MR DEEDS TO TOWN, 1936
Directed by Frank Capra
Starring: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft
Review by Aria Chiodo
Longfellow Deeds lives in a small town, leading a small town kind of life – including playing the tuba in the town band. When a relative dies and leaves Deeds a fortune, Longfellow picks up his tuba and moves to the big city where he becomes an instant target for everyone from the greedy opera committee to the sensationist daily newspaper.
OSCAR Winner for Best Director (Capra)
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper), Best Sound, Best Screenplay
Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) is primarily a romantic comedy; it followed his best known romantic comedy, It Happened One Night, and the forgotten Broadway Bill, both from 1934. But Mr. Deeds has more than romance and comedy— it’s an early example of Capra using these genres but also including metaphors to comment more gravely on the state of the country and society. The reason that this original film is so superior to the remake Mr. Deeds (2002) is simply that in the more recent film they upped the romance and ridiculous comedy, and left out the social importance. Capra’s genius partly lay in creating (with the help of great writers) entertaining films for Hollywood that fit into familiar genres but also had social relevance, which is lacking in the majority of Hollywood films today, certainly the current bland romantic comedies.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is about a regular small town man, an upstanding citizen, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), who inherits two million dollars from an uncle after he dies in a car accident. The uncle’s attorneys take him back to New York, hoping to make a quick settlement and get a large sum from this naïve and honest man. They, of course, are not the only ones hoping to get money out of him; New York is full of swindlers hoping to take advantage of this small town guy, who apparently doesn’t really want the money at all. But he is tougher and smarter than he looks and his upstanding honesty and goodness means that he won’t be swindled by any dishonest and greedy individual. The newspapers can’t lay their hands on him either, since he has a savvy press agent working for him (played by the hilarious Lionel Stander). The only reporter able and smart enough to get close to him is the lovely top reporter Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), who pretends to be an innocent stenographer and takes Deeds around the city, with photographers at her beck and call and reporting everything for the front page story the next day.
The film presents a story of a man being taken advantage of in the big city, by everyone he meets, including the girl he’s fallen for. It’s a representation of the brutality of the city and its heartless residents— a metaphor for society as a whole and how badly citizens of the country treat one another without even thinking. Of course, Capra is anything but subtle in his representations and metaphors—his hero’s goodness of character and commentary on all he experiences gives us a clear message about the need and possibility for human kindness in society. Deeds’ answer as to what he should use the money for comes in a moving scene when an old farmer demands to see him and goes on a rampage about giving something to the starving families who have lost their properties and way of life. Deeds decides to put his money towards getting acres of the land to give to these families who can then own a new farm. The enormity of this task is shown with the thousands of poor farmers who show up at Deed’s house, but he is insistent on seeing all of them and going through with his task.
The climax of the film is in a courtroom , where the attorneys are charging Deeds with insanity and an inability to handle the amount of money he has been given. He refuses to defend himself, seeming to have lost faith in society and its people, and it is Babe Bennett who helps save him from his hopelessness and wrong conviction, since she is after all in love with him as well. The story is indeed a romance, since Deeds saves Bennett—“the woman in distress” who he has always wanted to save—by making her a better person, and she in turn saves him. Their relationship is simple and sweet, the actors and director never create overly sappy moments; they create a romantic and hopeful pairing. And, through the romance plot, Capra creates a bigger picture of hope: one of a better society in which those with money will help those without, instead of using them to get ahead in the world.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is one of the three Oscars Capra received for Best Director, and he is today a great example of one of the old Hollywood directors who knew how to use popular genres to make big studio films, without sacrificing content. While many shallow films were made by the studios to help people forget about the Depression and escape into a world of music and laughter, Capra was reminding the public of the hard times, while also giving a sense of hope and romance.