Saturday, September 4, 2010

Film Review: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Jean Arthur begs Gary Cooper to defend his sanity
at a hearing in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
For those of you who saw the remake with Adam Sandler, I am profoundly sorry for you. The original is one of the best works of acclaimed director Frank Capra, starring ("trying hard to look like") Gary Cooper ("super-duper!" *ten points if you can name the song and composer for that lyric. Points will be tallied and a prize given at the end of the year) and Jean Arthur.

Capra was riding high at the time, having swept the Oscars in 1934, but a close brush with death made him re-evaluate the content of his films. He realized that his chosen medium had the power to reach untold millions all over the world, and thus would be a great vehicle for social messages, and from that point on, he tried only to make movies that had strong redeeming value. This was not always possible when funding ran low during and after the Second World War, but Capra stuck to his mantra for the rest of the '30s with the results being this film, Lost Horizon, You Can't Take it With You, and the incomparable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was the first of these ventures, and it made an instant star of Jean Arthur, though no other director could utilize her talents the same way Capra could.

Inspired by classic works like Don Quixote and The Idiot--though thankfully with a happier end than either of those works--Capra tells the story of a small-town businessman and poet who inherits $20 million (that's like a billion dollars in today's money) from his estranged uncle. What Deeds doesn't know is that his uncle's lawyers have been embezzling his money for years, and they want to keep Deeds ignorant of that fact. At first this looks like an easy task because the country boy seems naive and completely uninterested in the money, saying he'll probably give it away.

When Deeds is whisked away to the bustle and glamor of New York, he begins to forget about his idea for putting the money to a good cause, especially when he has the opportunity to rescue a damsel in distress (which is a musical from 1937 starring Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns and Gracie Allen, with a screenplay by P.G. Wodehouse and music by Gershwin. It's not wonderful, but worth watching if you're a fan of any of the above, and especially worthwhile if you're fans of ALL of the above as I am.) just as he's always dreamed of doing.

This fair lady, however, is not the innocent he imagines. She is in reality Babe Bennet, a star reporter trying to get the scoop on New York's newest millionaire, and she succeeds with flying colors. As her scorching articles continue to drag Deed's name through the mud, he becomes more and more embittered, finding solace only in the company of the very woman who is betraying him. As jaded as Babe is, however, she cannot help noticing that Deeds possesses a good mind along with an admirable sincerity and selflessness that most New Yorkers lack. As she slowly succumbs to his quiet charms, she has increasing difficulty writing her articles, and eventually quits her job entirely. Just when it looks like the two of them can have a happy ending, however, the truth comes out about Babe's past actions.

Devastated by the loss of the woman he loved, Deeds is saved from despair by a chance encounter with the terrible conditions of the Great Depression. He revives his plan to give all his money away, coming up with an idea to build small homesteads for farmers who lost everything during the Dust Bowl fiasco.

As soon as his uncle's lawyers hear about this, however, they swear out an insanity warrant against Deeds. With all his irregular behavior, moreover, the lawyers seem to have an open-and-shut case until Deeds gets up to "put in his two cents" in one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history.

Really, the only problem with this film is that the music feels stilted and vaudevillian, just as most movies from the '30s do. I'm not saying it entirely ruins the mood of the picture, but it certainly detracts from it instead of augmenting it as is the intent of music in films.

I give this film at least 8.7 out of ten, truly one for the ages.

Buy it now:
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Remastered),Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonLost HorizonYou Can't Take It with You (Remastered)Don Quixote (Penguin Classics)The Idiot (Oxford World's Classics)

1 comment:

  1. Farmer's lament comes off as a little preachy, but that's a small complaint. Mr. Deeds is a great film with many wonderful performances. Lionel Stander is a treat as the PR flack hired to watch over Deeds.