DVD Review Of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/20/07
There is a tendency amongst some to think that all the art produced by a great artist is great. This is false, but it gives cover for bad critics who just recycle old blurbs and tendencies about the artist. Think of the unthinking and fawning that goes on in discussions of Shakespeare. Yes, he was a great writer, but all but a dozen or so of his sonnets were mediocre tongue-twisters, and two thirds of his thirty-seven known plays were mediocre to terrible, so by being uncritical one actually diminishes the great art produced, for an uncritical stance makes it seem as if the touching of greatness is a product alien to all but the blessed. In short, it negates the hard work that all great endeavors require.
This thought was ubiquitous as I watched the 1936 black and white Frank Capra classic film Mr. Deeds Goes To Washington. The film was adapted from a story, Opera Hat, by Clarence Budington Kelland, by longtime Capra collaborator, and dialogue expert, Robert Riskin. Itís a good film, to be sure, as all Capra fare is, but itís not in a league with Itís A Wonderful Life, nor even his earlier Oscar-winning classic, It Happened One Night. It lacks the overall depth of the former- and is far more preachy, and, in comparison to the latter, it lacks the quick pacing and tart-tongued dialogue, as it clocks in at 115 minutes in length.
This film was, in many ways, a precursor to the later Capra-Cooper film, Meet John Doe, as both films feature rags to riches tales in which men are manipulated by the women they love. This film, however, is not as bleak as the later film. Yet, despite the use of many familiar tropes, what sets Capra apart from lesser directors are his believable lesser characters- all of whom get moments to shine, as well as the peerless dialogue. Add to that Capraís relentless glare at his leading actorsí characterizations, and his films- which with lesser directors would have truly been the cornfests his worst critics claim, are ones always presented with a grittiness that could be from later films noir, in the midst of the feelgoodery.
The plot is simple. A sweet Vermont relative of a millionaire, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), who is a greeting card poet and tuba player, who lives in Mandrake Falls, inherits twenty million dollars from his late uncle, Martin Semple. He goes to New York City with his uncleís slimy lawyer John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille) and PR man, Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander). Yet, the New York tabloids have a field day with the story, and one of the newspapers sends their top reporter Louise ĎBabeí Bennett (Jean Arthur), to get the scoop on Mr. Deeds, whom she calls the ĎCinderella Man.í She poses as Mary Dawson, on the orders of MacWade (George Bancroft), her editor- who promises her a monthís paid vacation for a scoop. She slowly seduces him, even as she accompanies him on several adventures in society, all the while he tries to cope with hangers-on and leeches for his fortune. It is the Great Depression, after all.
Cedar tries to get Deeds to give him power of attorney so he can embezzle some of it to pay off the law firmís debts, but Deeds turns out to be a crafty businessman. When Cobb finds out that Babe has played Deeds, he tells him, breaking his heart. This after he proposed to her with a bad poem:
tramped the earth with hopeless beat,
Searching in vain for a glimpse of you.
Then heaven thrust you at my very feet,
A lovely angel, too lovely to woo.
My dream has been answered, but my lifeís just as bleak.
I'm handcuffed and speechless, in your presence divine.
For my heart longs to cry out, if it only could speak.
I love you, my angel, be mine, be mine.
Yet, she has genuinely fallen in love with him.
Then comes the filmís weakest and most contrived moment- one thatís almost a deus ex machina in reverse (a deus ex homina?). An out of work farmer busts into Deedsí mansion and threatens him with a gun. He scorns Deedsí wealth and seeming uncaring for the poor. Give that the man would have to have read of Deeds in the paper, this just does not square, as Deeds obviously comes from a regular background, and is not one of the idle rich.
Nevertheless, Deeds reconciles with the man, feeds him, then decides to give plots of land- ten acres, away to dispossessed farmers- who will own the land after three years of working it; something Cedar wonít allow. The lawyer gets another Semple relative, and his shrewish wife, to contest Deedsí actions, and tries to get him declared insane, based upon his eccentricities- such as his drunken carousing with a poetaster, then feeding donuts to a horse, his penchant for fisticuffs, and his scheme to help the poor. In reality, he- like an earlier sleazeball lawyer, just wants the money. Babe saves the day, by finally getting Deeds to speak up for himself, and in true Capra fashion, he does. Itís a corny moment, but so well written and acted that it overcomes its immanent melodrama. Deeds beats Cedar both intellectually and physically, and is declared sane by the judge, carried off by the farmers, from the courtroom, then runs back into Babeís arms.
The acting is top notch. Cooper isÖ.well, Gary Cooper- mixing strength and vulnerability in perfect amounts, and outside of Pride Of The Yankees, this may be his best role. Jean Arthur conveys a vulnerability and depth that a lesser actress may not have brought to her role, and the rest of the cast from Dumbrilleís lawyer, to Standerís gravelly voiced PR flack, to the two nutty sisters from Mandrake Falls, Jane and Amy Faulkner (Margaret Seddon, Margaret McWade), who testify he is Ďpixilated,í are all good. Even the actors playing Deedsí man-servants are good, especially in the famed echo scene in the manseís parlor.
Yes, there is the almost obligatory Capran small town sendoff, as well as
Auld Lang Syne being sung, but the moments of weakness are brief, and the
moments where Capra transcends such so many that itís amazing that he could
pull off such a film as well as he did, especially given his manifest
Rooseveltian New Deal sympathies. Most of the reason he does so, in this film,
is because of Gary Cooperís great performance as the deceptively simpletonian
Deeds. The film was named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics and the
National Board Of Review, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning
Capra his second award as Best Director. It also won the Oscar for Best Picture,
but lost out on Best Actor (Cooper),
Best Screenplay (Riskin), and Best Sound Recording.
The DVD is part of a six disk The Frank Capra Collection, and comes with a short interview of Frank Capra Jr., and his audio commentary track. Itís not that insightful, larded with aimless casting anecdotes and technical points of no interest, and is punctuated by long pauses. Junior also spreads the tall tale that Riskinís script invented the terms pixilated and doodles. Not so, as any quick check of a dictionary proves. Yet, who can blame him for wanting to give even a bit more credit to his dadís work? Junior, however, says his dad expressed dissatisfaction with Dumbrille, as Cedar, as the filmís bad guy; stating that his father thought he was not bad enough. This is unfortunate, since one of the filmís strengths is that its heavy is believable, and Dumbrille is quite good. Yes, he is not as wretched a villain as Itís A Wonderful Lifeís Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), but how few heavies are?
There are also some promotional materials included. Yet, the picture is very good, and shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The cinematography by Joseph Walker is solid, but itís always the editing on a Capra film that is more important, and Gene Havlick keeps this film moving briskly- especially during sterling newspaper headline montages. He often cuts the film just a beat before its drama could turn maudlin, as if Capra dares his art and audience to be moved emotionally, then think on what he has already touched. That Capra was doing such decades before the Europeans made such a turn a staple for art house cinema shows how ahead of the curve he was. The musical scoring by Howard Jackson is the standard fare such screwball comedies of the era had.
All in all, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town is Capra in fine form, if not at the top of his game. Yet, if itís true that not all the art produced by a great artist is great, the opposite sentiment has merit: even the lesser art from great artists is better than that produced by lesser artists. This film is proof of that claim.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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