Rocking America with Laughter.
The above is what the critics had to say about Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the latest issue in the Columbia Classics Collection. I wouldn't call it hilarious by today's standards, but it still maintains a sense of humor and charm while presenting a touching, meaningful story that has not gone out of date. Another wonderful restoration of a classic film by Columbia, though perhaps not with quite as much effort as for It Happened One Night.
Following the great success of It Happened One Night, Frank Capra was a bit scared to get working on a new film right away. After all, expectations would be high after garnering all 5 of the big Oscars from his last film. He went ahead and did Broadway Bill, but he was looking for something that would be more of a landmark film. Lost Horizon was to be that film, but Ronald Colman, who later starred in it, could not break away from his current projects until the next year. It was then that he took a look at a story that led to the script for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. This film also almost didn't get made. Capra was convinced that Gary Cooper (High Noon, Meet John Doe, The Fountainhead) was the only actor who could fill the lead role, but he was also busy, but only for 6 months. Rather than move ahead with someone else, Capra waited for him, and added another $100,000 to the cost of the film for it. Of course he was given a lot more leeway now that he had proven himself the golden goose of Columbia.
During the wait he had cast the rest of the roles, and had Carole Lombard lined up for the female lead. Only 3 days before filming she backed out in favor of another film (My Man Godfrey). Shooting actually began without a female lead while a frantic search began. Looking through dailies, Capra spied a blond, squeaky voiced lady who caught his eye. Though dissuaded by Cohn and others from Columbia from using her, he persevered and Jean Arthur (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Plainsman, Shane) was cast. I don't quite understand Capra's luck with female leads, but she, like Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, was also a difficult actress. She too had a "good side" and was constantly stalling in her dressing room. In actuality she was overly nervous rather than arrogant, however, and Capra nursemaided her through the shooting.
At a then-staggering cost of over $800,000, the film was finally shot. But the magic of the writing of Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Lost Horizon, Meet John Doe) and Frank Capra's master direction held true again, and the film was a big hit, garnering over a million dollars in it's first theatrical run, and being nominated for Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Picture, Best Actor, and winning Capra's second of three Oscars for Best Director.
This was the first of several films that Capra would make spotlighting the plight of the common man overcoming the deception and greed of the rich fat cats, a type of film Capra would later speak of with disdain, calling it CapraCorn. That he would later attempt to distance himself from such films is not surprising; given the insidious blacklisting instigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). No Hollywood artist remained untouched—including Frank Capra. His past films extolling the virtues of the downtrodden little guy over the cruel manipulation of the bigwigs did not appeal to the more conservative individual that Capra had become, perhaps because of the committee. Today such films are cherished as among his best, and I would certainly agree. But at the time, he was looking at how well Hollywood was doing, as the Depression stricken masses flocked to movies to forget their troubles, while those masses were doing so poorly. He decided to do a film that would address the social issues of the haves and have-nots, a topic that remains relevant today.
The story begins with the death of an elderly playboy named Semple in an auto accident in Italy. It turns out that he has left his entire $20 million fortune to a nephew he has never met. The first of several newspaper montages announce the death and the speculation for the name of the heir. We meet the first of the main characters here. A cynical news editor MacWade (George Bancroft) demands the name of the heir so he can get a scoop from Cornelius Cobb, the cigar smoking, frog-voiced public relations man for the deceased. He denies knowing anything, while sitting in a room with the lawyers, including the obsequiously slimy and scheming John Cedar, who discovers the name of the heir. Longfellow Deeds (Cooper) is the nephew; a tuba playing greeting card poet from the small town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont. Cobb and the lawyers rush off to Vermont, and after a scene that was probably hilarious in it's time finally reach him. Surprisingly they discover that when the duplicitous Cedar tells him the "good news" about his inheritance, he barely flinches, uninterested and unemotionally affected by the money. He is actually more interested in trying out the new mouthpiece on his tuba than about the money. Even the housekeeper blurts out: "How about lunch? Are the gentlemen going to stay or not?" The city slickers are astounded by Deeds, who doesn't react according to their expectations. In fact, he ponders: "I wonder why he left me all that money. I don't need it!" (The reaction from a Depression-Era audience must have been audible.)
It turns out that Deeds must go to New York, and gets a rousing send-off from the town. We discover when they arrive in New York that the law firm had been embezzling from Semple and needs to gain power of attorney from Deeds quickly lest he discover the missing half million dollars. However, they are supremely confident, believing Deeds to be a half-wit and perhaps the most naïve man on the planet. In fact Deeds is an enigma; in some ways showing utter innocence to the ways of the world, but in others showing sharp business acumen and common sense. Deeds puts off immediately hiring Cedar's firm and deals quickly and handily with the now-circling sharks trying to get a share of his money. He is made chairman of the opera committee because they think that he will pick up their entire yearly deficit, but he says that the opera must instead be put on a profitable basis.
We see here in this part of the film the beginning of Deed's empathy with the common man, telling one servant trying to dress him "Never get on your knees again." Unfortunately his faith in human nature and goodness is to be sorely tested with nearly everyone around him (except surprisingly Cobb who remains loyal) having an ulterior motive. The newspapers are near the head of that list, as MacWade exhorts his reporters to get a story on the new millionaire in their midst by any means. The sharp, sassy, street savvy Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) figures she has an angle to get the inside story, and gets it; thanks to pretending to faint right in front of Deeds at his front gate. Being a sucker for a lady in distress (god help all men with the white knight complex) he takes her out to dinner and is completely smitten. She manages to stir up trouble in the restaurant by egging him into punching out the literary celebs who have blatantly made fun of him. One of the authors, a drunken sot, compliments Deeds though, and convinces him, with Bennett's (who is calling herself Mary Dawson) help, to go on a binge with him, the first time Deeds has gotten drunk. His drunken escapades, resulting in him being escorted home by the police in his underwear, make front page copy in the newspaper, along with a new moniker "Cinderella Man." The articles continue as she cultivates his trust and affection and he continues to do some odd things about town.
There is a lot of plot left to cover, but I'm not going to give it away, except in these general terms. Deeds becomes the "everyman" and hero to the poor and downtrodden, but not before undergoing some serious problems and issues. As a contemporary critic wrote "Capra gives you a happy ending, but he sure makes you pay for it." And of course romance blooms between the reporter and Deeds, but how can she be with him after she has betrayed him? This plot device is pretty tired now, but I'll give them credit for using it long before others copied it to death. Other now-stereotypical aspects of the film are excused here because this was the era of films that invented them, like the gangster speech of his former bodyguards "He locked us in a room, see?" in the voice James Cagney would later make his own. There are a couple quotes I would like to share with you that I thought especially good though. The best quote came from Deeds inside his home, coming to grips with the city:
"People here are funny. They work so hard at living—they forget how to live. Last night, after I left you, I was walking along and looking at the tall buildings and I got to thinking about what Thoreau said. They created a lot of grand palaces here—but they forgot to create the noblemen to put in them."
I'll also include the poem that Deeds writes for the lady he calls Mary:
I've tramped the earth with hopeless beat,
If you hadn't guessed, I love this movie. I think that it shines a ray of hope into life, and gives a great story of common sense and love winning out over greed and malice. I'm sure it meant even more to those people struggling through the Depression, but it still strikes a chord today.
Enough about the film, before I get emotional. Can't have that. This Columbia Classics collection disc shows the restored film in it's original full frame aspect. For a 64 year old film, it's very good. Not quite as good as the restoration on It Happened One Night, which is two years older, but nice. The image is soft, with some nicks and scratches remaining, and grain present whenever a foggy scene crops up. But the detail is still there, and shadow detail is excellent. I'm sure they simply had a worse print to work with than the other, less seen film.
The audio stands up better, being a two-channel Dolby Digital Mono track. I found it easier to understand using my two front mains rather than attempting a Pro-Logic decoding for the center. The sound is clear and dialogue is clearly understood, though the music had some loss of detail as can be expected from this type of track.
The extras are considerable, though less than for the last of this collection I reviewed, It Happened One Night. Like the other disc, it contains a short featurette with an interview of Frank Capra Jr., and a commentary track by the same. It had the identical trailers as the other as well, being those of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Lost Horizon, and It Happened One Night. Talent files for Jean Arthur, Gary Cooper, and Frank Capra, and vintage advertising stills comprise the rest of the extras on the disc, though a 2 page leaflet of production notes is included in the case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Continuing with my thoughts on the extra content, the featurette is very short, and the commentary track is filled with long gaps without speech, only to sometimes hear Frank Capra Jr. chuckle or repeat something he had already said. Some would say it gives the feeling he is watching the film with you, and taken in that context it is fine.
As for the film, I hate to poke a finger at anything. But certainly seen through year 2000 eyes some of the jokes just aren't as funny now as they were then. It was marketed in 1936 as a hilarious comedy; now it's more sweet and charming. My jaded eyes pick out some falsities in the plot, especially the courtroom scene, where some definite liberties were taken with judicial process for dramatic effect. I'm sure the 1936 audiences never blinked an eye at it. The scene still works, with just a little suspension of disbelief.
Many feel this is the best Capra film ever made, and it's close to that. I'd rank It's a Wonderful Life higher, but I'm still talking about one of the great films of all time. I doubt it will ever look better than it does here, and the extras, while a bit light, are still substantial. I just saw it online for under $15 so at that price you should be hurrying to buy it before the price goes up. A must in any collection that you want to include classic films in.
It's ludicrous to even consider trying this film, the stars, or its director. The disc gets a commendation as well. Columbia continues to offer great value for the movie buff who wants the greats of vintage film.
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