Was there ever a more gloriously virginal he-man than Longfellow Deeds? Gary Cooper’s monumental incarnation of this proverbial ‘lamb bites wolf’ remains supremely satisfying, not so much for extolling the kind-hearted ‘screwball’ heroics indicative in practically all of director, Frank Capra’s most fondly recalled ‘Capra-corn’ from his Columbia period, but because Cooper’s bright-eyed and lanky stud is not nearly as naïve as the more jaded who surround him initially suspect. Longfellow Deeds is not a simpleton from the sticks but ‘Superman’ in disguise; thoroughly unnerved as the archetypal ‘fish out of water’ and even more uniquely satisfied to remain Clark Kent amidst the mere mortals who otherwise unknowingly look down upon him. Yet, just like the famed DC comic book idol, Longfellow’s Achilles heel proves to be a woman; or rather, the love of one he distrusts as having done him wrong. What is the point of living in a world corrupted by the unscrupulous; where goodness is scoffed at or even made the figure of fun, chided for embracing the virtues of ‘truth, justice and the American way’? During this 2016 election campaign, I have sincerely and often been asking myself these same questions. But I digress.
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) likely remains the most refreshing and cheerful of all Frank Capra’s classic comedies; Robert Riskin’s screenplay steeped in the polarizing political quagmire of a nation nearly gone to pieces during the Great Depression. In these monumentally troubled and topsy-turvy times Capra’s ‘every man’ is the unlikely instrument by which the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ are drawn closer together to explore as yet uncharted ‘common ground’; discovering the commonalities rather than the differences that divide. And the pearl in this Tiffany setting is Longfellow Deeds; a laudable dignitary because he refuses to bend in the face of abject humiliation, defies the social convention and absolutely refuses to be classified as just a silly little rube from Hick-ville, U.S.A. (or in this case, the corn-fed and thoroughly ‘pixilated’ enclave of Mandrake Falls, Vermont). Longfellow is a man’s man to who even the thought of inheriting $20 million dollars cannot shake or reshape his unfathomable desire to do good. Interestingly, all of Capra’s best recalled champions of the ‘humane’ spirit are cut from a similar swath on the loom; tested in their resolve by corrupting influences beyond their control, only to discover a way to regain control of their own destiny as well as making real and genuine a similar path for those who have stood by them in their hours of crisis. At one point in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Longfellow rhetorically asks, “Why can’t people just learn to like each other a little more?”: on its surface, an unsophisticated – almost child-like query, and yet, revealed within the course of the movie to be evenly as well-rounded and intrepid as any of the more devious probes planted in the way of Deeds’ altruism by the insidious bottom feeder, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille).
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town is an eloquent treatise on the devastated hearts and minds of Americans then suffering through the worst financial catastrophe of their lives. If Capra and Riskin’s message – one man making a monumental difference – appears overly-simplified, raw, big-hearted and empty-headed, or even fanciful conjecture on the part of absent-minded and thoroughly moneyed Hollywood at best, it is only because in more recent times we have all slipped a little bit further left of center in our lack of belief in ourselves as catalysts, capable of achieving the sort of ‘kind’ world Longfellow Deeds fervently believes in, as real to him and distinctly possible for the rest of us, with just a little plied and pliable compassion afforded. What a world it could be. What a world it should be. And what a world it never has been, or, as director, John Cassavetes more cleverly suggested, “Maybe there never was an America in the thirties. Maybe it was all Frank Capra.” Yet, in these 80 years since passed, the potency and charm of such blind optimism to be gleaned from any Frank Capra movie has never entirely gone out of fashion. Despite changing times and tastes Capra, who dwelt heavily in his later years inside a cocoon of his own immigrant’s shiny beacon of success, achieved not without a good many heartaches and setbacks preceding it, would never falter in his fervent trust in America as an inherently great nation, consistently striving toward the betterment of all living both within and without its borders. Such was the basis of the man himself who would, could and eventually did inspire us all to believe in ourselves and in unicorns like Longfellow Deeds who perhaps might still be walking among us today; along the way, creating his own mythology more vibrant than Technicolor and more vitally tangible than life itself; Teflon-coated and infallible to upset and downfall; Capra’s sweetness and light oft challenged, though never threatened.
Capra’s movies today are sometimes quaintly distilled into uber-clever critiques as harmless fairytales for adults. Yet, with each passing decade his body of work seems more and more to function collectively as a truthful and inspired parable for what is wrong, troubling and even undesirably shameful about modern society. What was true in Capra’s time, regrettably, has not diminished in the present, if for no other reason than owed to the humanity of today who continue to lack the wherewithal to overcome, or in most cases even grasp the foibles and biases of their ancestry. Hence, we remain divided along the lines of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’; the rich removed from the poor and remote in their attitudes towards them; understanding neither what it means to exist without hope for improvement or capable of respecting the fact not everyone with a vision can achieve greatness in their own time. The greatness comes, I suspect, from the solemnity in the struggle and being able to recognize the true temerity of the human spirit, not in the safety of a well-stuffed pocketbook, but in the security of living as moral as possible with or without the social refinements. Longfellow Deeds is the perfect example of this; a man unaccustomed to wealth and easily wounded by fame, neither seeking nor wanting more than the opportunities life has already afforded him; just the tuba-playing poet laureate of the greeting card sect who manages fine and dandy on his own steam and in accordance to his own likes and dislikes.
What Longfellow Deeds dislikes the most is mendacity; also, attempts made by those who believe him to be the plum-perfect fool, rife for manipulations to coax him right out of his newly acquired fiscal solvency. Is it any wonder then Frank Capra should have admired such a man as Longfellow Deeds and cleverly made him the poster child/spokesperson for the rest of us? To varying degrees, Capra’s champions are all harbingers of his immigrant’s pride, inherently unashamed to be an American, but as reticently in danger of being chagrinned by the ‘ugly Americans’ lurking in their midst, plotting under an arbitrary set of jaded rules otherwise inculcated as the status quo. Yet, Capra’s protagonists are all rule breakers, or rather - rule benders; ingeniously working within the rigged system against them to discover clever ways of outfoxing the fox and, in the end, thoroughly excommunicate him from the archetypal henhouse before the final fade out. Seen in this light, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town is the cinematic equivalent of an epistolary or tome; a mentality even that Capra might have hoped would sink deeper into our collective subconscious over time; a real ‘love-in’ for mankind and the desperately needed opioid for the world at large; preceding and predating the sixties’ overly simplified hippy ‘flower power’ by a good solid twenty odd years, and proving, at least in hindsight, a thousand times more recalcitrant and affecting. We have, in fact, resisted such unbridled happiness for far too long. A decade after Capra, composer, Richard Rodgers would pick up his baton and beg a similar query, “What’s wrong with sweetness and light…they’ve been around for an awfully long time?” Yet, it is Capra’s vision of America as a melting pot of inherently big-hearted, good-natured working class citizens, imbued with rugged individualism and the go-getter’s indomitable spirit to push forward despite any and all obstacles, that endures and maintains his legacy best.
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town begins with a terrible tragedy; a car wreck that kills one of the world’s foremost philanthropists but leaves his estranged nephew, Longfellow Deeds with a considerable inheritance of $20 million (equivalent to nearly half a billion today) to be spend as he sees fit. Deeds, a small town, prudent and pennywise poet, beloved by virtually all who know him in the town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, is unaware his uncle’s attorney, John Cedar has managed to abscond with nearly $180,000. Cedar believes getting Deeds to sign over his late uncle’s power of attorney (thus, affording him and the law firm of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington absolute control over his finances) will be as easy as taking candy from a baby. Hence, it is a considerable blow to Cedar’s conceit when Deeds not only refuses his John Hancock on the dotted line, but sets about casually investigating the overall robustness of his newfound wealth and current portfolio of investments. When members of the New York Opera arrive with their hands outstretched to cover their yearly net loss they are rather bluntly informed by Deeds they will either have to find a way to make the opera profitable or entirely cease their operations. Culture and art are noble pursuits. Deeds should know. He played the tuba in his town band. But neither is he willing to accept art supported without commerce getting involved to turn a handsome profit. As he points out, “That’s just not good business sense.”
Deeds’ press agent, Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) is most impressed by the way this perceived simpleton handles himself in a pinch; as when Hallor (Charles Lane), an attorney for Mrs. Semple (Mayo Methot); a woman claiming to be his late uncle’s common law wife (actually married to a stuffed shirt, played by Jameson Thomas, who many will recall as King Marchand in Capra’s It Happened One Night) attempts to press Deeds for a third of his uncle’s estate. When Hallor haggles, suggesting he can get his client to accept a $1million dollar settlement in lieu of the more generous $7 to 8 million Deeds is offering, Deeds smells a rat and has Hallor properly ejected from his home by his butler (Barnett Parker). He furthermore instructs Cedar to make ready all of the accounts so he may first examine them before considering whether or not to retain Cedar’s services in perpetuity. In the meantime, harried New York Post editor, MacWade (George Bancroft) is beside himself. He has a bevy of reporters eager to pounce on the latest detail about the newly appointed heir apparent. Only no one can gain access to Deeds, thanks to Cobb’s careful buffering. Unaware he is the target of such rank curiosity, Deeds elects to lock both of Cobb’s bodyguards in the front hall closet before going out for a hearty jaunt on the town. Effectively, MacWade has sent his secret agent, hotshot newswoman Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) to get the scoop. She pretends to be a stenographer, Mary Dawson, caught faint from lack of food in front of Deed’s home. He falls for her act and takes her to Tulio’s; a fashionable ratskeller where the literati frequently meet.
Enamored by several renowned writers gathered at a nearby table, Deeds is singled out for a bit of abject humiliation; these self-appointed ‘great men’ having their fun until Deeds wises up to the reality greatness does not necessarily equate to graciousness. Of these ‘soon to be put in their place’, only Morrow, the poet (Walter Catlett) finds Deeds a genuinely invigorating presence. Hence, when Deeds dispenses with a few good punches to teach the rest of the highfalutin a thing or two about sincerity, Morrow elects to show Deeds the town; Babe accompanying him on a binge that winds up on the front page the next day. Babe dubs Deeds ‘the Cinderella man’ - a moniker meant to stick to some of his more bizarre antics; like feeding donuts to a horse or swinging from a lamp pole. Cobb cannot figure out how these stories continue to get leaked to the press. But Babe – as Mary – continues to meet Deeds in secret. The pair visits Grant’s Tomb; Babe utterly moved by Deeds’ account of the Ohio farm boy who would lead a great army to victory during the Civil War and become the 18th President; a figure of only passing interest to Babe, but a proud and historic touchstone for Deeds, now lying in state; body cold, but memory as vibrant and alive as ever. Capra would employ a similar homage to Lincoln in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Gary Cooper delivers one of the most moving monologues featured in any Capra picture here; heartfelt and with uncanny spontaneity, to reshape Babe’s jaded predilections about the man she has chosen to besmirch for a mere month’s holiday with pay, simply for the sake of a ‘good’ story.
Meanwhile, Deeds plans to host a lavish house party for the uber-wealthy sophisticates, including beefy opera star, Madame Pomponi (Margarete Matzenauer). Alas, the invested arrogance of these intellectuals, who regard Deeds as little more than a piñata for their amusement, is enough to sour Deeds on going through with the evening’s planned festivities. Much more interested in seeing ‘Mary’ again, Deeds evicts everyone from his household, making an impromptu visit to the rather dingy little apartment Babe shares with a friend, Mabel Dawson (Ruth Donnelly), who feigns being Mary’s sister for Deeds’ sake. Babe later confides in Mabel, that despite her best intentions to remain objective, she has fallen hopelessly in love with Deeds. He awkwardly proposes to her during a fog-laden jaunt around the park. And although Babe – as Mary – accepts, she later suggests she is going ‘back home’ to the small town from whence she came. Meanwhile, Cobb has unearthed the truth about Mary. In exposing her true identity, Deeds’ faith in humanity is utterly shattered. He instructs his manservant, Walter (Raymond Walburn) to prepare his trunk and bags. He is going home to Mandrake Falls for good. However, before this can happen, Deeds is accosted by a militant farmer (John Wray) at the point of a pistol. The man accuses Deeds of being a money-grubbing fat cat, so lost in the cesspool of his own wanton frolics he is an affront to all decent and hard-working cash-strapped men, having lost their sense of self-worth while waiting for daily rations in line at the soup kitchens. Suffering a terrible crisis of conscience, the man collapses. Tossing away his pistol, he suggests to Deeds he can do with him whatever he wishes, for he has reached the end of his rope. In reply, Deeds asks the man to dinner – a table initially set for Deeds’ private rendezvous with Mary.
Deeds now realizes what needs to be done. He announces to the world he will effectively give away his entire fortune to charity, establishing a farm program to set up the unemployed on a few acres of land, with the necessary implements to make a success of their new venture. The announcement attracts scores of the impoverished who beat a path to Deeds’ front door and make their way into his front parlor where they are registered into the program. Alas, Cedar will not stand for this. He gets the Semples to sign a legal document challenging Deeds’ mental incompetency. Deeds is arrested and placed in an asylum where he awaits a formal hearing to determine the legitimacy of the claim. Cobb pleads with Deeds to reconsider his silent stance. He must defend himself. But Deeds’ spirit is broken and despite Babe’s best intensions to visit him and confess her part in this terrible turn of events, she is denied all access. At trial, the judge (H.B. Warner) invites opposing arguments. But Deeds, who has refused legal counsel, also declines to represent himself; remaining forlorn and silent as Cedar launches into his crucifixion from the other side. Cedar even invites Jane (Margaret Seddon) and Amy Faulkner (Margaret McWade) two benevolently spinsterish sisters from Mandrake Falls to testify against Deeds as being ‘pixilated’ (a.k.a. – crazy).
Babe implores the court to be heard, despite Cedar’s objections. She pleads with sincerity for Deeds to stand up to Cedar and confesses under cross-examination that, for what it is worth, she sincerely and deeply is in love with him. Stirred by Babe’s confession, Deeds takes the stand in his own defense; illustrating for the judge and committee he is no more insane than any of them. In fact, he is very much of sound mind as he explains his plan to spread wealth and prosperity to those who have already lost all hope of ever achieving anything in their lifetime. “It's like I'm out in a big boat,” Deeds eloquently explains, “…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 ten year old child will give you the answer to that.” Moved by his declaration, also by Deeds’ impromptu sucker punch that sends Cedar to the ground in a moment of ebullient chaos, the judge declares Deeds legally sane. The charges against him are dismissed and Babe and Deeds are reunited with passionate resolve.
Despite its obvious commercial appeal, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town was not particularly a picture Columbia Studios’ president, Harry Cohn wanted to make. Cohn had seen the strength in Capra’s ability to transform an unassuming ‘road picture’ – It Happened One Night (1934) into a monumental and multi-Oscar-winning zeitgeist. It Happened One Night also had been a movie with little faith attached to it; costar, Claudette Colbert reportedly telling a friend at the end of the shoot, “I’ve just made the worst movie of my life.” Evidently, audiences and the Academy disagreed and It Happened One Night took home the top five Oscars (Best Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay and Best Picture); catapulting Cohn’s fledgling studio into competition status with the heavy hitters in the industry. And Capra had even more cache, both with audiences and his boss, when his second picture, Broadway Bill (released that same year) did respectable – if not phenomenal - box office. Still, Cohn advised against Capra’s verve to do a comedy with guts; or rather, one with a moral commentary. “He knew enough to know he didn’t know it all,” Capra would later reminisce about Cohn who, despite his personal reservations, entrusted Capra knew what he wanted. While It Happened One Night effectively ushered in the age of the celebrated ‘screwball comedy’, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is undeniably the picture that brought more ballast to the romantic comedy or, as Capra put it, “…a picture that says something.”
It boggles the mind to consider Mr. Deeds Goes to Town might never have been made, as Capra’s next planned project for Columbia was an adaptation of James Hilton’s best-seller, Lost Horizon; delayed when Capra’s first choice to star, Ronald Colman, proved unavailable until later in the year. Colman’s absence provided Capra with the luxury of time to make another movie in between; Capra quickly gravitating to ‘Opera Hat’; a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, first serialized in The American Magazine. Throwing out most of Kelland’s last act (Deeds implicated in a murder), Capra and screenwriter, Robert Riskin telescopically focused their efforts on fleshing out the character of Longfellow Deeds; his small town altruism and faith in humanity tested by shysters from the big city, what Capra would later suggest as ‘the rebellious cry of the individual’ who employs the ‘simple weapons of honesty, wit, and courage’ to overcome ‘mass predators and conformity’. In later years, Capra’s cause célèbre for ‘the little guy’ would be repeatedly misconstrued as veering dangerously close to socialism; an erroneous claim indeed.
Interestingly, Jean Arthur was not the first, nor even considered an ideal choice for the role of Babe Bennett, ultimately to make her a much sought after star. Although discovered as early as 1923 and given a brief contract at Fox, Arthur (born Gladys Georgianna Greene) suffered from crippling bouts of anxiety, translated into an abject and reoccurring fear of the camera. By the mid-thirties, she had been through the gristmill, with stints at Fox and Paramount, and, a lot of stage work, before her unprecedented resurgence at Columbia Pictures where she would reign supreme throughout the thirties as everyone’s favorite screwball and ‘girl next door’. “I don't think Hollywood is the place to be yourself,” Arthur once told a friend, “The individual ought to find herself before coming to Hollywood.” Arthur’s debut at Colombia was preceded by her inherent nervousness over what would soon become trademarked as her ‘throaty voice’. Capra, who had hoped to star the glorious madcap, Carole Lombard in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, was rather bitterly disappointed to accept Arthur in her stead; yet, pleasantly surprised with the results on film; Arthur’s performance embodying all the tender angst and bewilderment of a hard-nosed newspaper hound knocked off her celebrated perch by this unassuming Lochinvar with charm to spare.
And Gary Cooper’s Longfellow Deeds is precisely the sort of male ingénue Capra was looking for; possessing boyish good looks in a man’s body, but with a strong head on his shoulders. Cooper was always Capra’s first choice for Deeds; the actor already tenured with a decade’s worth of solid performances. The chemistry between Cooper and Arthur is not only palpable, but electrifying; so much, that David O. Selznick briefly considered Arthur in the running for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939). Indeed, in this same year, Arthur was Capra’s first choice to costar opposite James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; originally titled Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, but changed at the last minute when Cooper’s participation on the project proved impossible; Capra ‘settling’ for James Stewart: an amiable replacement as the Capra-esque ‘every man’. Cooper’s performance in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town forever altered the course of his public persona; once aimed, perhaps, too high as the stoic loner/hero in westerns or sexy romantic lead opposite Marlene Dietrich. Herein, Coop’ acquires an almost natural patina as the plain-spoken man of integrity to whom any father could place in trust his daughter’s care.
Yet, perhaps the most miraculous aspect of the picture remains its deceptively effortless blending of comedy, drama and pathos; an ingenious soufflé concocted by Capra and Robert Riskin without the perfunctory scenes to wring tears and laughter, yet, running the gamut of emotions from A to Z; in the process, proving a ‘reel’ crowd pleaser. The picture was nominated for a slew of Oscars, though only Capra would take home the award this time. Nevertheless, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town remains a joyously intoxicating, and yet sobering and thoroughly original comedic gem; the strength in its timely Depression-era sentiment, ever-present in 1936, for which the passage of even these eighty years since has proven powerless to eclipse. It is a picture that fluently compels with its peerless finesse in storytelling. We are emotionally invested almost from the outset; the flickering images thriving on our innate and basic need to believe in a time and a place where the crestfallen can rise up from their despair to achieve great things with a little blind faith in themselves and a lot of fealty in humankind at large. And it implores the audience not simply to relate to, or even appreciate the struggle, but attempt transmitting the strength of its sentiment into practical applications upon exiting the theater. There is a Longfellow Deeds lurking within us all. I believe it, and on occasion, have discovered it in myself. Hence, the beauty and the magic of it is there will always be a Longfellow Deeds when we need him most. And boy…do we need him now!
Sony’s ambitious undertaking, to rescan Mr. Deeds Goes to Town from an original camera negative at 4K resolution, has yielded the most impressive Blu-ray offering of the fast approaching holiday season. Time and again, VP Grover Crisp and his dedicated staff have ensured the legacy of Columbia Pictures its proper place, despite usually working from a deficit of previously ill-archived elements. Their devotion to the cinema art from their past is ingrained in the integrity of a clear-eyed vision to restore, remaster and preserve the Columbia libraries for future generations to appreciate, admire and study. From our present vantage, it seems sacrilege to think of movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town being lost for all time; repeatedly hauled out the vaults for prints to be struck from the original camera negative – over and over again, until inevitable wear and tear and the ravages of time nearly destroyed them. In the late 1990’s Mr. Deeds received a photochemical restoration; alas, plagued by built-in dirt, grit and other age-related anomalies impossible to correct to achieve optimal image quality.
Fast forward to 2004, and a digital scan created a new HD master, still afflicted by built-in flicker, mold and water damage and a barrage of age-related artifacts. But now, Sony has achieved near perfection; using the fragile original negative as the basis for a brand new 4K scan and filling in the missing frames and/or gaps with duplicate nitrate negatives. Keener eyes will detect the differences in fine detail and advanced grain between dissolves and fades. But what we have here by far and large is a superbly rendered hi-def transfer that sparkles with all the pop, glitter and gorgeous textures inherent in Joseph Walker’s luminescent B&W soft focus cinematography. Chace Audio has seen to it the fragile soundtrack is up to snuff too. Mono is as mono does; front and center, but herein represented with a renewed crispness and virtually free of all age-related hiss, pop and clicks; quiescent moments truly exhibiting just how far the technology has come to preserve the delicacies in these old Westrex recordings. Extras are a tad disappointing; virtually all exported from the old DVD release and including Frank Capra Jr. Remembers Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, an audio commentary (also from Capra Jr.), stills gallery set to music; plus, theatrical trailers and reissues.
Bottom line: Sony has spent considerable time and effort getting Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to shine like the comedic gemstone it is and the results are neither to be taken lightly or, in fact, to have been expected from an 80 year old surviving negative. The efforts are truly Herculean and would not have been possible without cooperation from Cineric, Colorworks, The Library of Congress, Chace Audio and, of course, Sony’s diligent pursuit in achieving the best possible results. While I have often been critical about the less than stellar efforts employed by a lot of major studios when readying vintage catalog for hi-def home video release; there is nothing blasé or matter-of-fact about Sony’s elephantine pursuit of perfection here. This release of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town puts most every other to shame. Here, at long last, is one of the truly iconic movies of the 1930’s presented for our enjoyment in a manner befitting its original theatrical release. We give our thanks then, heartily and without reservation. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town belongs on everyone’s top shelf of ‘must haves’ this holiday season. My only heartbreak: we still do not have Capra’s Lost Horizon on Blu-ray. Perhaps soon, Mr. Crisp? Regardless, bravo and kudos are owed to Sony for taking the time to get things right. You have. On behalf of movie lovers everywhere – God bless, and thank you!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)