Monday, May 21, 2007

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Clarence Budington Kellund and Robert Riskin
Starring: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur

Black & White, 115 minutes

Grade: A+

Longfellow Deeds (Cooper) is a simple man who enjoys long walks in the woods. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he has a good job writing poems for postcards, and he is something of a local celebrity in his hometown of Mandrake Falls, Vermont. The serenity of his peaceful existence is thrown off kilter when his uncle passes away and leaves Deeds with a $20 million inheritance. Deeds waves goodbye to Mandrake Falls and heads to his uncle's home in New York. During his stay he is tricked,manipulated, and deceived by nearly everyone around him for a piece of the money. The most notable backstabber is reporter Louise "Babe" Bennett (Jean Arthur) who seduces Deeds into caring for her only to make him out to be a complete fool on the front page, branding him "The Cinderella Man." Upon realizing Bennett's betrayal, Deeds decides to head back to Vermont. On his way out the door, Deeds is confronted by a farmer who is down on his luck. Seeing this, Deeds decides to give his entire inheritance to a group of local farmers. Of course, once the lawyers of New York hear this, Deeds has his sanity put up on trial. Literally.

Another one of Capra's odes to the common man, Deeds holds up well today because of Cooper's incisive acting and Capra's uncanny ability to pierce the human heart. Not outrageous enough to fit into the category of screwball comedy, and not sentimental enough to be melodrama, Capra is able to find the perfect balance that keeps this material interesting, pleasant, and even fairly suspenseful.

Now, I'm going to be completely honest here. I am of the mind that Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is in the upper echelon of the greatest achievements in world cinema. I'm not going to get into it here, but I will say that no film, with the exception of Vertigo, has the power to effect me as much on repeated viewings as that film. Mr. Deeds is nowhere near as good as that film, but it is still an essential experience., mainly because it's here that Capra plants the seeds that would grow to full bloom in Wonderful Life. The two films are very similar, especially in their lead characters. They are both very nice, genuine, and humble men who find themselves near the end of their rope, trapped in what seems to be an impossible situation. The difference between the two is that Longfellow Deeds isn't afraid to raise some hell when he needs to. It's quite often that you see him in fist fights defending his honor. It's this element that makes Deeds a bit more human that George Bailey. He's a nice guy alright, and maybe even more than a bit naive, but he isn't above putting others in their place, and Gary Cooper lets all that register on his face. From bewilderment to anger to subtle surprise, Cooper has no problem with the range of emotions that Capra throws at him. It's a surprisingly deep performance.

In the end, however, this is Capra's film. This type of material takes a master to steer it home, and Capra is more than up for the challenge. Often overlooked by many snobs because his films lack the style of many of his contemporaries, Capra was nonetheless a true visionary. I believe He had both the courage and the foresight to see the potential impact that his films could have on future audiences. He was willing to be sentimental when many "serious" filmmakers were not, and because of that, he will never be forgotten. His films have a lasting quality because, like Deeds and Bailey, they too are simple. They aren't out to shake us or attack our senses or shove a message down our throats. Capra's films are there to remind us that people can still be good. "He's got goodness," says Babe Bennett when talking about Longfellow Deeds. The same could easily be said of Frank Capra, and his genius was that he believed the same could be said for everyone else.


H. Stewart said...

You're spot on about Capra. I really like this film, too, though I might say it's a notch down from some others, like Mr. Smith (which also features a pugilistic everyman), It's a Wonderful Life (has the same effect you describe on me too) and It Happened One Night. Cooper's a bit too bumbly for me at times.

Anyway, Capra does seem to get a short shrift from the critical establishment, like he's a sort of side note or something. I think his defining scene is in It Happened One Night, in which the main characters are on a bus and everyone is joyfully singing "The Man on the Flying Trapeze", until the song is interuppted by a scream, and we find out a woman's gone unconscious from starvation. It's light and funny, then somberly serious without blinking an eye! That is, it's solmenly socially conscious but still lighthearted--wow!

H. Stewart said...

Oh, and Jean Arthur is my favorite actress from the '30s I think. I never get tired of that squeak!