Frank Capra: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) of Mandrake Falls inherits $20 million from his uncle Martin Semple. Semple’s attorney, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), locates Deeds and brings him to New York City. Cedar hires ex-newspaperman Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) to keep reporters away from Deeds, but Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) gets close to him by pretending to be a poor woman who’s spent all day trying to find work. She writes a series of unflattering articles about Deeds, portraying him as a hick. Deeds is eventually disillusioned with everything in the city, including himself, until a dispossessed farmer (John Wray) breaks into Deeds’s mansion with a gun, complaining about the wealthy man’s failing to do anything with his money to help people. Deeds decides to provide 10-acre farms for homeless families willing to work the land for several years. Cedar tries to have Deeds declared mentally incompetent in order to regain control of the fortune. At his sanity hearing, Deeds delivers what may reasonably be considered the message of the film:

It’s like I’m out in a big boat, and I see one fellow in a rowboat who’s tired of rowing ad wants a free ride, and another fellow who’s drowning. Who would you expect me to rescue? Mr. Cedar, who’s just tired of rowing and wants a free ride, or those men out there who are drowning? Any ten-year-old child will give you the answer to that.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town featured many of the recurring themes and characteristics of Frank Capra’s films: class, socioeconomic relations, an affinity for working people, and the fast snappy dialogue that helps keep the audience entertained as they watch what could have been a dull, preachy film.

The studio didn’t care for this film on the grounds that Deeds was a “poor hero.” He is usually reactive in most situations, but once he’s broken, he finds his strength and fights for himself and what he thinks is right. Capra always wanted Cooper to play Deeds because of his honest, stalwart good looks—he thought the audience would believe that he wouldn’t care if he inherited $20 million.

Carole Lombard was originally cast as Babe, but just days before production began, she left to make My Man Godfrey. Capra serendipitously saw some rushes from another film with Jean Arthur, and chose her to replace Lombard. Arthur had a reputation for being difficult—she didn’t like being in front of the camera (film actress seems like an odd career choice). Capra thought she came alive on film, and was willing to deal with her idiosyncrasies.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town takes place during the Great Depression, but Capra focused on more universal themes such as human relations where socioeconomic inequalities exist. Because it stresses these broad ideas within the context of a screwball romantic comedy, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town retains its relevance.


Frank Capra Jr. Remembers Mr. Deeds

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