Don’t let anybody hurt you again, ever. They can’t anyway. You’re much too real.
That seems like a strange thing to hear in a stagy old Hollywood heartstring-tugger about a pure-souled everyman from the heartland coming down to New York to show those fat cats a thing or two. It’s certainly strange to hear it describe a character created by Frank Capra, whose films audiences found so sappy they stuck them with the nickname “Capra-corn.” But his films were always realer and rawer than you’d think from his armies of pale imitators or hazy memories of gathering round the tube to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Readers here should already know that holiday perennial is also a dark tale of poverty, suicide, and despair. Mr. Deeds never quite gets that grim, but it’s still far from the cozy Americana you might expect. Capra may be sentimental, but he’s no sentimentalist, and he portrays a world that’s not just antithetical to Longfellow Deeds’ folksy values but downright hostile to them.
In the climax, the caretakers of the fortune Deeds fell into try to declare him mentally incompetent for giving it away. They build their case mostly on his personal tics and erratic behavior, but the subtext is clear: in modern America, kindness is deviance. Mr. Deeds makes a good companion piece to other films like Miracle on 34th Street and Europa ’51 where the contemporary world views true goodness with confusion and horror. Miracle is also much darker than the broad strokes of its plot would make it seem. But it still doesn’t go as far as Mr. Deeds: in the later film, the majority seems to take Santa Claus’ side, even if it’s only out of cynical self-interest (as memorably personified by I Love Lucy’s William Frawley). In Mr. Deeds, the hero is all alone except for a few friends, and until he finally, cathartically, takes his own defense, his defeat seems assured. His accusers make it clear his compassion is a threat to the status quo: “If this man is permitted to carry out his plan, repercussions will be felt that will rock the foundations of our entire governmental system!”
Longfellow Deeds is real, and he can be hurt. At the trial, he’s almost catatonic with despair, unable to say a word in his defense, hardly able to even turn his head. Yes, everything ends happily, but the resolution has a power here that it doesn’t in more lighthearted films. In those movies, the happy ending seems inevitable; here, it seems impossible, so when it comes, it has the catharsis of any hard-won victory.
Mr. Deeds begins with Douglas Dumbrille as John Cedar (of the New York firm of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington – “Budington must feel like an awful stranger, huh?”) hunting down the obscure distant relative who the late financier Martin Semple left his fortune to. That turns out to be Gary Cooper’s Longfellow Deeds, of Mandrake Falls (no relation to It’s a Wonderful Life’s Bedford Falls, I’m sure). He’s content with the money he makes writing poems for postcards, and he hardly reacts when he hears about his inheritance – he’s more excited to test out the new mouthpiece for his tuba. “He’s like a child,” Cedar says, confident that he’ll be able to get power of attorney from Deeds before anyone can find the money Cedar’s embezzled. What he fails to realize is Deeds has kept his childlike wonder and innocence while still gaining the shrewdness of maturity. He immediately clocks a fraudulent claim on the inheritance that Cedar had been dodging for years – “There’s something fishy about a person who would settle for a million dollars when they can get seven million.”
That combination gives shading to a character who, in most movies, would be so sweet he’d make you want to drop kick him into Willy Wonka’s juicer. Gary Cooper’s face is far from boyish; a silent-age veteran, he has a weathered look that served him well in tough-guy roles in films like High Noon and Man of the West. As often as he plays up his “aw-shucks” innocence, he looks dark, haunted, and even frightening. Far from a doormat, he has a nasty violent streak that reflects his honesty – he’d rather deal with his enemies in a fistfight than with backroom deals – but also keeps us from ever getting too comfortable with him. (Like Miracle on 34th Street’s Santa Claus, his violent outbursts provide a fig leaf for his enemies’ accusation; in both films, modern audiences are more likely to see they might have a point.) His raw, frightening intensity is especially effective when he’s working on how to give his fortune away, shadowed by heavy stubble and unkempt hair that makes it easy to believe he’s been working nonstop, as another character says, for two days straight.
That’s not to say Cooper’s working against the material: he plays Deeds’ more childlike side beautifully. Like a child, he can act impulsively and un-self-consciously, feeding doughnuts to a horse or shooing out his boring dinner guests without caring what anyone thinks. There’s a great set-em-up-and-knock-em-down bit of comic engineering where he sees the mansion’s marble staircase, looks left, looks right, sees no one’s watching, and rides straight on down the railing. And that aspect of his character sets up one of the most purely joyful moments the movies have to offer. He discovers an echo in the entry room and calls out all the staff, who had worked in the house for years without ever realizing the echo was there. But his enthusiasm is so infectious they can’t help but grin the biggest, goofiest grins you’ve ever seen. He leads them all in a chorus, until one stuffy butler sends the rest to bed. Once they’re gone, he gives it one last shout and takes a moment to admire it.
Mr. Deeds features an equally excellent performance from Jean Arthur as one of the all-time great ace-reporter characters. Her boss calls a conference to get the paper to work on the blockbuster story of the “Cinderella Man,” and, with the promise of a month’s vacation – “with pay!” – seduces Deeds in order to get an inside line, until she realizes he’s seduced her. Speaking in her soft, tender voice, gorgeously luminous in Joseph Walker’s tender soft-focus cinematography, it’s not hard to see why Deeds fell for her. It’s the kind of filmmaking you literally couldn’t do today – a few years later, the new technology of “safety film” would make movies less flammable, but it was never able to replicate that glow.
At one point, Bennett reads a poem Deeds wrote for her. It’s an ironclad rule of filmmaking that you should never show a great artist’s work unless you know you’re as skilled in the medium as you say they are. In this case, though, it doesn’t matter: Jean Arthur’s hushed, measured reading makes it the most beautiful thing in the world no matter what. Arthur pulls off a wonderful tightrope walk in the movie’s first half, where you can’t be quite be sure if she’s sincere or playing a part to get close to the story, if it’s her acting or her character. Both Arthur and Cooper came from silent film, and even with synchronized dialogue, they prove what Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” They do so much with so little: just a slight, silent movement of the mouth or eyes. Watch the scene at Grant’s Tomb: as Deeds waxes poetic about the American dream, you can see the moment Babe’s act stops being an act, just in the way her phony smile melts into a real one.
In our country’s nightmarish current state, Mr. Deeds Comes to Town seems like a recipe for the paranoid conservative fantasy of the division between “Real Americans” and “coastal elites.” Fortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. As “Corny” Cobb, the ultimate cynical Noo Yawker, Lionel Stander is one of the first to embrace Mr. Deeds, and he gets much more support from the press modern conservatism has labeled “the enemy of the people” than he does from the judgmental little old ladies the prosecutor flies in from Mandrake Falls.
His politics aren’t just left of center, they’re left of liberal: if this had been made just twenty years later when the Cold War was underway, you can bet Cedar would throw around words like “Red” and “socialist” to describe Deeds’ farm aid plan. And is there any more biting indictment of capitalism than when Babe calls it “a crazy competition for nothing” or when Deeds says, “People here are funny. They work so hard at living they forget how to live”? On the other hand, the scene with the opera society suggests a very different view of capitalism. As a lover of many niche media outlets, including this one, that would never survive in the free market, I nearly cringed out of my skin when Deeds concludes that since the opera’s running at a loss, they must be “selling bad merchandise.” Capra also rejects the xenophobia inherent in the concept of the “Real America,” with Deeds handing out farmland to a diverse range of “fresh off the boat” types, including a Swede played by Disney’s Geppetto, Christian Rub.
The moment Deeds decides to work for these men is electric: the subtext of the story up to this point, and of every frothy, glamorous comedy of the Depression era, comes crashing through into the text. A haggard old man barges into the mansion to chew out Mr. Deeds for all the privileges he’s enjoying while the rest of the country is starving. At one point he even pulls out a gun and drops it, collapsing in tears as if the weight of his suffering were literal. These moments of bitterness help the sweetness go down easier. While they could have easily rung false, the moments of kindness seem downright heroic in this setting, one that seems determined to stamp them out.