#171 Mr Deeds Goes To Town
(1936, Frank Capra)
“You are the sanest man to ever walk into this courtroom”
Mr Deeds Goes To Town sounds suspiciously familiar, doesn’t it? No, I’m not referring to the more recent Adam Sander remake Mr Deeds, I mean the title is remarkably similar to another of Frank Capra’s movies that we’ve already looked at: Mr Smith Goes To Washington. Are there any similarities? Is it a decent film in its own right?
Gary Cooper plays the Mr Longfellow Deeds of the title, a simple man from the small town of Mandrake Falls who has inherited a vast sum of money from his recently deceased uncle. His uncle’s scheming attorney, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), brings Deeds to New York to live on the estate and instructs cynical former journalist Cobb (Lionel Stander) to keep reporters away from him. However, he fails to anticipate Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur), a devious reporter who appeals to Deeds’ romantic fantasy of saving a woman in distress, forming a false identity to get close to him. This leads to a number of reports making him out to be a buffoon, making him the laughing stock of the city.
So, does this movie have anything at all to do with the later James Stewart vehicle? The answer is yes, because the movies basically have the same plot. Small town guy comes to the big city following the death of someone important but ever so slightly shady. His advisors who bring him there play him as stupid and backwards, trying to play on his innocence. However, when he becomes aware of their true characters, he argues against them, resulting in an attempt to publicly shame them, resulting in a big triumphant display of the little man fighting back.
With Mr Smith, it was the death of a senator, in Deeds it’s the titular character’s uncle. The big city was Washington D.C. and New York respectively. In Smith there was a fellow senator devising crude schemes, while in Deeds it’s the attorney. Both Smith and Deeds receive poor press representation. Smith is accused of being corrupt, while Deeds is accused of being too mad to be in charge of an estate his size. Smith fights back with a filibuster while Deeds fights back at his trial. So far, so samey.
There’s even a strong romantic angle, where a cynical woman (played by Jean Arthur!) who finds him as amusing as everyone else does eventually warms to him and helps him in the later part of the movie. In Mr Deeds, the romantic angle is much stronger, being a central plot point, whereas in Mr Smith the romantic side of the relationship was never explored that much.
I enjoyed Mr Smith, so all of these similarities meant that I ended up enjoying Mr Deeds just as much. Deeds started out being a lot more amusing too, kicking off with a furniture removal man in Mandrake Falls barely understanding the smooth talkers from New York and then witnessing Deeds attempting to play tuba to concentrate. And I’ll admit getting swept up in the drama of the later scenes, even though I knew how it was going to end (ie. largely the same way Smith did, with Deeds winning his case).
That said, the goofy atmosphere of the early scenes steadily fades away and gets replaced with stern drama during Deeds’ trial, and the shift is a little jarring. This inconsistency is where Deeds’ major flaw lies. It’s difficult to know if Capra wanted to make a comedy of errors about a man completely out of his usual habitat, or wanted to make a serious drama about the nature of people’s greed and ability to judge others for quirky differences.
For this reason, Mr Smith is the better movie of the two, but Mr Deeds is an entertaining watch in its own right. It’s charming and it’s got a good blend of comedy and drama, even if the ending is very predictable if you know even the slightest bit about Frank Capra’s movies. But I enjoyed it, and makes a good companion piece with Mr Smith.
Starring Gary Cooper & Jean Arthur
Written by Clarence Buddington Kelland & Robert Riskin
Produced by Frank Capra
Cinematography by Joseph Walker
Edited by Gene Havlick
Favourite Scene: When Mr Deeds points out how badly the opera house is being run, and his common sense solutions that counter the board’s unimaginative ways.
Scene That Bugged Me: There’s a scene where Deeds and Babe visit Grant’s Tomb in New York and Deeds rambles on about how great America is. Capra, I get it, you were very patriotic.
Watch it if: You liked Mr Smith and want more of the same
Avoid it if: The opposite of the above