Sunday, 1 May 2016

Review: Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936 Film)

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.


  1. As I am beginning to do another feminist analysis, I just wish to point it out that feminism study goes beyond the text to look into the cultural phenomenon and analysis the collective forces of such archetype. One Snow White is quite fine, but when she is tied into the narrative of Disney Princess, it can be problematic.
    Since I didn't see the film, I could only talk about things in general, and today's topic is eccentricity. Eccentricity is somehow fine with male characters, but we seldom have a female counterpart. Sherlock Homles is eccentric, lots of male characters are eccentric (look through all the Tim Burton's film), yet, the fact still remains that there is no female character who is eccentric in a 'male' manner. She somehow must be crazy to be eccentric. Harley Quinn is an eccentric figure, but she is crazy, whereas we have all those male characters who are considered as normal (with no mental illness) and have their eccentric ways. The eccentric female figures are almost always anti-heroes or marginalised figures.
    Witches and supernatural powers can come into this picture. Vampires, werewolves... But female characters must attain a supernatural power to be eccentric (if not a mental illness). The Addams Family plays with such supernatural elements as well, that all three female characters (Morticia, Grandmama, Wednesday), are not normal human beings (especially in the film adaptations).
    Through my reflection and search, I could not find one female character that is eccentric who has no mental illness, does not possess superpower, does not live in a fantasy world, does not become a femme fatale, and most of all, does not become a male fantasy (and does not appear to be in special aid).
    The last point is a vital point because I can give you some examples that female characters are 'normally' eccentric, but they are all a little bit... Yes, I do not even wish to give the anti-example. You can try to find such representation in films yourself, then measure it through the criteria.
    If we do a gender swap, with two very famous films, how would we feel about sanity? One is Stephen King's Misery, where an angelic woman turns out to be the writer's (male writer's) biggest nightmare (this fear ties into the experience of 'crazy ex-girlfriend). A woman loses her sanity, how would we perceive her cruelty if we swap the gender? Then, how about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest... What is it in these narratives that a female must be a villain? What would happen if we swap the gender again? The problem is that these classical model would still work, but these kinds of films are not made (yet).
    When we welcome Mr. Deed as "the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom", does that 'man' ever take the consideration of 'woman'?
    Will we never have a female character who is both intelligent and eccentric portrayed in a positive light without becoming a male fantasy (or at least not sexualised)? Just one more criterion, to be a lead (and not girl, but woman as well, children are always allowed to be eccentric, whimsical...).
    By the way, the same critic exists also with a female journalist who will use her power (sometimes sexual power) to cheat a male, but then falls in love with him in the process... The extremity of such trope can also be found in Harley Quinn (who is a psychiatrist, talk to the Joker, and then...).

  2. I guess I just wish to see a female protagonist who is eccentric but not lonely and desperate (like so many romantic comedy), and is actually confident about herself, living in a 'real' world, and she would not be 'fixed' at the end of film (and have a happy ending). It is about woman (not about children I guess, children are allowed to be whimsical, but grown-up women are not allowed to be so much).
    Wait, I think I can count some characters from Pitch Perfect, some from Super Fun Night (though both of them are quite musical, which means they are allowed to be a little bit whimsical).
    Love interest is possible, but I guess I do not want to see that a lonely and desperate woman who is eccentric, and thus undesirable, crying for her solitary, and a certain chance brings a guy into her life and fix everything for her.
    Her eccentricity must not be presented as a problem (which seems so in so many romantic films, female eccentricity equals undesirability, but the point is that it is fine to be undesirable, but she must be confident as well).
    Mental illness or madness is denied, it is because these features are going to make people be eccentric, that it is not coming from their own wish (that they would be normal if they don't have such madness)…
    I personally have no objection towards a little bit craziness, and supernatural power, but when women's eccentricity is limited only to those two traits, then it becomes a problem.
    I guess I would like to see a female character's life does not centre around love, though it can happen, but they can be something more, a layer, an artist, a singer, a detective, a scientist, but not just someone who is lonely and desperate… that they are portrayed in a much positive and confident light.
    Romance is not a denial, my original point is not to let them become the male fantasy, (being sexualised), but being love interest is totally fine.
    I do find modern TV series beginning to push more and more edges resulting in the variety of characters. I was watching a TV series called Fleabag, which creates several eccentric and unique female characters, but with most of them ending tragically. They have eccentricity, personality, but also a sad ending. Then I was thinking about the French film Amélie, which creates an innocent and eccentric lovely young woman, but she lacks of confidence, (still, that is a wonderful film, and we see everything through Amélie's wide innocent childish eyes). There is another BBC TV series called Some Girls (which I skipped through one episode), which features a variety of female casts. I guess there are a growing number of eccentric female characters in TV series.