Friday, March 11, 2011

Hangin' With Mr. Cooper

Film: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

You can see a Frank Capra ending the minute the film starts. That’s the way of Frank Capra movies. He made the same movie over and over, changing a few things here and there—names, places—but at their core, Capra had one story. The story he tells in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is essentially the same story he tells in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life and many of his other films.

It helps that it’s a good story. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the tale of a good-hearted, naïve man suddenly gifted with great power and afflicted by great trials, the template for Capra’s later film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The characters here serve as templates for that one—the naïve, the hard-hearted woman, the hangers-on, the people who wish to exploit the naïve for criminal (or political) gain, etc.

But I’ve jumped ahead, haven’t I? Someday I’ll learn.

Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits $20 million upon the death of his uncle, making him suddenly one of the richest men in the country (and remember, this is during the Great Depression). He moves to New York where he meets nothing but conniving people intent on separating him from as much of his fortune as they can.

The first of these is Mr. Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), his uncle’s lawyer. Cedar wants power of attorney over the fortune, because he’s got a $500,000 hole in his own books to cover. Also on the trail of Deeds is Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur), a crack newspaper reporter bent on getting as much of a story from Deeds as she can in exchange for a raise and a month’s paid vacation.

Babe discovers that Deeds has a thing for damsels in distress, so she fakes being in need and is quickly scooped up by Deeds. As he tries to cheer her up (he is a nice guy and a naïve, after all), he gets in a couple of fist fights with some drunken authors who want to make fun of him, and then goes on his own drunken bender. All of this is grist for Babe’s mill, who quickly dubs him The Cinderella Man, making him the laughing stock of New York despite his extremely deep pockets. In fact, he has only two friends, Babe and Cobb (Lionel Stander), and Babe really isn’t his friend.

Eventually, Deeds wises up and realizes that everyone is out to get him, and that the money is at the heart of the problem. Confronted by a destitute farmer, Deeds concocts a plan to use his fortune to buy a huge parcel of land and divvy it out to men who need it, allowing them to farm the land themselves, thus becoming productive members of society. Other relatives of the dead uncle, snubbed benefactors, and Cedar react badly to this and try to have Deeds committed, because anyone willing to give up that much money must be crazy. Of course, by this time, Babe has come around. This all leads to the big courtroom scene at the end, a scene that takes the final act, and essentially the last quarter of the film.

Like I said at the start, there’s no mystery to this film except for those who have never seen a classic Hollywood film or are very young and naïve themselves. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town doesn’t have a single surprise for anyone with any sort of movie watching history. I say this not as a criticism of the film, but merely as a fact to be stated—where this film is going to end up is pretty obvious from the start.

And that’s okay. In a world filled with anti-heroes and people I don’t enjoy spending a couple of minutes watching, let alone a couple of hours, seeing a genuinely nice guy on the screen is pretty refreshing. Okay, Deeds is sort of a ridiculous ideal and has just enough quirkiness to make him a movie character, but it’s all to the good here. It’s a sweet film, heartfelt and cute. Deeds is a nice enough guy, and Cooper plays him well. He’d be a fun guy to go have a beer with.

A story like this naturally gets remade time and time again. The two most recent examples that I know of are The Hudsucker Proxy and Mr. Deeds, which was a pretty straight remake. I really like Hudsucker, in part because of the actors in it and in part because it’s a Coen vehicle. It’s a smart remake, but it really is a remake in almost every way, up to and including the hard-bitten female reporter who once won the Pulitzer. As for Mr. Deeds, it’s best handled in a spoiler:

*** $20,000,000.00! ***

In the Capra original, Deeds takes the money he has inherited and helps out a few thousand people who really need the help. It’s a ridiculous gesture, but heartwarming and sweet. Sure, it smacks of classic Hollywood sap, but it plays nicely on the screen, even if the courtroom scene gets ridiculous with everyone laughing at everything Deeds says. By contrast, in the Adam Sandler remake, he allows someone else to take over the company he inherits, walks away with a cool billion, and buys everyone in his old home town a Corvette. Instead of the milk of human kindness, we get greed and conspicuous consumption. It’s proof that somewhere along the way, a large part of the movie industry stopped trying to pretend it had a soul.

*** BANKRUPT! ***

In what should generally be a theme for anyone serious about movies, it’s always a good idea to stick with the original. It’s sappy and ends up being essentially as naïve and Deeds himself, but sometimes it’s okay to end watching a film with a little smile and a little faith in humanity.

Why to watch Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: It’s a heartwarming tale from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Why not to watch: The ending is visible from 100 miles off.


  1. They don't call it Capra-corn for nothing. Regardless, he had a way and I never tire of seeing Gary Cooper in this one. Adam Sandler's remake was OK as a respectful homage, but Cooper is still THE Mr. Deeds.

  2. After film like LYAM, you probably REALLY NEEDED a Capra movie.

  3. Some truth to that, although Marienbad was a fun review to write. It's always more fun to be mean than it is to be gushy.

  4. Nice piece, Bubs. I realize that I'm a rube, but Capra gets me every time.

  5. Then I'm a rube, too, because Capra brand of cheesy goodness fills me with warmth and smiles rather than dyspepsia. Silly? Yes. Trite? Yes. But they work.

  6. I saw Mr. Deeds Goes to Town last night and I thought the competency hearing was one of the dumbest things I've ever seen on film. Me just sit here and look sad and not fight because me sad that Jean Arthur was mean. I don't know how I was supposed to be sympathetic for Mr. Deeds at that point except that he was being played by Gary Cooper.

    And Deeds is kind of an ass anyway. He hits people when they make him sad. What a jerk. I was hoping they would lock him away and give the money to somebody in a good movie.

    I like It's a Wonderful Life and I used to watch it pretty regularly during the holiday season. And I haven't seen It Happened One Night all the way through for a very long time but the last time I watched it a few months ago, I saw about a half hour in the middle of the movie and I was amazed at how good the script is. That snippet I saw was a very enjoyable movie on its own without any context of how it fits in the rest of the movie.

    But as good as Capra is some of the time, he frequently goes off the rails, for me anyway, and I find myself scratching my head at why some film fans are so crazy for Capra.

    For example, I think the Simpsons version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (with Mel Gibson) looks bad, but it would be a little better than the original.

    1. Your reaction to this is exactly my reaction to You Can't Take It with You, which is 50% sap and 50% cheese.

    2. You Can't Take It With You isn't one of my favorites but I like it well enough. I find the performers very charming - Lionel Barrymore, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Mischa Auer, Dub Taylor and especially Ann Miller.

      I can see your point but it doesn't have anything as infuriatingly stupid as the competency hearing in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

    3. I disagree. I think the entire ethos of You Can't Take It with You is incredibly infuriating. It suggests that taxation has no purpose, for one thing. For another, it suggests that following a dream regardless of competence is a good thing and should be encouraged no matter what.