Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
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Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) was based on a book called Opera Hat, about a simple country boy named Longfellow Deeds who inherits $20 million and an opera house in New York. Deeds goes to the city to pick up his inheritance, only to be badgered by various sharks who all want a piece of the inheritance. Frank Capra loved the idea of the story (minus the opera part), and in 1935 he asked Columbia Studios chief Harry Cohn to buy it. Having just directed It Happened One Night and Broadway Bill (both in 1934), Capra at this point was entering the peak period of his career. Cohn not only acquired the property but gave Capra above-the-title credit for the first time ("Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town") and left him alone to make the picture. Cohn even let him cast perennial B-player Jean Arthur after the director spotted her in a minor Western. Cohn was smart to do all this, for Capra would go on to win his second directing Oscar. (He also picked up his first Best Picture nomination, and Robert Riskin was nominated for the script.)
Capra considered Mr. Deeds Goes to Town "the first of a series of social-minded films in which I presumed to 'say' something to the audience. Whatever "my films" said had to come from those ideas inside me that were hurting to come out. No more would I accept scripts hurriedly written and count on my ability to juggle many balls in the air to make films entertaining - Regardless of the origin of a film idea, I made it mine." The message of Mr. Deeds was that it's noble to be an honest human being. To Capra, Longfellow Deeds "was not just a funny man cavorting in frothy situations. He was the living symbol of the deep rebellion in every human heart - a growing resentment against being compartmentalized. And when he used only his simple weapons of honesty, wit and courage, audiences not only laughed, they cheered!"
Only one actor in Hollywood could play this humble, tuba-playing country poet and get away with it: Gary Cooper. "Every line in his face spelled honesty," wrote Capra. "So innate was his integrity, he could be cast in phony parts but never look phony himself." Cooper's naturalistic technique as Mr. Deeds brought him his first Oscar nomination. He said, "Naturalness is hard to talk about, but I guess it boils down to this: You find out what people expect of your type of character and then you give them what they want." Cooper noted some parallels between Mr. Deeds' sudden wealth/fame and Cooper's own rising stardom. "Both of us had unexpected fortune dumped in our laps," he said. "Deeds got his bequest. The movies gave me mine, by degrees."
Though she'd already appeared in an astonishing 70 films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was Jean Arthur's breakthrough A-picture. She plays "Babe," a reporter who pretends to befriend Deeds so that she can secretly write articles that mock him. She became Capra's favorite actress, but the director was surprised at her nervousness. "Never have I seen a performer plagued with such a chronic case of stage jitters," he wrote. "I'm sure she vomited before and after every scene. When the cameras stopped she'd run headlong to her dressing room, lock herself in, and cry." But in front of the cameras, Jean Arthur was perfect.
Producer/Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin, Clarence Budington Kelland (story)
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Music: Howard Jackson
Cast: Gary Cooper (Longfellow Deeds), Jean Arthur (Louise "Babe" Bennett), George Bancroft (Editor Mac Wade), Lionel Stander (Cornelius Cobb), Douglass Dumbrille (John Cedar), Raymond Walburn (Walter).
by Jeremy Arnold