US Release Date: 04-16-1936
Directed by: Frank Capra
- Gary Cooper, as
- Longfellow Deeds/Cinderella Man
- Jean Arthur, as
- Louise Bennett/Mary Dawson
- George Bancroft, as
- MacWade aka Mac
- Lionel Stander, as
- Cornelius Cobb
- Douglass Dumbrille, as
- John Cedar
- Raymond Walburn, as
- H.B. Warner, as
- Judge May
- Ruth Donnelly as
- Mabel Dawson
Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur proving that no good deed goes unanswered.
Frank Capra has never been shy about getting on his high horse when he is trying to make a social or political statement. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is no exception to his rule.
Cooper stars as small town innocent, tuba playing poet, Longfellow Deeds. His distant Uncle dies and leaves him 20 million dollars. Deeds goes to New York city and is immediately the talk of the town. Everyone wants a piece of him, or at least his money. Newspapers are fighting over his story. One such newspaper has a female reporter who pretends to be hurt in front of him one rainy night. He rescues her and is soon smitten and dating her. She meanwhile, uses her time with him to gather information for stories for her newspapers.
As predicted, they fall for each other. She feels guilty for using him and he finds out in the worst way, and in Coopers best acting scene, that she is a reporter. They break up and he gets depressed. After an overly dramatic scene where a farmer, who lost his farm, pulls a gun on Deeds and gives him a lecture on the, then, current state of the nation's poor, Deeds decides to buy a huge amount of land and give it all away to the poor. Naturally everyone in the movie with any amount of money thinks he is crazy for doing that and he finds himself on trial for his sanity.
Deeds is the stereotypical swell, small town guy that appeared in all of Capra's movies. He is very patriotic and spouts lines like, “People here are funny. They work so hard at living they forget how to live.” So, of course, the money is not important to him. Only rude, mean or obnoxious people are rich in Capra's movies.
The female lead role almost went to Carole Lombard, but she went off to do My Man Godfrey instead. Arthur took the role and does a decent job, but as Patrick wrote in his G-Men review, some actresses just didn't have enough star quality to endure the test of time. She has one great line, “That guy is either the dumbest, stupidest, most imbecilic idiot in the world, or else he's the grandest thing alive. I can't make him out.”
Also of note is that Arthur's reporter nicknames Deeds, The Cinderella Man. This movie was made in 1936. From 1935-1937, James Braddock was the heavy weight boxing champion. He was nicknamed The Cinderella man and his life story is the source for the movie Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe. Damon Runyan, a writer for the New York American has been given credit for nicknaming Braddock, but I wonder if this movie had anything to do with it?
Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur.
Capra was a genius at making pictures with social and/or political commentary (what Eric describes as him “getting on his high horse”) using equal parts humor and pathos. In fact I can’t think of another director that more successfully blended the classic elements of tragedy and comedy in his work.
When Mr. Deeds first heads to town riding on a train he has a serious expression on his face. One of the lawyers tells him that he understands his concerns about the responsibility that comes with the 20 million dollars Deeds has just inherited. Deeds replies, “Oh, I’m not worried about that. I was wondering where they’re gonna get another tuba player for the band.” Then after the final dramatic courtroom scene we end with one of the funniest last lines from any movie, “He’s still pixilated!” (You have to watch it to get the joke.)
The part of Longfellow Deeds fit Gary Cooper like a glove. It certainly changed his career by bringing him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor and by giving him the prototype character he would play for many years thereafter. Before Mr. Deeds, Cooper usually played forceful men of action. With this part he created the kindly simple bumpkin; a man of impeachable integrity but of few words.
Longfellow Deeds is not dumb or uneducated by any stretch of the imagination. He quotes Thoreau at one point. He is a rube (notice how he runs to the window with childish wonder when he hears sirens go by) and where women are concerned he is gullible. But he possesses common sense and a logical way of figuring things out like when he says, “It puzzles me why all these people all want to work for me for nothin’. It isn’t natural.”
The small town yokel that heads to the big city is a story as old as time. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a quintessential version. The time era is the Great Depression and the city is of course New York. Capra uses Manhattan to good effect. He shows the snobby elitism of the literati in the restaurant scene at Tullio’s which was obviously based on the real life Algonquin Round Table.
He also has Arthur (in the guise of Mary Dawson, stenographer) take Mr. Deeds sightseeing to famous New York City Landmarks. One memorable moment happens at Grant’s Tomb. Mr. Deed’s gives a short patriotic speech about what the monument means to him. Capra would create a similar moment with Arthur and James Stewart at the Lincoln Memorial in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 3 years later.
Eric, I agree that Arthur lacked true star power but she did possess one of the most unique and memorable speaking voices of any actress. She was a fine actress by the way. She also creates better chemistry with the impossibly handsome Gary Cooper than she would later share with James Stewart. For romance Mr. Deeds beats Mr. Smith hands down.
I would also like to mention in passing three unheralded character actors who appeared in dozens of movies from the era. These men are Capra regulars H.B. Warner and Charles Lane, and Franklin Pangborn. Warner was a star during the silent era but finished his career in bit parts. He plays the judge during the sanity trial. Lane plays the pushy lawyer that gets tossed out by Mr. Deeds early in the movie. The brazenly gay Franklin Pangborn shows up briefly as (what else?) a fey tailor. These three men made a living as familiar nameless faces to moviegoers for many years.
Sure Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is schmaltzy. They didn’t call the director’s style Capra-Corn for nothing. His movies overflowed with maudlin clichés. But nobody has ever used these ancient stereotypes better or with more emotional wallop than Frank Capra did. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a true classic and a much better movie than my brother Eric would have you believe.
Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
I think Jean Arthur is great and has plenty of star power. Her voice alone is full of it, but I also think she had the looks and the charm to go with it. Watch her in the scene during the morning after her first night with Mr. Deeds. She's practicing a coin magic trick while she talks to her editor and it's adorable. I do agree with you Patrick that she has more chemistry with Gary Cooper in this film than she did with Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Cooper is also good and I'm not normally a huge fan of his. I know that people love him and some will hate me for saying this, but I've always found him to be a bit overrated. He never seems natural to me. I'm always aware that he's acting. This part though is easily my favorite performance of his. The role suits him perfectly. He plays Deeds as an innocent, but never as an idiot. He's out of his element in the big city, but he's a good judge of character, just watch how he handles the the lawyer claiming to represent his late uncle's common-law wife. Deeds could easily have been a mere caricature, but thanks to Coopers performance, he has depth.
Like you Eric, I found the scene with the farmer pulling his gun on Deeds to be overly melodramatic. They needed a reason for him to give away his money, but they didn't need it to be so over-the-top. Couldn't he have just read a tragic story in the newspaper or something?
The big climax in the courtroom is entertaining, but totally implausible. I mean, how easy was it to get someone committed to an insane asylum in those days? On basically no evidence beyond some silly drunkenness, Mr. Deeds is hauled away and locked up. Because all he would have to do is hire any decent lawyer (and he has the money to hire the best) and open his mouth to speak and the charges would go away, the plot contrives to have him decide to keep his mouth shut and not put up any defense. Sure, this builds up to the emotional finale, but I couldn't stop thinking how silly it all seemed.
Although not a perfect film, this is a highly entertaining one and so very much better than the pathetic 2002 Adam Sandler remake.
Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures (1936)