Frank Capra was one of the greatest communicators in Hollywood history. His formula for connecting with audiences mostly involved honoring everyday sentiments and keeping things simple: an uncomplicated idea clearly expressed beats a complex theory any day. By the middle 1930s he’d proved himself a master of cynical comedies as well as tear-jerking stories of mother love. He even found ways to make racy sex content seem clean enough to satisfy the Production Code.
As Capra gained confidence his films took on stronger political ideas, most notably his impressive American Madness with Walter Huston. With 1936′s MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN Capra suddenly decided to extend his films into socially conscious territory. Starting with the simple idea of an Honest Man, Capra and his key writer Robert Riskin offer a full run-down about what’s good and bad in America.
MR. DEEDS is the warm and charming story of Longfellow Deeds, a rural fellow (Gary Cooper) who plays the tuba and writes rhymes for greeting cards. Out of the blue, he inherits twenty million dollars. In the big city he’s treated like a fool, exploited by all manner of tricksters and patronized by ill-mannered intellectuals. Journalist-opportunist Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) pretends to be broke to worm her way into Deeds’ confidence, and then secretly writes newspaper features about the millionaire rube. Dubbing him ‘The Cinderella Man’, Babe realizes that she’s fallen in love just as Longfellow goes sour on all the freeloaders and moochers that pester him. And when Deeds becomes disillusioned, it’s as if America’s future is in jeopardy. He’s become bigger than life, a beacon of hope.
MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN isn’t shy about assigning blame for the country’s problems. The system really comes down against Longfellow when he tries to use his fortune to help the poor. Crooked lawyers are easy targets, especially when the depressed Longfellow goes before a judge, his very sanity in question. Babe looks on helplessly.
“One man, one film” was Frank Capra’s motto and this is his first movie to carry his name above the title. MR. DEEDS also marked a new direction for Gary Cooper’s screen persona. Fully embracing his “ah shucks” side, Coop adopted an aggressively sincere, even cute set of behaviors. He’d bring them out whenever a story needed a masculine yet playful approach: Ball of Fire, Sergeant York, Good Sam, Friendly Persuasion. Capra claimed to have pulled the marvelous Jean Arthur from obscurity, when she had already been featured in several successful comedies, such as John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking. Arthur’s charm is such that her Babe Bennett can segue almost instantly from predatory cynic to emotional softie, and make us believe it.
Otherwise Capra’s show is less socially conscious than it is socially suspicious. Longfellow Deeds, the Honest Man, is set up as a naturally superior being. He’s a rather contradictory fellow, being both unsophisticated yet possessed of an instinctual rightness in everything he thinks and does. The show makes Longfellow seem superior to a group of fatuous intellectuals clearly meant to represent the famous Algonquin Round Table of writers and humorists. Here they’re petty and cruel, which is fair enough, but their overall boorishness doesn’t jibe with the remarkable wit and subtlety associated with Round Table regulars like Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott.
Most alarmingly, Deeds reserves for himself the right to lose control and sock anybody who upsets him. Punching people out is apparently the right of the superior Natural Man. This behavior guarantees big laughs, but the even in the comedy context Longfellow now seems rather disturbing. Other Hollywood directors were making films with openly Fascist sentiments, such as Cecil B. De Mille with his pro-vigilantism This Day and Age. Capra’s Longfellow Deeds isn’t exactly a Fascist hero, but he’s a step in that direction: rural values and intuitive justice are good, and corrupt urban phonies and intellectuals are bad.
The emotional curve of MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN does make an honest grab for the sentiments of the audience, even if the film patronizes the meek ‘little people’ that come to beg Longfellow to use his money for humane purposes. Capra and Riskin deliver terrific comedy and natural touches that endear us to his characters. By the time the lovebirds are properly reunited and everything has worked out for the popular good, MR. DEEDS has won us over entirely.
By this time Frank Capra’s directing style had hit its stride. His intimate methods gave his actors space to breathe, and Capra always chose performance over perfect visual continuity. With pros like Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, H.B. Warner and the inimitable Lionel Stander in top form, Capra’s ’30s movies are packed with delightful personalities. Capra would soon move deeper into populist demagoguery with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the overwrought Meet John Doe. His ‘political’ films have an undeniable persuasive power, a quality Capra used brilliantly in his wartime Why We Fight series of propaganda and moral documentaries.
Author and biographer Cari Beauchamp did the introduction for MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, giving the audience the run-down on how Gary Cooper promoted himself into the Hollywood acting game. Part of that effort involved the help of well-placed women smitten by the actor, who Beauchamp clearly finds irresistible as well. Everybody loved Jean Arthur’s voice, but Capra reportedly had to break down Columbia boss Harry Cohn’s resistance, as the mogul thought her face was half-angel and half-horse. I don’t think anybody who saw her after MR. DEEDS ever shared that opinion.