It is fascinating to watch “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” after having watched the majority of Frank Capra’s library of films and seeing where what he became so well-known for, his ability to take the every-man and place him at the center of the universe, in its developmental stage. Capra would put this to use in films like “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” is the blue-print that would lead to those films.
The film begins in the great depression, when an eccentric millionaire unexpectedly passes away and leaves his 20 million dollar fortune to his long-lost nephew Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a man living in a small town in Vermont and spends most of his time writing poems for greeting cards and playing the tuba. Longfellow is flown into New York City to finalize the deal, while the press has a field-day writing about him, nicknaming him the “Cinderella Man,” helped by a young reporter, Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), who pretends to fall for him to get all the big scoops firsthand.
Most people will recognize this was turned into an Adam Sandler comedy, “Mr. Deeds,” but while almost everything in that film was played for cheap gags, watching a commoner get billions of dollars suddenly and the shock humor that comes with it, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” has an immeasurable amount of class to all of it, mostly helped by the performances of Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. Cooper plays Deeds, not as a dim-witted man who falls for every trick in the book, but a man who knows what he wants and realizes that everyone who talks to him is probably looking for a hand-out. He doesn’t give away the money to anyone asking for help, because those who have to ask have enough already. To him, it is the people who don’t ask that need it the most.
Deeds is also overwhelmed by the enormity of New York, having never left his small town. And like Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” Deeds wants to see it all and do it all. He asks the waiter to tell him if anyone famous walks into the restaurant, feeds a bag of donuts to a police horse, and stops by Grant’s grave to pay his respects. He laments that he doesn’t see a boring grave, like most people would, but a Ohio farmer who became a great solider that led to an even greater foundation for our country.
Moments like these are classic Capra scenes – A humble and honest man taking something we gloss over a hundred times a day and give it a meaning that has been lost on us. It comes across a little ham-fisted and forced in this film, which is why I can see Capra working out the kinks for his later projects.
Believe it or not, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” is funnier than “Mr. Deeds” as well. The final scene, in particular, showcases Longfellow picking apart everything the court has thrown at him to prove that he is not mentally unbalanced and is probably more sane than anyone in the courtroom. Cooper puts it in simple terms and observes the strange habits of those close to him, like facial tics or people who crack their knuckles when they’re thinking. The smile on Longfellow’s face when he slides down the bannister of the mansion goes a long way, especially when the butler comes in with an equally big grin.
Overall, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” is Capra still crafting is ultimate films about honest and good-hearted men. While there are plenty of moments where Cooper nails this in ways even James Stewart couldn’t, the pacing is slow after Longfellow’s first night on the town, and the story hasn’t aged well, especially with the Babe Bennett character. Still, certainly worth a look as it is a pleasant feel-good movie.
Final Grade: B-