Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

I’ve gotta say one stupid thing first–how on earth did one man end up making two films with titles that are formatted as “Mr. [So-and-so] Goes to [Such-and-Such]”? It’s not a simple issue of two nouns joined by a conjunction, or a subject and an intransitive verb, or something else similarly simple–or even a person performing the same action, but specifically a male specifically travelling to a location. On the same thread, I would suggest that, upon viewing this one, I feel that Mr. Deeds Comes to Town would have been a more appropriate title, which I will explain in good time.

The beginning of the film is our old favourite trick–the newspaper headline spinning into focus. It seems a wealthy magnate named Martin Semple has fallen prey to vehicular trauma, leaving a fortune of $20 million dollars–especially keeping in mind this is set during the Depression–to his pseudo-estranged nephew Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a man who lives in the small town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont and writes greeting and postcard poetry, playing the tuba in the town band. Lawyer John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille) takes the extremely cynical Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander–wait, Kup?!*), who is employed as the man to keep stories out of the newspaper for the late Semple, to find Mr. Deeds and inform him of his inheritance. We quickly learn that Cedar’s motivations are less than pure–he wants power of attorney over the money so that he and his croneys (Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington–the last of whom Deeds can never figure out a rhyme for) can control it themselves, and once Deeds comes into town, we find that everyone is willing to try anything and everything to get their hands on the money that means so little to Deeds himself. He almost shrugs when informed, saying, “That is an awful lot, isn’t it?” and continuing to thoughtfully oomph phblatt on his tuba. Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) poses as one “Mary Dawson” to get close to Deeds, hoping to earn a month long paid vacation from her editor in the process, finding herself–you saw this coming, right?–falling madly for the sweetly naïve, loveable, yet fairly intelligent Deeds.

Once again, Capra and constant screenwriter Robert Riskin (husband of legend Fay Wray–star of the original 1933 King Kong) have tasked themselves with an honesty versus cynical greed sort of story. We have another honest man, this time the unbelievably, ridiculously honest Deeds, going up against the entire world, which is so steeped in its own jaded egocentric values that it literally tries to label the man insane for wanting to give to his fellow man. Over a half of the films in the set of Capra movies I bought were scripted by Riskin, and I have no complaints about this. His screenplays are fantastic, always with snappy comebacks that feel fresh–even over seventy years later, and dialogue for romance that, too, does not find itself mired in cliché or grasping at straws. Capra, too, remains in control, bringing a believability to the character of Deeds which would otherwise be nearly impossible to swallow.

Cooper, who I had previously only seen in High Noon, brings a similar countenance (of course, it is his own!) to the role, but by that I mean more his tendency to constantly look dour, rarely smiling and always seeming as if there’s an awful lot on his mind, troubling him. It works though, he may or may not be aware of this part of his appearance, but it never affects our impression of the personality and character of Deeds. Despite this seeming somberness throughout, we take him as a good-hearted and kind man anyway, when he “aw, shucks” his way through many a scene, always seeming perfectly sincere in it. Arthur brings the “tough reporter lady who softens when she sees a real human being” type character to life quite well, which is pleasing to see as she apparently is going to continue on into the last two films in this set as well. Stander is excellent as the tough, sarcastic, suspicious Cobb–while I saw early on that he would be the lone voice consistently defending Deeds, it never felt overly scripted, nor poorly played. It seemed utterly natural for his character to cling to someone like Deeds, who he could easily tell was the real deal, but to be protective and scolding of him at the same time, fearing in his way that the world around them would ruin him, and hoping to instill in him at least some semblance of self-preservation. It’s for that reason, that Deeds is the stranger, that I suggested earlier that the verb should have been “Comes” instead of “Goes”–Deeds is the stranger to our reality, coming into it, not going out into another one, and it is him, while we are proud of him and admire him, that we feel is out of touch with reality. This is, I must admit, pretty amusingly balanced by the few things he will protect himself over–a run in with some pompous poets who decide to mock him ends with Deeds on top, despite the fact that he is fooled temporarily by these men.

Again, as everyone suggests of Capra, this is a fanciful, fairy tale world in its way, but he doesn’t shy away from negativity all the same. Deeds is told that violence is not an appropriate response, and though it is a light-hearted approach to it, it is still there and not (exactly) seen as a positive, though we most certainly cheer when some get theirs. Murder comes about in at least discussion in the previous two films I’ve seen, and here we open the film with a death. It’s not all flowers and rainbows here, though there’s a much more clear delineation as to who is good and who is bad–but at the same time, hearts can change. I know some people hate this for its lack of reality–possibly being unable to accept these things out of their own pessimistic view of humanity, or possibly out of a jealous envy of the world in which these characters live, but I do feel that in forms expressed so well as Capra’s films, there’s no problem with taking a dip into a more optimistic world and seeing some good, even if it’s written.

Sidenote: Pixilated? The subtitles spelled it that way (I had to make sure I was really hearing that word) but some sites spell it “pixellated”–and clued me into the fact that not only did this film popularize that term, but also “doodling.” Fascinating, I must say, though the Faulkner sisters’ definition of being “touched by pixies” is a far cry from an image which has broken down into its most basic elements. Interesting, then, that the word was so wholely replaced, as I see little if any connection–and certainly the pixellated I’m familiar with, the latter definition, is derived from the elements being “pixels”–but perhaps that term is related to pixies. I suppose I should go look that up….

*OK, I know this is totally bizarre for someone to be raving about Frank Capra and to be excited that he just saw the man behind the voice of a Transformer, and I’m a total goof, but I can’t help it.

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3 thoughts on “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

  1. Pixillated, I think that is the usual spelling, is one of the umpteen zillion Americanisms for being drunk. I think it is H.L. Mencken who observed that there are more American expressions for being drunk than in any other culture or language or dialect but I guess if some Eskimos can have umpteen zillion words to express snow, it would be only be proper for some Americans to have so many words or expressions for being drunk. Just think, ironically of how the native Americans referred to Sam Houston! And, yes, it was a poster of It Happened One Night that I did have on the wall in my office along with numerous other ones: unfortunately it was a poster advertising the video release and not even a reproduction of the original one-sheet or even an original one-sheet

    1. It did strongly resemble the first poster that appeared in the supplements about vintage advertising (the two of them on the crescent moon) if I recall correctly though–which was also one of the more horizontal varieties.

  2. Also spelled with a single “L” and reportedly first found as an Americanism in 1848… but also credited with being revived by Frank Capra’s use in this movie!

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