Friday, August 2, 2019

The Pixilated Mr. Deeds

Today, when the integrity of the news media is constantly being challenged, and when a man from Vermont is admired by many for his “pixilated” horse sense, it seems a fine time to look back on one of screenwriter Robert Riskin’s best collaborations with Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Riskin’s daughter Victoria writes of this 1936 feature, “Of all his films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was my father’s favorite. It’s my favorite too, blending romance, humanity, and decency into the distinctive Riskin view of the world. Film historians call it the quintessentially American movie of the Golden Age of Hollywood.” One sign of Riskin’s own affection for this film: he gave the name of its hero to his  beloved dachshund, whom he trained to fetch his newspaper each morning.

Speaking of newspapers, they don’t come off well—at least initially—in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In the height of the Great Depression, a millionaire has died, leaving his entire fortune to a relative living in the cozy hamlet of Mandrake Falls. Longfellow Deeds, played by Gary Cooper, is a laid-back chap who writes greeting-card poetry, plays tuba in the local band, and can never resist chasing fire engines. To claim his inheritance, he is willingly transplanted to a New York City mansion.  There he enjoys fine clothes, the services of a butler, and the fun of sliding down the bannisters of his palatial home. But he is quickly skeptical of the lawyer who’s conniving to get his power of attorney, and he’s smart enough to sense that a good many people view him as a curiosity and an overgrown child. The one person he doesn’t see through is a pretty young woman named Mary (Jean Arthur in her first big role).  She tells him she’s faint from pounding the pavements all day, looking for work. What he’s slow to realize is that “Mary” is actually Louise “Babe” Bennett, a hard-boiled newspaper gal who plans to scoop the competition by publishing insider stories of the eccentric new millionaire she  mockingly labels “Cinderella Man.” 

Of course the plot thickens, particularly after Deeds decides to give away his new fortune by dividing it into farm plots for worthy out-of-work family men. Inevitably, the film climaxes in a sanity hearing where the greedy lawyer and some conniving distant relatives scheme to have him declared incompetent. You can probably guess who comes to his rescue. And of course there’s a happy ending in which the “little man” triumphs over the powers that be. I’m glad to say that the newspaper editor who was so eager for headline stories disparaging Longfellow Deeds ultimately becomes one of his biggest supporters.

The outcome of this film, though charming, is thoroughly predictable. For me the big surprise was the talent shown by Gary Cooper for screwball comedy. Coop, who played uncredited roles in early silent movies, was usually cast as a cowboy. When, at the end of the 1920s, he finally landed leading roles, he continued to play men of action: cowpokes, soldiers, French legionnaires. He won his first Oscar as a heroic World War I soldier in Sergeant York and his second as a  courageous lawman facing down a passel of bad guys in High Noon. Wonderful performances, but none of this prepared me for the charm he displays as Mr. Deeds. His Deeds is a wondrous creation: whimsical, impetuous, childlike but never childish. He may lack sophistication, but he’s brimming over in common sense.  If he’s accused in the courtroom of being “pixilated,” this seems a very good thing to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment