I’m a big fan of Gary Cooper, but for me it seems like everything in Cooper’s life was directed toward one end: the role of Will Kane in High Noon, which Cooper wouldn’t play for another 20 years. You can see shadows of Will Kane in Longfellow Deeds, the hero of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. It’s there when he realizes that the people he’s with are mocking him, not supporting him. It’s there in the grim silence of his sanity hearing. And it’s there when he escapes the “moochers,” collects the woman he loves, and walks away from those who have betrayed him. Will Kane even has an air of contained violence, as though he would be willing to get into the fight, if he had time. But Longfellow Deeds has all the time in the world, and has no qualms with getting into the fight.
The Will Kane/Longfellow Deeds comparison may not be quite fair, because Deeds is a complex character in his own right. He’s earnest, sincere, and helpful, but his temper is quick to take offense and respond with violence—he punches the lights out of more than one offensive “big city” type in the course of the movie.
The movie begins with millionaire Mr. Semple crashing his car and dying, resulting in a headline-driven search for the heir to the man’s $20 million fortune. Said heir turns out to be distant relative Longfellow Deeds, an easy-going small town tuba player. Semple’s lawyer and his dogsbody come to retrieve him from his small town and take him to New York to deal with his new money. They think, of course, that they can easily manipulate him into giving them control of his new fortune. But, true to Capra’s ever-present ideal, the small-town boy has more common sense and pure American goodness than all the sophisticated city folk put together.
I am not mocking this vision at all, though there is a certain quaintness to it. I want to believe it. In a time when the obscenely and irresponsibly wealthy are getting government bailouts, and schmucks who simply work harder day by day to pay their bills get nothing but higher prices—conditions similar to the America of 1936 that Capra made films for—I want to see the hometown boy stick it to the self-important fat cats. And it’s very satisfying to see him sock them in the face, as well. That’s good catharsis right there, and that’s the central ingredient of both good comedy and good drama.
Longfellow, of course, makes converts as he goes along. The servants in his inherited mansion go from being faceless enablers to real human beings. One profound moment is when Deeds’ new valet attempts to help him put his shoes on, and Deeds snaps, “Get off your knees! I never want to see you down on your knees again.” He might as well have been speaking to a whole depression-heavy nation.
The most important convert is love interest Jean Arthur, playing a most beloved 30’s stock character—the hard-boiled dame who falls in love. This is a much less sexist character than her 50’s counterpart (who always seemed to come to the realization that what would truly fulfill her would be to quit her job, get married, and set up housekeeping); in fact, it’s usually the female lead’s ability to walk in two worlds that saves the day. She manages to use her street smarts to defy the bad guys and save the idealistic world her new love has introduced her to. She’s more than just ally or love interest; she’s also the hero’s mentor and guide through the dangerous labyrinth of the new world.
Arthur, as reporter Babe Bennett, sets out to get some juicy stories about the new Semple heir by pretending to be a lady in distress. Deeds befriends her, then falls in love with her. Her betrayal, out of all the other betrayals, is the worst of all for Deeds, and the one that he can’t quite recover from. She comes to realize that he’s the real deal and the rest of them—the inhabitants of her world—are the fakes. In the end, it’s her competence and her knowledge that not only save Deeds, but push him to save himself.
This movie is just a little bit different from other works of Capra’s, an interesting fact considering it won him the Best Director Oscar for 1936. In some ways it’s a classic fish-out-of-water plot, but there’s an edge to it that we in later generations have come not to expect from Capra. We should expect it, though, because it’s often there—Capra is telling the world that the common man can only take so much pushing around before he starts to push back. There is a sweetness and wholesomeness about Longfellow Deeds, but there’s also a darkness, too. He literally strikes out at those who hurt or offend him, and his pain runs deep and brooding. Cooper incorporates both elements into the character extremely well, but sometimes the viewer isn’t sure just which one is real. There’s something about this character, ideal as he is, that makes us just a little bit uncomfortable.
It’s hard not to remember that three years after Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Frank Capra gave us Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—possibly the most perfect American Everyman story ever told. Cooper was replaced by Capra favorite Jimmy Stewart, who was more believable in the wholesome idealist role. In some ways, Mr. Deeds seems like a dry-run for Mr. Smith, the movie that Capra came up with before he had a chance to smooth the edges off his hero and make him an American icon.
I think I like Cooper and his edges, though. At least he never makes me think, “Oh, come on, nobody’s that good!” Because he’s not an icon or even really a hero. He’s just a good but flawed guy who refuses to let the establishment smooth his rough edges. And he wins the fight of the common man against the system that some people are still fighting, seven decades later. Even if the hero is flawed, that’s an ideal I can embrace.