Spoiler Warning: Half-way comes a twist which both changes the film’s genre, and also, in my opinion, makes the film worth watching. In order to say what I liked and what I didn’t I will have to reveal the second act twist. You have been warned.
Mr Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) is a simple and eccentric man. Never has he left his home of Mandrake Falls. He writes poetry for greeting cards, and plays the tuba while thinking. When his uncle’s attorney drops an inheritance worth millions into his lap, Mr Deeds is rushed to New York. As soon as he arrives vultures descend, jealous relatives, greedy attorneys, snobbish opera managers, and all the gilded scum the Big City spawns. But his greatest enemy may just be a gal reporter (Jean Arthur), determined to get the scoop on this wide-eyed millionaire.
Comedy has the shelf-life of a sliced apple. After 80 years browning, Mr Deeds Goes to Town is at most edible. Nowadays the film doesn’t play as a romantic comedy; it’s more a light-hearted romance. Drama, for whatever reason, endures. Halfway through the film the genre shifts to drama, and, so doing, safeguards its longevity.
None of the jokes earn laughter. Deeds feeds a horse donuts. Okay. He convinces his buttoned-up servants to bellow in the echo-y mansion. Uh-huh. He locks up his bodyguards to have a private walk. Mmm. It’s whimsical. To act as apologist, the jokes aren’t funny, they’re world-building. It may not be funny that Deeds chases fire trucks, but it establishes that the film’s world is a whimsical – perhaps twee – one.
Our prospective lovers are Longfellow Deeds and Babe Bennet. Deeds embodies the good ol’ values of small-town America – ideals these hoity-toity city-folk have done forgot. Most often Deeds speaks with the softness of a respectful schoolboy. In the hands of a less able actor this innocence might have shaded into foolishness. Cooper may play a simple man, but not a simpleton. In one scene, Deeds realises the poets praising his greeting-card verses are laughing between their wine-stained teeth. When Cooper moves from aw-shucks to insulted, you believe it. He isn’t a fool who grew fifty IQ points between frames. He’s a smart man who thinks the best of people until shown otherwise.
Cooper beams with a fitting charm. He never plays Deeds as suave, not even when opposite Bennet. When they have dinner at a fancy restaurant Deeds beckons over the house violinist. As the violinist plays, Deeds smiles at Bennet – not a ‘Yeah, baby, see what I can get you,’ smile, but one that says, ‘Isn’t this great!’ You don’t get the sense he’s scheming his way to a kiss. He just enjoys her company.
The first, and frankly last, word for our leading lady is ‘spunky.’ As soon as she speaks with her go-get-‘em voice, and her New Woman stance, the viewer knows this lady takes no shit and takes what she wants. When this Longfellow Deeds comes to town she aims to make the big scoop. Disguised as a waif she inveigles her way into his sympathies, and then his affections. All this to sling tabloid dirt on our hero. But as she gets to know him – she grows to love him. Oh, irony!
So, yeah, her character arc isn’t that interesting. She exists to warm to Deeds’ eccentric ways, so then to act as counter-point to all the avaricious rats surrounding him. As a result of her characterisation’s shallowness, the romance doesn’t resonate. Turns out romance needs at least two fully rounded human beings.
But Mr Deeds Goes to Town is half a romantic comedy, and those were my criticisms for that half. At around the hour mark, the film morphs into a court drama – a light one, but a court drama nonetheless.
When Deeds discovers Babe’s deception he determines to return to Mandrake Falls. Before he leaves Deeds decides to divvy up his entire inheritance among the city’s unemployed. To his relatives and attorneys this screams insanity – literally. More importantly, it means millions of dollars out of their pockets. They institutionalise him, on grounds that all his ‘eccentric’ doings were in fact symptoms of manic depression. If the needy are to have their money, and Deeds is to escape the asylum, he must prove he is as sane as you or I – Saner, even!
As I have said, the drama fares better than the comedy, but the comedic half did serve the dramatic half. Under the disguise of comedy the first half smuggled in multiple Chekov’s Guns. On first viewing the audience ‘laughs’ at, and then puts aside, these gags. Deeds punches out a snobby poet? What a lark – serves him right! Deeds feeds a horse donuts? What an amusing image! Deeds spontaneously plays the tuba? How eccentric! The audience does not question his actions. They happen in a comedy world unbound by normal etiquette. When the drama takes over, the Chekov’s Guns fire. Punching a guy for irritating him, giving donuts to a horse, playing a tuba for no apparent reason? We should at least check he’s sane.
He is sane, of course. I won’t spoil how that’s proven, but I expect you’ll guess. The conclusion does not matter so much as the getting there. Babe’s betrayal caused Deeds to retreat into himself. He refuses to talk at his trial. He refuses legal counsel even. The near ruin his despair pushes him to imbues the trial with suspense and pathos.
Mr Deeds Goes to Town is an uneven movie. As a comedy it’s past its sell-by date, but as a drama it’s worth watching. Even the comedy section is redeemed a little by Cooper’s schoolboy charm.