Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) Frank Capra

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    Frank Capra takes on the big city slickers vs. the small town yokels in this depression era comedy led by Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds and the always amazing Jean Arthur as Louise “Babe” Bennett. Capra was awarded his second Oscar for directing this 1936 classic. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper) Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin in his fifth collaboration with Capra) and Best Recording.  The story originally appeared in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, written by Clarence Budington Kelland.

    Longfellow Deeds, greeting card poet and tuba player eccentric has a nice peaceful life in the small New England town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont. Life is turned upside down when his late uncle, multi-millionaire Martin Semple leaves him an inheritance of twenty million dollars. Seduced by the estates attorney, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbriller) who plucks Longfellow out of his safety net of a little town and into the big bad city of New York.

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    Cedar, of the law firm, Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington is a scheming rodent of a lawyer who will eventually attempt to get Deed’s to turn over to him power of attorney in order to hide his financial thievery. By the way, note the in-joke with the use of the last name of Budginton in the law firm name, which is the same as the middle name of the author of the original story. Cedar hires former newspaperman Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) to keep other reporters away from Deeds; however, a foxy Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) outwits Cobb when she poses as a destitute woman named Mary Dawson, who has been pounding the concrete sidewalks everyday in vain, searching for a job. She gains Longfellow’s confidence who get “a fools notion about saving a lady in distress”, and begins writing a series of newspaper articles exploiting his eccentric behavior (feeding donuts to horses), anointing him with the name of “Cinderella Man.”

     Deeds finds himself exploited and the laughing stock of the big city, all due to the constant barrage of newspaper articles by Ms. Bennett. Unexpectedly, Mary/Babe begins to fall in love with our innocent hero and comes to regret her writing the uncaring exploitive articles. Deeds, fed up with the treatment and ridicule he has received and is ready to head back to Mandrake Falls when an evicted farmer breaks into his mansion, verbally attacking him for being insensitive cold hearted, spending thousands on parties when everyday people all over are starving. Instead of feeding doughnuts to horses, how about giving those doughnuts to needy hungry people. The man suddenly pulls out a gun threatening to shoot Deeds. Fortunately, the farmer comes to his senses, realizing what he is about to do, he breaks down, dropping the gun as Deeds, who never wanted the fortune, finally realizes here is a way to give his money away and do good in the process. He will give thousands of homeless farmer’s farmland to work, and if they work the land for three years, it will be theirs to keep.

    After Cedar becomes aware of Deeds plan, and realizes he will lose control of millions of dollars, he attempts to have Deeds declared mentally unbalanced in court, by manipulating the only other living relative of the millionaire uncle to take the money away from Deeds before he gives it away to poor people. At the same time Deeds finds out the truth about Mary/Babe and that the fantasy girl he fell in love with has betrayed him.

deeds     Deed is put on trial and the predator lawyers attack with a vengeance, to the extent of bringing into court two eccentric old ladies from Deeds hometown to corroborate his peculiar behavior even back in Mandrake Falls. Deeds meanwhile, has sunk into a deep depression losing all hope in mankind, even refusing an attorney to defend him. The strong court case against Deeds begins to fall apart when the farmers and Babe, who declares her love for him in open court, all begin to come to his defense and he himself begins to realize there are good honest decent people in the world.

     I have always had ambivalent feelings about Frank Capra’s work, however I found “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” to be one of Capra’s great films, with his classic theme about the common man, overcoming greedy parasites and underhandedness, in this case, from lawyers and newspapers. The film still rings true today and I can imagine it must have had an especially good reception with the depression era population of the 1930’s getting to see a regular guy stand up and win against rich corrupt forces. Capra’s film is just one of many films during the depression to condemn the big city, filled with greedy manipulators and parasites (Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread” is another) vs. the small town filled with friendly genteel folks, “democratic” as an old man in Mandrake Falls states early in the film.    

    Capra’s women, “Babe”, in “Mr. Deeds” and Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck in the more serious social drama, “Meet John Doe”), are small town girls who come to, and were “corrupted” by the big bad city. Both “Babe” and Ann were newspaper reporters, a cynic’s occupation in many of Capra’s films.  There was also Clark Gable’s fast talking disparager who had little use for facts in “It Happened One Night” and Robert Williams Stew Smith in “Platinum Blonde”, who foolishly marries the rich Jean Harlow while his real love co-reporter (Loretta Young) looks on. Interestingly enough, the phrase “Cinderella Man” is used in both “Platinum Blonde” and in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”  

    The screenplay was written by Robert Riskin, one of five films he worked on with Capra. Others include “Broadway Bill”, “Lady for a Day”, “You Can’t it With You”, “Meet John Doe”,  “American Madness”, and the Academy Award winning “It Happened One Night.”  Capra and Riskin’s relationship was convoluted, a love-hate collaboration developed after many years of Capra taking credit for Riskin’s work on many of their films. Capra in his autobiography downplayed Riskin’s contributions to some of their greatest films, this long after Riskin’s death. Looking to preserve his reputation, Capra put forth his one man, one film theory claiming that many of his screenwriters, Riskin included, did their best work only with him.capra-riskin

    Legend has it that Riskin once handed Capra a blank sheet of paper and told him to go ahead and “put the famous Capra touch on that.”  In the final years of Riskin’s life, wheelchair bound due to a stroke, he remained loyal to Capra, despite Capra never coming visit him. He admonished fellow screenwriter Jo Swerling when he once commented to Riskin that it was not right Capra never came to visit him, insisting that Capra was his best friend. If so, Capra did not have any reservations about down grading Riskins contributions to their classic works. Fay Wray, Riskin’s wife for the last thirteen years of his life, said while many of Riskin’s friends came to visit him in those final days, Capra was not among them. An uncharitable turn by a man who cherished his reputation as a filmmaker whose films carried the wholesome message on the basic goodness human nature.    

   Who can play the wholesome ordinary man better than Cary Cooper? No one that I can think of and as for Jean Arthur, I can never say enough nice things about this naturalistic comedic actress who Capra would use again two more times. The film opened to good reviews, upon its initial release at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. Grahame Greene, then a critic for The Spectator  called it Capra’s best film. Along with the previously mentioned Oscars, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”,  also won The New York Film Critics award as the best film of the year.  

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    The film was “remade” in 2002 with Adam Sandler in the role of Longfellow Deeds. Sandler’s Deeds runs a pizza shop in Mandrake Falls, which means not even the writers of the remake  believed Sandler could write greeting card level poetry. Of course, the inheritance is upped from twenty million to billionaire status and the humor level has been brought down to Sandler’s sub-basement floor level. Other than a lack of wit, charm, intelligence and a heart, there is really nothing wrong with the remake. Why do they bother? Oh yeah, Greed, money, and manipulation by those big city parasites.

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6 comments on “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) Frank Capra

  1. Judy says:

    This is a wonderful review, John – I’ve just seen ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’, and must say I liked it a lot despite agreeing with you that there is some outrageous corn in there, so I’m hoping to see this one soon too – watching the TV listings in hope! I like the story you have included about Riskin giving Capra the blank sheet of paper and suggesting he should put his touch on that – this really sums up how movie writers are too often forgotten.

    I recently saw ‘Broadway Bill’ and thought that was a good Depression era film with very little of the Capra corn, quite similar in some ways to ‘Platinum Blonde’. A while back, I saw ‘Meet John Doe’ and didn’t like it at all because I found it far too corny and manipulative, but have since been wondering if I was just in the wrong mood for it and might get a lot more out of it if I saw it again, as I seem to be warming to Capra… anyway, thanks for this great review.

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  2. This is one of my favorite Cooper and Capra movies, though like you I’m up and down on Capra’s work. There’s something about sometimes that I just don’t like. One of these days I’ll try and figure *that* out.

    I didn’t know that about the Capra-Riskin relationship, but I like the remark about Capra’s “uncharitable turn” towards Riskin. But that’s show biz…

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN is a great film for sure, but I remain firm in my conviction that MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is Capra’s greatest film and one of the greatest in all American cinema. “Corn” is a glorious component of the Capra presentation–it makes him what he is, and the film is the most definitive statement on that phenomenon we know as “Americacana.”

    But John and I have locked horns before on that film, and as he suggested “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” After MR. SMITH comes IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Then I would go with DEEDS and LOST HORIZON. Oddly, th eone major Capra I don’t particularly care for is IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. It’s impressive that MR. DEEDS won the N.Y. Film Critics prize in 1936, although admittedly that wasn’t the strongest year.

    Wonderful review as always, replete with historical anecdotes like the one about Capra not visiting the stroke-bound Riskin in later life.

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  4. John Greco says:

    Judy – I have not seen “Broadway Bill”, that is another I need to catch up on. Your comment on writers being ignored is something that really got to me when I was writing the review. Riskin collaborated with Capra in so many of his greatest films your have to wonder how much is Capra and how much is Riskin. Capra did work with some other fine writers, Jo Swerling and Sidney Buchman to name two and Capra has commented that these men always did their best work with him. Capra must have forgotten the Buchman did “Talk of the Town”, “Holiday”, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”, “The Awful Truth” while Swerling did “Pride of the Yankees”, “Pennies From Heaven”, “Made for Eacth Other” and “The Whole Town’s Takin” for other directors. True, these men did great work with Capra, however they did great work with other filmmakers too.
    I believe Capra’s ego got in the way of judgement in claiming he was totally responsible for the success of his films. Even in Sarris’ ranking of Pantheon Directors, which Capra fell short of making, Sarris states “They were fortunate enough to find the proper conditions and collaborators for the full expression of their talent.” The key word here is collaborators, Filmmaking is a collaborate art. It is the directors vision, if he is a strong enough talent but he depends on many others.

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  5. John Greco says:

    C.K. – I am beginning to feel like I am bashing Capra and I really don’t
    dislike his work and I actually admire Capra as Italian-American immigrant who came here with his family as a young child, went to school, graduated from what is now the California Institute of Technology and eventually made his way into filmmaking to become one of the great filmmakers of all time. This all at a time when Italian-American’s were still not in the mainstream of American life and had few heroes to identify with.

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  6. John Greco says:

    Sam – I agree with “It’s Wonderful Life”, one of the great films and certainly a Christmas favorite. I am suprised about your feelings toward “It Happened One Night” another Riskin written script. I love the interplay in that film between Gable and Colbert. “Lost Horizon” I have not seen since I was probably ten years old or so and cannot comment on. I should watch again, now that I am a bit older (ha!).

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