Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

The prospect of coming into a vast sum of money suddenly, drives the imagination of the world. National lotteries are multi-billion dollar industries. People of all colors, classes and creeds love to spend time imagining what lavish lifestyles they could lead with just one little stroke of luck. The discontentment and dissatisfaction of one’s personal financial state is a near universal reality. What would you do with a million dollars? In Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) Finds himself in the very position that millions before (and after) him long to find themselves in.
The film opens up with a speeding car careening down a narrow road. Swerving, the car flies over the edge of a cliff. Through spinning newspaper headlines we learn that the deceased man was a famous millionaire. The law firm left to manage the affairs of the man that died send representatives directly to Mandrake Falls, the sleepy little town where Deeds resides. Urgently, the representatives inform Deeds that he has become the sole benefactor of a 20 million dollar fortune. The firm, naturally, plans on doing all that it can to be given the power of attorney over his fortune; they explain to Deeds that it’s an awful lot of work to manage all the money, and that he would be better off just enjoying his fortune. This is the first of many attacks that is made against Longfellow and his new found wealth. With his dry wit, kindness and no nonsense view, Longfellow Deeds proves to be a worthy opponent to the forces of greed that bombard him throughout the film.
It is obvious at the start of the film that the antagonists, upon realizing that the inheritance is going to a man from a small town, plan to simply walk Deeds through the process of adjusting to a wealthy lifestyle, making as much money for themselves as possible. Imagine their surprise when upon telling him of his fortune he responds that he doesn’t need it (As he continues to play his tuba). Deeds acts as if nothing has even happened. He, of course, is talked into going to New York to reside in his inherited mansion and decide how to use his wealth. He is much more interested in seeing Grant’s tomb and the Statue of Liberty than managing his finances.
Gary Cooper personifies the average man in this film. He balks at the idea of having a servant help him put on his pants. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town parades the absurdities of the rich and famous in front of the audience, and Mr. Deeds exposes every bit of it as pompous and self serving. While we may at one point or another want to punch a smug, self satisfied jerk in the face, Longfellow does so, in the midst of both a fancy restaurant and a courtroom, no less. It isn’t until the Pulitzer prize winning news woman Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) goes undercover to expose his naivety that Deeds really allows himself to be affected by his circumstances.
Shortly after realizing that he was being used by the woman he loves, Deeds is confronted by a desperate man who lost his farm and whose wife and kids are starving. He screams at Longfellow, reprimanding him for his lavish spending (feeding a whole bag of donuts to a horse!). Until this point in the movie we’ve only seen the exceedingly wealthy try to get a portion of the inheritance. We’ve seen fortunes spent on fancy parties and we’ve seen place settings made of gold. This film was released in 1936, at the height of the great depression. Writer and director Frank Capra knew who his audience was, and when he made his protagonist change gears to help the poor farmers, he was telling every man in America that was looking for a job that he stood behind them.
Longfellow Deeds shares common traits with many of Frank Capra’s characters from other films. He is by no means normal (a fact that plays heavily into this film, to the point where his sanity is questioned) . He is removed from humanity in that he is an optimist in a cynics universe. This optimism is contagious, and begins to bleed into the characters surrounding him. Capra by no means ignores that fact that the world is often times a dark place full of cynical and greedy people, but he counters it with his heroes. These heroes are good, kind and strive to make a real difference in the world that they live in. Not because it’s some grand goal of theirs to change the world, but that’s just who they are.