“He could never fit in with our distorted viewpoint, because he’s honest, and sincere, and good. If that man’s crazy, Your Honor, the rest of us belong in straitjackets!” ~ Jean Arthur as Babe Bennett
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a true treasure of idealism and Americana. People, especially now, may have many quibbles with the films of Frank Capra because he was the undisputed champion of feel good cinema that revelled in happy endings, stalwart honesty, and the little guy being permitted a fighting chance.
It’s no wonder that he made such good use of the likes of Gary Cooper and James Stewart because they embodied common, everyday American decency like few other actors could ever claim. Admittedly it’s easy to belittle his pictures as saccharine and sentimental to the nth degree but beyond that Capra always seemed to have an inherent sense of what America stood for or at least what he believed it could and still can stand for.
Every man deserves a certain amount of respect. You might call them inalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And any force that tries to impede that is in simple terms an affront to all humanity. Because though we might all think we’re different, we share a lot more similarities than we often want to concede. It’s easy for us to forget that and that’s what happens here.
Longfellow Deeds (Cooper) becomes the overnight talk of the town because his rich uncle dies in a horrible car crash and bequeaths his wealth to his unsuspecting nephew. It’s the kind of good fortune that others drool over but in Deeds’ hands, he takes it in stride. He comes off as a real Yokum from the one horse town of Mandrake Falls but if anything Deeds is incredibly smart. He realizes he can have contentment out of the limelight and with very little. He enjoys quiet days oftentimes filling idle hours with his prized tuba and poetry that he writes for postcards.
But his new status as a millionaire forces him into the life that he doesn’t much want. Mansions and butlers, folks looking for handouts, ravenous newspapermen (and women) and conniving lawyers. Front and center is Mr. Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille). It’s these very individuals who see Deeds as a ridiculous outsider to be belittled and taken advantage of.
The brilliance of Capra’s movie is that he makes his hero, while simple and practical, still very astute. He may have his many quirks but there’s a surprising amount of business acumen and common sense flowing through his veins that consequently sends everyone else for a loop. He spies phonies from a mile of away and he looks to reform the local opera while finding ways to spend his newfound fortune sagaciously.
The only thing he’s not watching out for is a pretty girl, journalist Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) is ready to nab him, capturing his heart and simultaneously giving the whole city a front row seat to his exploits about town from quarrels with a snooty circle of poets to an evening jaunt ending on a fire engine. She’s a pro at spinning the tale into one of a first class boob, christening him the “Cinderella Man” that the whole world laughs at. They eat it up and they want to see him fall–this idiotic nobody suddenly being scrutinized by society for his good fortune. It’s all rather unfair but oftentimes that’s the way the world turns. It’s a cruel and sometimes curious place.
Because while Deeds grows fed up with this whole lifestyle, ready to leave it all behind him, Babe finds herself truly falling for her project since he models something she rarely sees in a man — real honest to goodness integrity that guides his every action. There’s never a false pretense or a veiled intention. What you see is what you get. Ironically enough, in this land of fakes, she’s the only “real” person he thinks he’s met. And she knows what’s been going on, going so far as to tell her editor that she’s quitting. There’s no way she can keep up the charade only injuring the character of the one she loves more and more.
But of course, everything dives into the depths of despair when Deeds is sent to trial calling into question his sanity after he resolves to use $18,000,000 to portion off acres of land to destitute farmers to work for him. It’s utter lunacy, isn’t it? The workers line up around the block leading into his home as he offers them a chance at a real life without starving children and food lines every day. This is what Cedar, Cedar, Cedar, and Blumenfeld are bringing him to court for or is it the fact that they want a portion of his fortune? Yes, that just might be it.
Anyways, far worse than that fate is the fact that he thinks his girl has betrayed him and she has in a sense, but she’s also devoted to him by now. She watches helplessly as her man gets railroaded. She began as the one to crucify him in the tabloids and now she prepares to watch him get crucified in the courtroom. In these moments, he does take on a Christ-like post watching all the proceedings without a word. He never makes any effort to defend himself after accusation after accusation is thrown his direction.
But the bottom line is that he does not have to let himself be destroyed. Being the martyr, in this case, is not his job and Capra lifts him out of the pit and resurrects him. The fact that Louise fights for him and numerous others including his cynical right-hand man Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) and the local newspaper editor (George Bancroft), not to mention a legion of grateful farmers. So Mr. Deeds ends with a tumultuous courtroom finale befitting one of Capra’s finest pictures. It brims with goodness and bubbles over with humor that constantly underlines this feel good classic.
Though Gary Cooper represents Capra’s love of the every man with common decency and common sense, Jean Arthur remains equally crucial to the worlds that he creates. It has to do with her quality as an actor that allows her to play the snappy, witty, world-wearied types. Because she represents all the many people with that very same cynical streak and yet the very fact that her heart can be melted and her whole mindset can be changed suggests that there might be hope for all of us. That hope burgeons up from Mr. Deeds and leaves us with a warm feeling indeed.