Sunday, 18 September 2011

1,001 Films: "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936)

Certain studio directors were always remaking themselves one way or another, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town now looks more than ever like Frank Capra's warm-up for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Gary Cooper is the hayseed lured away from his beloved tuba and orange layer cake by a cabal of lawyers keen to get their mitts on the fortune Deeds's late uncle has bequeathed to him. Relocated to New York, the good Deeds is pitted against the condescension, conniving and sheer bad manners of the metropolitan elite; his rustic charm - manifesting itself in straight-talking and a fast recourse to fisticuffs - does, however, win him one new admirer, in the form of previously cynical journo Jean Arthur.

This version misses the complicating politics. Even at the squawking, floppy-haired stage of his career, James Stewart was able to convey the lived experience of a senator having to negotiate his way between vested interests; Cooper, conversely, is just a little bit weird as the kind of thirtysomething naif who delights in sliding down banisters and discovering his front hall functions as an echo chamber - there really does seem to be something wrong with him in the head. The whole scenario turns on Deeds's poetry, which starts out conspicuously ghastly before - at a certain point - Capra comes to insist it should break your heart.

The whole remains moderately charming, nonetheless, with some fun contributions further down the supporting cast, though arguably not as many as Sturges would have found room for - and Sturges would almost certainly have made a tougher, wittier, livelier film out of this or similar material. (Hail the Conquering Hero, for example, which - despite its title - was less concerned with proving its lead character was, after all, a jolly good fellow.) Later earmarked by Adam Sandler for a remake - in this instance, evidence not of the arrogance and creative bankruptcy of today's Hollywood, but of a certain easily understood simplemindedness in the original.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is available on DVD through UCA.


  1. Interesting comparison with Sturges and Stewart. I've had a fondness for "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" since discovering it in a film class in college. It is a surprising delight, depending on one's expectations. And you are right about the remake. Although I often enjoy Adam Sandler's movies that aim for charm, the remake severely missed the warmth of the original.

  2. Yep, the original's fun, all the same - and I sometimes wonder if serious film criticism (or perhaps just *my* film criticism) struggles to find the vocabulary to express how much fun a film can be: as a result, accounts of certain purely fun films come to sound a little harsher than they should on balance. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment - much appreciated.