I mentioned seeing Mr. Deeds Goes To Town to a co-worker; he’d never heard of it (although he vaguely remembered hearing about a more recent remake). Nevertheless, when I started recounting the plot to him, he accurately guessed each and every plot point in turn. Yep – it’s that predictable. But there is enough endearing charm that I still enjoyed it.
Gary Cooper stars as Longfellow Deeds, a greeting-card writer living a simple homespun life in small-town Vermont at the top of the film. He also happens to be the long-lost nephew of Martin Semple, a multi-millionaire who’s just died in a car crash in Italy; Semple’s lawyers (the firm of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington) come to collect him, informing him that he has now inherited $20 million and needs to decide how to manage Semple’s estate. But they have an ulterior motive – Semple had been somewhat lax in his money affairs, turning the entire control of his finances over to his legal team (and thus letting them quietly bilk him), and they hope to convince Deeds to do the same.
Meanwhile, New York’s press is eager for news about this brand-new member of the upper class – but the Cedars have appointed a publicist, Cornelius Cobb, to be Deeds’ gatekeeper. Star reporter “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) concocts a plan to pose as an everygirl with similar small-town roots and befriend Deeds, going out with him on a series of dates and then secretly writing about his exploits and fish-out-of-water faux pas. Early on she dubs him “The Cinderella Man”, a nickname Deeds bristles at – he knows it’s mean-spirited.
But wouldn’t you know it, Deeds’ small-town common sense keeps him from being easily suckered in by the Cedars – and his simple charm captures Babe’s heart. Babe washes her hands of the whole thing out of shame – quitting the newspaper and coming clean to Deeds. A heartbroken and disillusioned Deeds concocts a plan to disperse the entire fortune through a series of grants to small family farms before finally heading home. The Cedars, panicked that their cash cow is going rogue, attempt to have him declared mentally unfit and have themselves appointed executors of the estate. The resulting trial forces Deeds to try to defend not just his decisions about the money, but his entire outlook on life.
“Lemme guess,” my co-worker said at this point when I was recounting the story. “Small-town common-sense wins.”
“And it makes him too smart to be taken in by the foxy big city lawyers.”
“And it has a happy ending.”
Listen, that really doesn’t give anything away. I try not to spoil the movies when I see them, but you really really can see this outcome a mile off. Deeds is an almost stereotypical New England Common-Sense Everyman, and The Cedars are so stuck-up and smarmy that you know they’re going to get their comeuppance.
Happily, Cooper’s performance tempers the stereotype. While there is a little bit of small-town golly-shucks in his depiction of Deeds, there is also a good deal of savvy – he sees through some of the Cedars. antics in some fairly astute ways now and then – and a surprising tendency towards temper (he’s not above punching someone for making a rude or coarse remark). The film also gives Deeds some moments of childlike whimsy – roping Babe into a duet of “Suwannee River” in the park, sliding down the bannisters in his mansion, marveling at New York City sights. One scene with Deeds playing around with an echo in his mansion, and then enlisting the house staff to try it too, was so pointlessly and purely fun that I laughed out loud.
This was director Frank Capra’s second film after the award-winning It Happened One Night. However, it was his first after having had a life-altering conversation with a Christian Scientist friend – one which spurred Capra to think deeply about what his films could say. “God gave you those talents,” his friend insisted. “They are His gifts to you, to use for His purpose.” Capra resolved that somehow, henceforward, his films would try to convey a subtle evangelical message to audiences: “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”
But rather than going overtly religious, Capra chose to work the “love thy neighbor” angle with this film, spending a good deal of time on Deeds’ plan to help impoverished farmers. A large chunk of Deeds’ testimony at his sanity hearing is devoted to a defense for helping the less fortunate farmers, simply on the grounds that they needed the most help. “It’s like I have a rowboat,” Deeds says at one point, “and I have the choice of helping one man in another boat who just wants a break from rowing, or another man who’s drowning. Wouldn’t you help the drowning man?” For some critics, that message sounded uncomfortably close to Communism; but for the most part, audiences and critics were charmed by the simple good nature of Longfellow Deeds, and the film earned Capra his second Oscar for Best Direction.
The remake my co-worker heard about exists, by the way. It came out in 2002, starring Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder, and was apparently generally faithful to the plot, but lacked the charm of Capra’s vision and did poorly at the box office. But its soundtrack used a Dave Matthews Band song I rather like, so it’s not all bad.