Tuesday, April 12, 2011


It's easy to make fun of somebody
if you don't care how much you hurt them

By Edward Copeland
In the early years of the Academy Awards, repeat winners happened not only frequently but often soon after previous wins, sometimes even consecutively. For example, Frank Capra took home the directing prize three times, winning every other year from 1934 through 1938, starting with the great It Happened One Night and ending with You Can't Take It With You. The second Oscar between the two came for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which marks its 75th anniversary today, and was the only film of the three not to also win best picture. More importantly, the movie proved to be the wonderful Jean Arthur's breakthrough.

Now Capra has a reputation as the corniest of filmmakers, a reputation I believe is a bit unfair when you look at the darkness in some of his films such as It's a Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or especially at the more unusual titles in his filmography such as The Miracle Woman or The Bitter Tea of General Yen, both starring Barbara Stanwyck. Of the films that do lead to that reputation though, Mr. Deeds might be one that's near the head of that pack. Not that Mr. Deeds isn't a good film, even if it isn't up to the level of the best Capras such as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith and Wonderful Life, but it still holds up today as a fairly solid entertainment, if it's a tad overlong.

The story begins as we see a car take an explosive plunge off a mountain road followed by a newspaper headline announcing the death of financier Matthew Semple in Italy. In New York, his attorneys, led by John Cedar (Douglas Dumbrille), has a team of investigators including press agent Cornelius Cobb (the delightful Lionel Stander, known to generations decades later as Max on the '70s TV show Hart to Hart), scouring the world for Semple's heir. This part seems a little confusing because apparently Semple left a will that named his heir and though there are other relatives he disdained (Jameson Thomas, Mayo Methot), it would seem all they had to do was find him, even if Matthew Semple himself had never met him. Finally, they connect the dots and identify him as one Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), resident of Mandrake Falls, Vt. Soon, Cedar, Cobb and the crew are en route to meet the new rich man. Cedar, head of his firm Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Buddington, finds himself particularly anxious to get a feeling for Deeds because he hopes to woo power of attorney from him to use part of the fortune he's inherited to help pay off some of the firm's debts.

When the New Yorkers arrive in Mandrake Falls, they soon realize they aren't in Manhattan anymore. The station agent (Spencer Charters) turns out to be a very friendly chap, but people in Mandrake Falls have a tendency to be so literal that it takes awhile to get out of them the information you seek. Cedar's party get him to admit he knows Longfellow Deeds and that Deeds is very friendly and will talk to anybody but it takes about the third try, thanks to Cobb, to ask the correct question and ask if the man could take them to where Deeds resides, to which the station agent wonders why they didn't just say that in the first place. Of course, being literal, the man takes them to Deeds' home, but he also knew they wouldn't find Deeds there then because they didn't ask specifically to be taken to Deeds and are greeted only by his housekeeper (Emma Deems). They ask her if Deeds might be married, but she tells them no, he's waiting to rescue a lady in distress. Fortunately, the wait to meet Deeds himself isn't too terribly long and Longfellow Deeds finally walks in the door (and grabs his tuba, seemingly out of habit). Cedar explains to him that Matthew Semple has left him his fortune and wonders if he knows how he's related. Deeds says that his mother's maiden name was Semple and he thinks he might have been his uncle. He then learns the amount: $20 million. That's quite a lot, he says. "It'll do in a pinch," Cobb says. Out of curiosity, they ask Deeds what he does and he informs them that he writes poems for postcards for special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day, etc. They tell him they need him to go back to New York with them to make all the arrangements, but Deeds already makes noises about how he doesn't need all that money and he'll probably give it away. Cobb asks the housekeeper what she thinks about her boss getting $20 million, but she's more concerned about how many people are staying for lunch. Deeds recommends they stay, just to try her orange layer cake.

Mandrake Falls gives their newly wealthy son a huge sendoff — so big that the New York delegation loses Deeds and the train already has arrived. Finally they spot him. It seems he's playing his tuba with the band for the last time. When he gets on the train, he looks rather forlorn, but Cedar tries to reassure that he has nothing to worry about in regard to the fortune. Deeds tells him it's not the money that he's fretting about — he just hopes the band can find another tuba player. While Deeds is en route to New York, the wife of the other Semple henpecks her sniveling husband to do whatever possible to get what's rightfully theirs, even if Matthew Semple hated his guts. The size of Semple's mansion leaves Deeds in awe, though Cedar and the rest keep him so occupied, he fears he won't get to see sites such as Grant's Tomb and the Statue of Liberty, which he really wants to since he is in New York. Once he is in town, the newspapers salivate at the chance to cover this new millionaire and MacWade (George Bancroft), the editor of one newspaper, gathers his best reporters in his office to tell them they have to get to the bottom of this Longfellow Deeds and make him a sensation. Among the reporters listening to the pitch is MacWade's shining star, Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Bennett (Jean Arthur), who spends most of the scene playing with a string which I think could be a yo-yo, but couldn't tell for sure. She promises him a front page story if as a reward she receives a raise and a month of paid vacation. MacWade agrees and Louise, known as Babe to her fellow reporters, takes the assignment, having been clued in to the idea that Deeds longs to find a woman in distress. Back at the mansion, Cedar continues to try to get Deeds to hire him as do many others. Deeds seems puzzled as to why so many people offer to work for him for nothing. One lawyer named Hallor (Charles Lane) does seek something, though Cedar tries to get him thrown out. He tells Deeds he represents Matthew Semple's common-law wife and that a child is involved and that entitles her to a third of the estate. Deeds thinks that's reasonable and adds up to about $7 million — until Hallor says he's willing to settle for $1 million. That convinces Deeds that if he's willing to take that much less than he's owed, he must be a fraud and physically tosses him out. Cedar tells him that's why he needs to hire him — to protect him from people like that, but Deeds says he hasn't decided if he's hiring him yet.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town wasn't just the breakthrough role for the delightful Jean Arthur, who hadn't made much of an impression before that, it also was a lucky break that she got the role in the first place. Originally, Capra wanted Carole Lombard to play the part but at the last minute, Lombard opted to make My Man Godfrey instead. In fact, Mr. Deeds being made when it was was an accident as well. Capra had planned for Lost Horizon to be his next film, but Ronald Colman had other commitments, so he moved Mr. Deeds up. Thank goodness for fate because what a less rich cinematic world we'd have if Arthur hadn't received that break and been able to delight us as much as she would. Her character Babe assumes the false identity of Mary Dawson and after Deeds sneaks out (having to lock his bodyguards in a room) she fakes a fainting spell in front of the mansion so Longfellow can come to the rescue. He takes her to a restaurant where writers and poets supposedly congregate, unaware she has photographers tailing them.

The poet in Deeds keeps looking for fellow writers and the waiter directs him to a table full of them, all of whom seem intent on making fun of him and Deeds knows they are doing it. In particular, one of his favorite poets, Brookfield (Eddie Kane), seems intent on trying to treat Longfellow as a rube. "I think your poems are swell Mr. Brookfield, but I'm disappointed by you," Deeds tells him, to no apparent effect. "I know I must look funny to you, but maybe if you went to Mandrake Falls, you'd look funny to us, only nobody would laugh at ya and make you feel ridiculous." He also tells him that if it weren't Miss Dawson being present, he'd bump their heads together, but she says she doesn't mind and Deeds proceeds to pummel the poets, only he misses one. Morrow (a hilarious bit by Walter Catlett) comes to him begging for a hit on the chin. "What a magnificent displacement of smugness. You've added 10 years to my life," a very drunken Morrow tells Deeds and proceeds to tell him all the things he should show him in the world, constantly starting to tip backward and having Deeds pull him back upright by his tie. "You hop aboard my magic carpet and I'll show you sights that you've never seen before," Morrow tells him, suggesting they go on a binge and Deeds, who has never touched alcohol in his life, agrees. Needless to say, it gives Babe one helluva story for the paper, where she christens him Cinderella Man and tells of him feeding doughnuts to a horse and when asked why, Deeds saying he was seeing how many the horse would eat before asking for coffee. When he wakes up with a hangover the next morning, his butler Walter (Raymond Walburn) tells him he had quite a bender, but Deeds denies it, saying that Morrow said they were only going on a binge, they never got to a bender. He asks him to get Mary's number out of his pants, but Walter says he can't because he came home without pants. Deeds finds that unbelievable: If he was running around the streets without pants, the police would have picked him up. Walter informs him that it was the police who brought him home. Cornelius brings him the paper, telling him he can't go around punching people like he did at the restaurant. "Sometimes it's the only solution," Deeds insists.

Eventually, with Cedar getting nowhere getting his hands on Deeds' money, he decides to represent the other relatives and try to get Longfellow declared insane, especially after a down-on-his-luck farmer (John Wray) comes into the mansion with a gun and then breaks down and it gives Deeds the idea to give away his fortune to people who apply for farm land and tend to it with equipment he buys for them and, if they produce, they own it after three years. Meanwhile, Cornelius learns Babe's true identity AFTER Deeds has proposed and she's begun to feel so guilty, she's quit her job because she's fallen for him. It's really the back half where the sentimentality overwhelms the comedy, but it's still good and you do get the Faulkner sisters (Margaret McWade, Margaret Seddon) to come from Mandrake Falls to testify that Deeds always has been "pixilated," but then who among us isn't pixilated?

Cooper does have some good moments, but he's stiff as he often is in just about any film he made, though it did earn him his first Oscar nomination, but with Arthur and the great comic supporting cast, especially Stander, it doesn't interfere. Probably his most timely speech comes in his sanity hearing when he asks why should he be considered crazy if he'd rather see the money go to be people who need it. "It's like I'm out in a big boat, and I see one fellow in a rowboat who's tired of rowing and wants a free ride, and another fellow who's drowning. Who would you expect me to rescue? Mr. Cedar — who's just tired of rowing and wants a free ride? Or those men out there who are drowning? Any 10-year-old child will give you the answer to that," Deeds tells the judge. Sounds like an accurate depiction of today's corporate and wealthy-favored government to me. Capra's pacing lags at time, but he does have some nice directing touches, my favorite being when Deeds is institutionalized and Cornelius urges him to fight. Capra films the entire scene in darkness with the actor silhouetted and begins it with a nice zoom.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a lesser Capra, but it remains worthwhile even if he lays its message of the value of honesty, sincerity and decency on a bit too heavily.

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I'm amazed at how closely this film aligns with the 2002 film Mr. Deeds, right down to Gary Cooper punching his obnoxious dining partner.

It's even more risque than Adam Sandler's version in some ways.

I love this movie as an example of how films haven't changed too much since the old days.

And I do not think Capra's films have aged a bit. It's a Wonderful Life is one of the few black-and-white films that everyone is expected to have watched at least once
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