by Bosley Crowther
It seemed that Frank Capra was the man for doing surprising things in the way of inaugurating entertainment in the first decade of sound. Far beyond anyone’s expectations, his great trend-setting It Happened One Night, starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, smashed through in 1934 as the first of a brand-new category of witty, romantic comedies. And then, two years later, he came up with an equally riotously successful lark, which had Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur as its darlings—Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Today we can be condescending in accepting and enjoying both these films as what we might call rather naive situation comedies. But let us not be too superior or incline to toss them off as frivolous, implausible, and perishable specimens of the prewar fantasies of Hollywood. Although they were highly romantic, unlikely evolvements of plots which turned upon twists wherein conjunctions of incongruities happily occurred, they contained soothing implications of egalitarianism and share-the-wealth philosophy that were especially appealing to the audiences of those economically stringent days.
This was in the period when we were still feeling the pinch of the Great Depression, when there was a conspicuous difference between the maximum poor and the minimal rich. The very thought of a poor fellow coming into wealth—or a poor girl, for that matter, which was the classic Cinderella formula—got up so the public could accept it with the least suspension of disbelief, was discovered to be a staple of untold potential on the screen. And it was hit upon and winningly concocted by Mr. Capra and his scriptwriter, Robert Riskin, with It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Both of these films, significantly, were based on short stories from The Saturday Evening Post, which provided the literary entertainment of the American middle class. And both had been interestingly preceded by a couple of modest little films which likewise turned upon the concept of individuals coming into wealth. The first was If I Had a Million (1932), which had several widely varied persons unexpectedly receiving checks for a million dollars each from an eccentric multimillionaire who picked their names from the telephone book. And the other was the blissfully romantic Lady for a Day (1933), which told of an elderly apple vendor set up in elegant style by a group of Broadway gamblers so she could temporarily carry through a deception about her affluence she had pulled on a daughter who had been in a convent in Europe for many years. Mr. Capra, in fact, was the director of this latter film. So there was a consistency in the succession from it to It Happened One Night and then on to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Examined by any standards, those of 1936 or today, Mr. Deeds had or has to be regarded as pure wishful fantasy. Longfellow Deeds, the lanky hero whom Mr. Cooper so aptly played, was an amiable small-town bumpkin who candidly combined all the platitudinous pieties and virtues of an idealized Boy Scout. He was a bachelor because, as his housekeeper told the lawyers when they suddenly showed up in Mandrake Falls, Vermont, to tell him of his immense inheritance, he was “too fussy” to be married. He dreamed of “saving a lady in distress.” He worked at the tallow factory, played the tuba in the local band, and picked up some extra money writing verses for greeting cards. When the lawyers momentously informed him that his uncle had left him incredible wealth, he manifested no emotion, no particular interest, indeed. He just said, “I wonder why he left me all that money. I don’t need it.” Audiences invariably groaned.
And that’s what a disinherited cousin likewise did when Longfellow turned up in New York, bearing basketsful of cakes and cookies from friendly town-folk and his tuba under his arm. “He is,” said this darkly envious cousin, “the most naive fellow I have ever seen,” and he slyly began calculating how to grab the inheritance away from him. First, he generously suggested that Longfellow might wish to assign to him a simple power of attorney so he could helpfully take care of all the legal details—as a favor, for no payment, of course. Longfellow declined the invitation, then later remarked quite innocently, “Puzzles me why these people all want to work for nothing.” The lawyer’s man to whom he made the remark hooted (on behalf of the audience), “Why do mice go where there is cheese?”
Naturally, Longfellow was tagged for an easy mark by clever, conniving New Yorkers who wished to help him unload. They put him in a fashionable mansion (where he sneaked a slide down the grand balustrade), gave him a top-lofty butler who suggested that he wear a “monkey suit,” and made him a director—the chairman—of the opera house. But that didn’t work, for he figured they were simply trying to get him to defray a budget deficit—a yawning shortage he told them cannily he couldn’t understand.
Needless to say, Longfellow was a newspaper celebrity about whom city editors were vying to get stories. One sent around his ace sob sister, Miss Arthur, who craftily put on an act as an exhausted job seeker in front of his mansion one night. Sure enough, he spied her and took her off to a tony restaurant where he generously wined and dined her and had a violinist play for her. Humbly—a bit too much so—she advised him, “I’m really just a nobody,” to which he replied with manly virtue, “You were a lady in distress!”
And so, in the company of this nice lady—whom he never suspected, of course—he had a grand fling at sightseeing, paid a long-wished-for visit to Grant’s Tomb, where he unburdened himself of a corny apostrophe to the gentleman enshrined: “I see a smalltown farmboy becoming a great general …” and on and on to the ultimate platitude, “Things like that can only happen in America.”
On the mansions of the rich, he commented, “They created a lot of grand palaces here, but they forgot to create the noblemen to go in them”—that to Mary while riding atop a Fifth Avenue bus. He hopped a ride on a passing fire engine. “I always ride the fire engine,” he explained to the astonished firemen, who saw him as a goofy hick, of course. And one night, after walking with Mary in a convenient fog and telling her he was fed up with the phonies in New York and that he was going back home, he gave her a poem he had written just for her, and then he beat it off into the night, clumsily stumbling over a few garbage cans on the curb.
That was too much for Mary. She called him on the telephone, told him frankly that he had been “making love to a double dose of cyanide,” and confessed that she was the reporter who had been writing all the stories about him in the scandal sheet. That desolated Longfellow, and the staggered look on his face when Mary laid that bombshell on him was shattering to the audience as well. Fortunately, however, at that moment a ragged man beat his way past the butler at the door of Longfellow s soon-to-be-vacated mansion and confronted him with a wavering pistol and a desperate, heartbreaking tale of having lost his little farm after twenty years of labor, seen his “grand little wife” and his trusting children go hungry, with no prospects for the future, no hope. That gave Longfellow an inspiration. He would set up a private charity to give his fortune away to deserving farmers. He would give each a small farm, a cow, and three years to pay back a loan from him to get them on their feet.
Immediately he was besieged by ragged applicants—hundreds packed into his house and he, in his innocent fashion, tried to take care of them. (I have only recently noted that among them there wasn’t a single black!) But at this point, the disaffected cousin seized the opportunity to strike. He got the courts to order that Longfellow be put away and submit to a sanity examination. When the hearing was held in court, with the room packed with curious spectators (including Mary), a pompous psychiatrist gave testimony that Longfellow had a “diseased mind, afflicted with hallucinations of grandeur.” Longfellow remained silent and aloof. Another alienist tagged him a “manic depressive.” Then two old sisters from Mandrake Falls were brought in to testify that Longfellow was “pixilated.” Everybody back home knew, they said, that the “pixies had got him.” That was damaging, indeed!
Then Mary got up and unburdened herself of an impassioned speech, telling what a fine fellow and so forth she thought Longfellow was, after which he obviously perked up and quietly told the judge, “You know, I’d like to get in my two cents’ worth.” Thereupon he began making comments about the unconscious evidences people gave of their mental eccentricities, this in reply to the charge that he himself was a “doodler”—that he made squiggles and whorls on a pad. “The judge here,” he said, “is an O-filler. He fills the O’s on a page of print. Helps you think.” And then he called on the two chattering sisters about that pixilated charge. Who else in Mandrake Falls was pixilated? he asked them. “Why, everyone,” they replied, “except us.” That finished the case against Longfellow. Everybody howled, and in the general upheaval and confusion he was able to hang a haymaker on his cousin s jaw, then found himself gravitating into Mary’s arms. The final comment of the judge was, “You’re the sanest man that ever walked into this court.”
Well, that was a generous concession. To most of the people who saw the film, Longfellow Deeds was a loony, but a happy and enviable one. He was a freak Prince Charming, some kind of a never-never nut. But as Mr. Cooper played him, with firm and sincere diffidence, he provided a whole generation with a heartening, romantic myth.
Miss Arthur was equally appealing as an all-American girl, clever, enterprising, self-propelling, but as decent as the day was long. And several good character actors filled out the comedy cast.
Today it may seem to some viewers that Mr. Deeds was a caricature—a candid lampoon of the pious concept of a grass-roots American. I do not agree with that precisely. I think it was absurd but sincere, preposterously idealistic but as comforting as Grandma’s apple pie. Like Mr. Capra’s later “social statement” (as he termed it), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it was an innocent, upright soapbox sermon that there were still good people in the world. And that’s not a bad proposition, when you can laugh with it, even now.