Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

mrdeeds
I know I am supposed to say Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) is a screwball comedy, but I just can’t do it!  Yes, it has many funny moments in it and the main character is a tad screwy, but I can’t put it in the same category as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Lady Eve (1941), or The Awful Truth (1937). Plus, being a Frank Capra directed film it has a bit of a dark underside to it—and I don’t mean dark humor. I would actually categorize it as a dramedy, as the first half of the film is mostly comedy and the second half mostly drama (with a few choice comical moments pixielated in).  Whatever you label it, Mr. Deeds is a film anchored by understated, good acting and a strong story about the value of honesty and goodness in a corrupt world. 

A standard theme in Capra films, the idea of the simple everyman exposing the falseness of overindulged city slickers, is a crucial element in this film. Gary Cooper plays Longfellow Deeds, a country gentleman from Mandrake Falls, Vermont, who inherits $20 million from an overindulgent uncle from New York City.  Deeds is a poet who loves nature and plays the tuba, and is often mistaken for a country yokel because of his naiveté and plainspoken ways.  He looks like an easy mark to one of his mrdeeds2-1uncle’s shady lawyers, Mr. Cedar (Douglas Dumbrille), but Deeds knows (and says) that working for nothing isn’t natural and so he instantly doesn’t trust Cedar.  Transplanted to New York City, Deeds finds himself surrounded by many people he doesn’t trust—or worse, who think they are better than him because they are cosmopolitan.  His best friends turn out to be his valet, Walter (Raymond Walburn), and his fixer, Corny Cobb (Lionel Stander)—both of which happen to be working class stiffs.

An idealist in every sense, Deeds finds himself instantly attracted to a woman who faints outside his mansion one rainy night. Thinking he has rescued a damsel in distress, Deeds believes he has found his dream woman in stenographer Mary Dawson (Jean mrdeeds1Arthur).  What he doesn’t know is Mary isn’t a stenographer, but a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for The Morning Mail named Babe Bennett.  She labels him the Cinderella Man and opens him up to the ridicule of the entire city.  Eventually Babe falls in love with her “assignment” and starts to regret what she has done, but before she can come clean with Deeds the truth comes out.  At this point the film’s mood totally changes, and I don’t know that I agree with how abrupt the shift is.

If you have seen the film then you remember the gun-wielding, displaced farmer (John Wray), who convinces Deeds he should give away his $20 million to those who need it.  Up until this point there hasn’t been any meaningful reference to the Depression or the downtrodden (except for the fainting Mary). So, when threata man bursts into Deed’s mansion and aims a gun at him and goes off on a tirade about feeding doughnuts to horses and having lavish parties, it is completely jarring.  Yes, I know it was a plot device to move the story along to the whole insanity hearing part of the film, but I think some earlier ground-laying of this theme would have been useful.  If I have one nit-pick with the movie it is this…oh, and that hideous Robin Hood feather in her cap hat that Arthur wears in one scene—Samuel Lange, you had a short career for a reason!

Both Cooper and Arthur give understated performances in Mr. Deeds. Cooper (nominated for a Best Actor Oscar) always played the geez, smarter than you think country bumpkin well, and his Deeds is no exception.  His slack-jawed line delivery and easy-going physical mrdeeds3mannerisms play well for Deed’s personality.  Some might say that Cooper lacked acting range, but they would also have to admit that he owned his own style and it worked (none better than in his role as Clint Maroon in Saratoga Trunk [1945]). Arthur, for her part, is not, as she is often described, the “quintessential comedic leading lady.” She’s not that funny in this film because this isn’t a screwball comedy!  As a matter of fact, besides a few good one liners and a couple of comical sideway looks, her role mostly consists of her being depressed by her bad behavior or being anxious over the possibility of Deeds being institutionalized.  Am I the only one who notices this?  Still, I always like Arthur—she is just so likable, even when she’s playing a liar.

Overall, Mr. Deed Goes to Town is an enjoyable dramedy.  Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, this is a typical Frank Capra Depression-Era vehicle. I don’t subscribe to the school of film critics who refer to this period of his work as Capra-corn. Instead, like many others, I believe people went to films like Mr. Deeds because they were inspirational and uplifting.  In the end, that is exactly what this movie turns out to be.

14 comments:

  1. I adore Gary Cooper, and I adore this movie. I also really adore the Longfellow Deeds character...he's the kind of man we need more of in this world.

    Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is easily one of my top 15 movies of all time, and, until very recently when I discovered "Ten North Frederick," it was my favorite Coop movie. SUCH a touching, inspiring film.

    I get such a huge kick out of the part in the movie when Deeds discovers his echo.

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    1. I adore Gary Cooper, too, Patti! Deeds is definitely the kind of man we need more of, too. However, this isn't one of my top films. I like it, but it's not on my top of anything list. As I said in my post, Saratoga Trunk is my favorite Gary Cooper film.

      The echo scene with the staff is a hoot.

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  2. Good point about this film not really being a screwball comedy but inhabiting another category altogether. 'Mr Deeds Goes to Town' is closer to other Capra comedy-dramas like 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington' or 'Meet John Doe' or even 'It's a Wonderful Life' - Capra seems more interested in exploring social/political issues than in the battle-of-the-sexes plot of screwball. I think what helps smooth the transition in 'Mr Deeds' from farcial comedy to drama is the really fine and intense performance given by John Wray as the homeless man with the gun. Capra always got some of the best performances from his actors, and 'Mr Deeds' has so many, even in the small roles (such as Franklin Pangborn as the shy man measuring Mr Deeds for a suit - he's only on for a few minutes, but he makes those minutes memorable!)

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    1. You are right about this being more like Mr. Smith and John Doe--all three have dark sides to them.

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  3. I love this movie. Their scene when he first takes her to dinner, the sightseeing on top of the bus, all gems. Cooper was an actor of quiet power, and Arthur with her many-layered performances was an equal match to him. Her skittishness played well against his serenity.

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    1. Good point about Arthur and Cooper's contrasting styles working well--but I don't think she's that skittish in this. In fact, she is rather serene compared to most of her other films.

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  4. Kim, I've never thought of DEEDS as a screwball comedy. If it sometimes gets that label, perhaps it's because of the presence of Jean Arthur. It is, as they say, "Capraesque"--Capra's unique blend of comedy, drama, sentimentality, and social comment. I'm not a big Jean Arthur fan, which may be why I prefer MEET JOHN DOE. Even though they are all distinct films, I somehow group MR. SMITH, JOHN DOE, and DEEDS together. I certainly enjoy DEEDS and Gary Cooper is quite good. Did you know there was a 1969 TV series MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN with Monte Markham? It only lasted a year, but was certainly than the Adam Sandler remake! First-rate job, as always.

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    1. Me, neither, Rick! It isn't a screwball comedy, but some critics surely label it such. Really, you don't like sweet Jean Arthur? Babs Stanwyck is a favorite of mine, Rick--and we know she wasn't all that sweet in most of her roles--but you can like both the strong (and a little surly) and sweet! LOL!!!

      BTW, my writing is a reflection of the company I keep here at the Cafe.

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  5. Longfellow Deeds is a character I alternately embrace or dismiss depending on the level of my personal cynicism at various times. "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" is a film I always admire. Maybe I'm pixilated.

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    1. Ah, finally someone gets my reference!

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  6. I have always been ambivalent about Frank Capra's films but MR DEEDS is one of Capra's greatest works with his classic theme about the common man, overcoming greedy parasites and underhandedness, in this case, from lawyers and newspapers.

    Capra seems to have had a thing for newspaper reporters. Here it is Jean Arthur's character, but we also have Stanwyck in MEET JOHN DOE, Clark Gable in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and Robert Williams in PLATINUM BLONDE. Wonderful review here Kim!


    John

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    1. John, I think Capra knew how important newspapers were to shaping public opinion (sort of like tv media today) and that was a reason he had many of his main characters be of that profession. Glad you liked the review!

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  7. Kim, one cannot help but cheer for Longfellow Deeds. He is such a dear character with heartfelt honesty. That of course makes him vulnerable and keeps the movie going at a nice clip. I think Gary Cooper shines in this film, whether he is pixelated or not. Well done!

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    1. Glad you liked the review, Toto. Cooper is very good here.

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