Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin (based on the story “Opera Hat” by Clarence Budington Kelland)
Stars: Gary Cooper (Longfellow Deeds), Jean Arthur (Louise “Babe” Bennett), George Bancroft (MacWade), Lionel Stander (Cornelius Cobb), Douglass Dumbrille (John Cedar), Raymond Walburn (Walter), H.B. Warner (Judge May), Ruth Donnelly (Mabel Dawson), Walter Catlett (Morrow), John Wray (Farmer)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1936
Country: U.S.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town 80th Anniversary Blu-ray + Digital HD
Mr. Deeds Goes to TownIn Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Gary Cooper plays the eponymous hero Longfellow Deeds, an innocuous, slightly eccentric, but genial poet who hails from the tiny burg of Mandrake Falls, Vermont. He makes a living by penning sincere poems for greeting cards, which means that his artistic aspirations are to be deemed low-brow, and he likes to play the tuba, an inherently awkward instrument made all the more awkward by the fact that he likes to play while he’s thinking, wherever that may be. At the time he played Mr. Deeds, Cooper was already a major star known for being approachable and down to earth, which means that he could have played the character with almost any number of odd quirks, and the audience would automatically love him and sympathize with him (it is not surprising that Capra said he considered no other actor for the role). He was, in essence, a ready-made folk hero.

The story, which was adapted by regular Capra screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You) from the serialized short story “Opera Hat” by the now largely forgotten Clarence Budington Kelland, follows Deeds’s misadventures in New York after he learns that he has inherited $20 million from a wealthy uncle with whom he had no contact. Being fundamentally content with his quiet, unattached life in Mandrake Falls, Deeds doesn’t care much about the money (his non-reaction to being informed of his inheritance is one of the film’s funniest moments), but he allows himself to be drawn to the Big Apple, anyway, where he quickly finds himself surrounded by lawyers, businessmen, celebrities, and other representative of the shallowest echelons of cosmopolitan culture, none of whom he understands (his annoyance with a butler who keeps trying to help him put on his clothes also offers some of the film’s biggest laughs).

Deeds is the proverbial fish out of water, and while he recognizes his lack of fit with the big city, he is also innocent enough to become an inadvertent tabloid fixture, his every oddball move splashed across the front page of the newspaper courtesy of Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur), an award-winning reporter who becomes romantically involved with him in order to get the inside scoop each day (it is she who coins his mocking nickname “Cinderella Man”). Of course, because Deeds is such a fundamentally decent fellow, he begins to unknowingly cut through Babe’s cynical urban armor, eventually melting her heart with his honesty, integrity, and aw-shucks lack of ego. The same could be said for Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander), a former reporter-turned-press agent who is put in charge of keeping Deeds out of the papers. At first Cobb looks down on the assignment, but he eventually becomes Deeds’s strongest advocate.

It is those very qualities that make him vulnerable, though, especially to those who want a piece of his fortune and are willing to do almost anything to get it. These include John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), his uncle’s officious lawyer who wants to be sure that he continues to control the fortune as a means of keeping his own financial corruption secret; an opera company that expects Deeds to donate generously without having any actual input into their activities; and Mr. Semple (Jameson Thomas), Deeds’s only other living relative, and his greedy wife (Mayo Methot). Assuming he is too much of a hick to look out for himself, these finely attired leeches are constantly befuddled by Deeds and his unwillingness to immediately go along with their ploys; he tends to see through their various ruses, which is what makes it somewhat curious that he falls so easily for Babe’s routine playing a poor woman who collapses from looking for a job all day. Nevertheless, the film draws to a climactic courtroom sequence in which Deeds is put on trial to be declared mentally incompetent after he decides to give his entire fortune away by staking small, desperate farmers to land and equipment. It’s a uniquely American satire, in this regard, as it hinges on the idea that someone giving away a newly acquired fortune is de facto evidence of being insane. Generosity of that kind could only be the product of a diseased mind.

Working in broad strokes effective enough to win him his second Best Director Oscar (his first was for 1934’s screwball masterpiece It Happened One Night), Capra plays directly to the audience’s sympathies and prejudices. There are a few missteps, such as giving Deeds a violent streak that is most evident in a scene in which a group of famous writers invites him to join their table at a fancy restaurant just to make fun of him, which gets several of them a vicious sock in the face. There is something cathartic about watching these vicious snobs getting pummeled amidst all the crystal and fine china, but it also feels somewhat wrong for Deeds, who is otherwise such a gentle, delightful soul, to speak so loudly with his fists (when I reviewed the terrible Adam Sandler remake Mr. Deeds in 2002, not having seen Capra’s original at that point, I assumed the corollary scene had been created to fit Sandler’s characteristic mix of the infantile and the violent). There is also something a bit incredulous about the film’s third act that finds Deeds so emotionally devastated after learning the truth about Babe’s intentions that he refuses to mount any kind of defense for himself against charges of being mentally unfit. It works within the confines of the story, as it conveys both the depths of Deeds’s romantic despair and the abject crookery of those who would exploit it to their own gain, but it also a bit frustrating, as well.

Nevertheless, Cooper does a marvelous turn as a quintessential everyman, and the role kicked off a new phase in his already sturdy career that found him playing variations of that character in Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York (1941), and Sam Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). Jean Arthur, who was a last-minute replacement for Carole Lombard (she ditched a few days before production started to star in My Man Godfrey), is also quite wonderful; her instantly memorable squawk of a voice gives immediate character to Babe, who otherwise could have been a cynical cliché. She and Cooper have real chemistry together, which helps smooth out the film’s sometimes awkward, often humorous, but always deeply felt observations about the highs and lows of human behavior when big money is on the line.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town 80th Anniversary Blu-Ray + Digital HD

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • French DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • German DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Portuguese DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Spanish (Castilian) DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Spanish (Latin American) DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English, Arabic, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by Frank Capra Jr.
  • “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers... Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” featurette
  • Vintage advertising gallery
  • Original theatrical teaser
  • DistributorLionsgate
    SRP$19.99
    Release DateOctober 4, 2016

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Making its high-definition debut, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town looks absolutely stunning in Sony’s new 80th anniversary Blu-ray edition. The image, sourced from a new 4K master that has clearly undergone some serious digital restoration, is clean, sharp, and very well detailed while also maintaining a nice film-like veneer of grain. Some of the images are slightly soft, which is typical of cinematography of that era (especially the dewy close-ups of the stars). Contrast and black levels look great, and there are few if any signs of age or wear. The original monaural soundtrack has been remastered and is given a very nice DTS-HD Master Audio presentation. Dialogue and sound effects are clean and clear given the film’s age, and there is little in the way of ambient hiss or aural artifacts.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The supplements included here are largely the same as those on the 2000 Columbia Classics DVD, which were later reused for the 2006 DVD boxset “The Premiere Frank Capra Collection.” In other words, nothing really new here. There is a somewhat spotty audio commentary by Frank Capra Jr. that starts off strong, but then starts to run out of steam about halfway through the film. It’s too bad Sony wasn’t able to recruit a solid film scholar or historian to record a new, more in-depth commentary for this release. Capra Jr. also appears in the 10-minute self-explanatory featurette “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers... Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” There is also a vintage advertising gallery containing a dozen theatrical posters and marketing materials and the original theatrical teaser. I should also mention that this release is encased in a very nice Digibook packaging that includes 24 pages of rare photos and an all-new essay by film historian Jeremy Arnold (The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter).

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



    James Kendrick

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