Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Genre: Comedy and Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 55 min.

Release Date: April 12th, 1936 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Frank Capra Actors: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Lionel Stander, Douglass Dumbrille, Raymond Walburn, Ruth Donnelly, Walter Catlett

 


 

M

artin W. Semple dies in an automobile accident in Italy. The civic leader and banker, hoarding a considerable fortune ($20 million), has an unknown heir, whom the newspapers scramble to uncover. Eventually, a collection of lawyers discover that single, 28-year-old Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), residing in the sleepy little town of Mandrake Falls, is the sole inheritor. And so they journey all the way from New York, insistent on delivering the news in person.

“Everyone knows Deeds.” The mystery man is a well-liked, simple rustic, famous around town for his postcard poetry. He’s not all that shocked when he hears about the funds (“I wonder why he left me all that money? I don’t need it.”), which is quite the shock for partner John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille) and his assistant, former newspaperman and current fixer Cornelius Cobb (froggy-throated Lionel Stander), as they whisk the inexperienced, naive Deeds onto a train for the Big Apple. After three days, the press – embodied by City Editor H.L. MacWade (George Bancroft) – is in an uproar, unable to get close to Deeds, thanks to Cobb’s watchful eye. But “Morning Mail” crack reporter Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur), bribed with a month-long vacation with pay, is destined to get to the bottom of the cornfed nitwit’s story … and maybe fall in love in the process.

The fish-out-of-water scenario isn’t new, but it’s amusing to contemplate, perhaps vicariously, the fantasy situation of suddenly coming into extreme wealth. Also remarkable is Deeds’ intelligence; rather than filling the role of the easily-manipulated yokel, he manages to slip past the bodyguards assigned to tail him, and he quickly identifies the abundance of people intent on getting their hooks into his riches. “Lamb bites wolf!”

However, Deeds subscribes to theories of old-fashioned romance, which make him a malleable sucker for Babe and her duplicitous lady-in-distress introduction scheme. But she might be the only one he can’t immediately decipher; he’s surrounded by those who would take advantage at the slightest opportunity, yet he’s curiously capable of deflecting the disingenuous. And though he has the moral high ground in a great number of confrontations, he’s unafraid to throw a few punches, too, when his temperature rises. “Socking people in the nose is no solution for anything.”

With Frank Capra directing, the story centers on normal, relatable people in extraordinary circumstances, dwelling on the humanity and the threads of decency that can’t be upended even when the forces of evil are overwhelming. Observations about life and living, and hypocrisy and ulterior motives, are nicely punctuated by screwball comedy, ranging from an experimental, wild bender (with bubbly Walter Catlett) to an echo contest with Deeds’ staff (highlighted by a giddy butler, played by Raymond Walburn). There’s also slapstick and physical fumbles, but it’s only a matter of time before Babe’s guilt gets the better of her, transitioning the awkward, sweet, sentimental love story into one of tragedy and heartbreak and commentary on greed, moochers, and the truly needy – perpetually kept down by the excesses of the ultra rich.

The third act is something of a disappointment, unfortunately, as it puts Deeds on a sham trial to determine his level of insanity (“Your honor, this is becoming farcical!”). In a world of the affluent benefitting from the penniless, it’s clearly senseless for a benefactor to selflessly give away capital. But by the end, it’s not the upright, charitable causes or the clash with unscrupulous power figures or the courtroom showdown that remains memorable – it’s the simple romance between the innocent poet and the calculating reporter that is most moving and poignant, fueling a revelation of unexpected support that serves as a thematic precursor to both “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10