Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936, Columbia Pictures. Starring Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 116 minutes.
Small-town poet Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) has inherited an astonishing $20 million from a distant uncle, and the attorney who notified him of this turn of fortune moves him to New York. The not-so-honorable lawyer is scheming to get power-of-attorney so his own shenanigans won’t be discovered, and he also arranged to keep the media away from Deeds.
He’s outfoxed by one ace reporter, however. Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) disguises herself as down-and-out Mary Dawson and gets to know the down-to-earth Deeds, who in turn falls in love with her. Despite her own growing feelings, she writes revealing and humiliating articles about him, making him the laughing stock of the city.
How their relationship plays out and how Deeds chooses to handle his wealth makes for a charming and timely tale. Never predictable and always heartwarming, this movie is pure Capra. It was, in fact, the first of his films to show the everyman in a socially responsible situation, a theme he carried through in a number of his future productions.
Gary Cooper was Frank Capra’s first and only choice for the role of Longfellow Deeds. The handsome, lanky actor had been known for his more provocative roles in the past, but this part established him as the honest, humble character he became best known for throughout his career.
Years later Capra had this to say of Cooper: “His great power is in his presence…you can’t make him look bad…The guy just represents America to me. He’s strong, he’s able, he’s kind, he wouldn’t steal a penny from you.”
Jean Arthur wasn’t even chosen for her role until after filming began. Carole Lombard had been cast in the part, but she quit three days before the start of production to star in My Man Godfrey. Arthur had been seen in a large number of movies up to this time, but this became her gateway to stardom.
Capra would go on to cast her as the leading lady in several more films. He described her as, “a warm, able, lovable kind of woman who has a very feminine drive…A tough gal with a heart of gold.”
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Cooper, but won just one, Best Director. This was the first of three Academy Award nominations for Gary Cooper, who never won but was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar shortly before his death in 1961.
Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was originally planned to be a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but when Cooper was unavailable, the script was revised and James Stewart starred as Mr. Smith.
Like many films in the 30s, the rich were shown in a less-than flattering light, and the common man won the day. A cheering thought for a Depression-weary audience. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town has stood the test of time with its heartfelt depiction of endearing characters and its victory over greed and corruption. Well worth the watch.