suits and $27 silk shirts — which, “in the stress and passion of his talk,” the prosecutor sometimes referred to as $27,000 silk shirts. The expenses got bigger: $6,500 spent on meat to feed guests at Capone’s nightly poker parties, $8,000 on diamond belt buckles, $116,000 lost on horse races. The idea was that Capone’s expenses would prove that he had once had the money that had gone unreported.

The list went on, as TIME reported:

Witnesses from Florida said Capone had spent $40,000 for his Palm Island home, $100,000 to improve it, swore to a $6,500 meat bill, a $2,085 hotel bill, a $9,000 telephone bill, asserted he distributed $5 tips and spent thousands of dollars on cakes and macaroni. Prize Miami witness was one H. F. Ryder, a garrulous carpenter whose $1,011 bill had been paid by “Mr. Al—Mr. Capone—the gentleman there.” Witness Ryder said Capone’s friends “gave me a sandwich sometimes,” thought “Mr. Al was a mighty fine man,” even though he still owed him $125. He told of being paid $250 from “a roll that would choke an ox”—as big as Judge Wilkerson’s fist. “There were money wrappers by the handful around the place. All marked $1,000.”

But when, on this day — Oct. 17 — in 1931, the jury returned their verdict, Capone was found guilty of only five of the 23 charges against him.

Both the prosecutors and defense attorneys were puzzled; Capone’s attorney, unsure what he was hearing, asked for the verdict to be read a second time. Capone, on the other hand, “grinned as though he felt he had gotten off easily,” despite the fact that the five counts still carried a potentially heavy sentence.

It’s unlikely his grin lasted through his sentencing hearing in November, since the 11-year term the judge imposed was then a record-breaking penalty for tax fraud. The costs of Capone’s years of extravagant living caught up with him behind bars, where he suffered from dementia related to late-stage syphilis. By the time he was released, his physician concluded that he had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. He never returned to gang life, or — at least publicly — to Chicago.

Read TIME’s original coverage of Capone’s trial, here in the archives: Who Wouldn’t Be Worried?

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