MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN brought Frank Capra his second Oscar for Direction and earned Gary Cooper his first nomination as Best Actor. Other noms went to the Screenplay (Robert Riskin) and the Sound Recording. Jean Arthur, 35 at the time, with 65 mostly forgettable feature credits logged over 13 years, finally grabbed the brass ring with her shining work in this classic 1936 comedy. *
“At two o’clock this morning, Mr. Deeds held up traffic while he fed a bagful of doughnuts to a horse. When asked why he was doing it, he replied, ‘I just wanted to see how many doughnuts this horse would eat before he asked for a cup of coffee.'”
Honest and amiable small-town fella ‘Longfellow Deeds’ (Cooper), popular resident of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, suddenly inherits $20,000,000. A team of money-thirsty lawyers (we know, it’s fiction) headed by crafty ‘John Cedar’ (Douglas Dumbrille) of “the New York firm of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington” whisks the guileless rustic off to the Big Rotten Apple, where he’s besieged by the greedy. Newspaper sharpie ‘Louise “Babe” Bennett’ (Arthur) fools the smitten guy long enough to get his peculiarities and misadventures into headline copy, and eventually Longfellow’s desire to help the downtrodden is turned against him.
Using his craft skill set virtuosity in astute casting, in crafting superior performances, in a sleek, momentum-infused look, with the backbone of Riskin’s brilliant writing (they collaborated on 8 films) Capra left straight comedies behind and with this film began putting degrees of social relevance into his work, using what Graham Greene called “the theme of goodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world.” The feisty director put it “the rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled to an ort by massiveness–mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity.” Joseph Walker was his go-to cameraman and the brilliant editing was usually the work of Gene Havlick.
“He’s got goodness, Mabel. Do you know what that is? No, of course you don’t. We’ve forgotten. We’re too busy being smart alecks. Too busy in a crazy competition for nothing.”
Capra: “Who in Hollywood could play honest, humble, ‘corn tassel poet’ Mr. Deeds? Only one actor: Gary Cooper. Every line in his face spelled honesty. So innate was his integrity he could be cast in phony parts, but never look phony himself.” Gentle and dreamy but not shy about calling foul with a good old knuckle sandwich, Deeds is one of Cooper’s most winning characters. Of his softly expressive leading lady, the director offered “Never have I seen a performer with such a chronic case of stage jitters. I’m sure she vomited before and after every scene. When the cameras stopped she’d run headlong to her dressing room, lock herself in, and cry.” Capra’s patience and coaxing got such glowing results that he used Arthur again on You Can’t Take It With You and Mr.Smith Goes To Washington. I’m usually lukewarm on Arthur, but she sparks in this role.
“What puzzles me is why people seem to get so much pleasure out of hurting each other. Why don’t they try liking each other once in a while?”
Among many good moments, most of them humorous, maybe the best is the dramatic confrontation Deeds has with a desperate unemployed farmer, a turning point in the plot. Hurt over being mocked and deceived, Deeds at first thinks the accusatory guy is another grifter, but after hearing the man’s story and then watching him ravenously eat some lunch, piteously grateful for the handout (this was the era of breadlines), he decides to use his heretofore troublesome fortune for the common good. Beautifully played by an old-time character player, the long-forgotten John Wray, the wrenching cameo stands reminder duty for the millions then suffering want and indignity in the seventh year of the Great Depression. **
Filmed for $806,744, it was the 5th biggest draw in ’36 grossing $2,300,000, with more on later reissue. Besides bringing “pixilated” (first used in 1848) back into circulation, Riskin’s script coined the word “doodle”, freeing up time for us trying to explain what it is we’re doing on that piece of paper.
115 minutes, with Lionel Stander, George Bancroft, Raymond Walburn, H.B. Warner, Walter Catlett (the soused poet), Margaret Seddon (pixilated sister ‘Jane’), Margaret McWade (pixilated sister ‘Amy’), Gustav von Seyffertitz—what a name!—as the shrink), Charles Lane, Mayo Methot (infamous as Humphrey Bogart’s temper-throwing wife), Paul Hurst, Stanley Andrews and Franklin Pangborn.
* Skip Mr. Deeds, Adam Sandler’s execrable 2002 remake, which—in a sad commentary on contemporary intelligence quotients—was a boxoffice hit. Witless crap about as far from the charm of Capra & Coop as you could get if you used a rocket; as one critic zeroed in “Orphanage fires are funnier.”
** Art as mirror of the vagaries of luck and fortune—-Broadway actor John Wray left the stage for Hollywood when talkies arrived. He had an important role in 1930s All Quiet On The Western Front, then scored a lead in an early gangster picture, The Czar Of Broadway. But soon his parts, if numerous (averaging 8 to 10 jobs a year), grew smaller, often just bits. One of his last was in Gone With The Wind, uncredited. He died in 1940, at 53.