Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, Frank Capra)


Considering how much this film has in its favor in terms of my personal biases — Frank Capra! the 1930s! Studio-era screwball-ish Hollywood comedy! Slight socialist undercurrent! — I was surprised to find it a major disappointment, and likely the least successful of Capra’s films that I’ve seen. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching, but in light of its reputation, its simplistic stable of character actor overreactions and heart-of-gold everyman heroics seems tired, but it’s hard to say how much of this feeling is a result of watching the director’s films in a different order than they were made. I have long been in love with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which I now realize is essentially a second pass at the exact same story told here: a decent man comes into some sort of major stroke of luck, here an unexpected fortune, and has his optimism about human nature tested by the crowding vultures that result. Perhaps I might have had the opposite perspective on this and Mr. Smith if they’d come to me in reverse order. Still, stacked against either It Happened One Night or It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town clearly crumbles.

Besides, the setting made more sense in the 1939 film, with Congress actually quite capable of the kind of back-stabbing therein depicted, and the characters were fuller, the performances stronger. Here, the Town of the title is New York City, and Deeds is a less sophisticated three-pronged attack on both small-town denizens and NYC urbanites. Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin rely excessively on Deeds himself (a laconic Gary Cooper) as audience mouthpiece: coming into a millionaire bounty from a deceased uncle and struggling over what to do with it, his final Depression-era tack is to simply give it all away, which leads inevitably to what amounts to a trial in the name of capitalism: a hearing questioning Deeds’ santity. But a miscast Cooper doesn’t know how to help the director make this theoretically universal caricature an actually likable human being; as in High Noon, his stony, macho passivity only occasionally allows an emotion of some sort to come about, and the result is that despite everyone’s best efforts, he seems to be sleepwalking through his life story. And for all of the film’s timely sense of community and social justice (not to mention its unmistakable Christ parallels), I’m really peeved by the early opera sequence in which Deeds (and Capra) cast condescending laughter upon the idea of art for art’s sake. Icky.

For a man who generally is to be commended for his humanistic use of real, believable characters, Capra stumbles here; Deeds is a curious hodgepodge of tuba-playing, poetry-writing geek and quiet-storm dreamboat, and it’s discomforting how the film both expects him to be our vessel and mocks his small-world, sheltered ideas. This is especially prominent in a sequence that features his confrontation with a group of condescending Algonquin scribes, but moreover in the love story with Jean Arthur, whose performance is — not surprisingly — easily the highlight of the film. Arthur is “Babe” Bennett, a vicious and resourceful newspaper reporter who deceives Deeds into thinking she’s a damsel-in-distress who desperately needs him and falls for him. Sure, it’s a bit mean, but Bennett is a far more interesting character than Deeds, and she’s useful in indirectly calling out his self-absorbed, misogynistic “ideals” about romance and women; though the deception itself is ostensibly the source for Deeds’ (monotonous) depression for the entire third act of the picture, the implication seems to be that he’s devastated because she’s a person with a life of her own, and a career.

That would be fine (indeed, such proto-feminist conceits have trouble getting to the screen in Hollywood now) if the film didn’t seem to come down squarely on his side; the truth is that he really does seem pixilated. Babe’s transformation into really actually being in love with Deeds seems like masculine wish fulfillment to me, and it’s one of several character changes throughout the film, usually in regard to folks’ reaction to Deeds’ supposed heart of gold (?), that doesn’t make a lick of sense and seems wholly unearned, even a bit ridiculous. Several story points are equally lazy or unjustified — given that it was the central deception that broke Deeds’ heart, why would a confession of love at the trial make so much difference? Why wouldn’t he testify on his own behalf simply because he was depressed? Why is he suddenly “the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom” at the finale!? And is $20 million really, truly enough money to give entire farms to multitudes of poor families, enough to require an application process that brings in what looks like the entire population of upstate New York? Deeds is one man, he’s not a government institution, but the film’s inexplicably lofty perception of him overrides this.

Outside of all such logical issues, Mr. Deeds really needed to be trimmed down, by a lot; the entire film is poorly paced and the closing courtroom sequence is excruciatingly overlong. My patience with even Arthur’s charm was tried after a while, and the extended runtime underlines just how ambivalent and charmless Cooper seems; his aw-shucks seems so much more lethargic and strained than James Stewart’s. Nevertheless, there are some big laughs early on (I wish they’d run with Deeds’ tendency toward outlandish violence, which was the most spontaneous and surprising part of the film, though it’s again reprised in Mr. Smith), and a couple of moments have Capra’s immense sense of empathy shining through. I think especially of Cooper’s note-perfect reaction when the cops come to get him, the sincerity of Arthur’s first speech about Deeds’ essential goodness, and Arthur’s impassioned courtroom outburst in his defense. That’s when I could sense something deeply felt poking through. But this looks mighty weak next to not just Mr. Smith Goes to Washington but You Can’t Take It with You… and Bad Girl. But it’s required viewing for the way it seemed to grab audiences by their throats in its period, and as accidental documentary of Depression-era sensibilities you could do far worse.

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