This film: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, one of Frank Capra’s best, pairs two extremely popular stars of Hollywood’s “golden age:” Gary Cooper (as Longfellow Deeds) and Jean Arthur (as “Babe” Bennett). It is also perhaps the first of Capra’s most popular movies to attempt much social commentary. Capra had already made his “breakthrough film” with It Happened One Night winning a large bundle of Oscars in 1934. However, that film doesn’t attempt social and political commentary on the same level as many of Capra’s later films, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You (another great Capra movie with Jean Arthur), Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (yet another excellent Capra movie with Jean Arthur), and Meet John Doe (another great film starring Gary Cooper with another of Capra’s favorites, and a favorite actress of mine also, Barbara Stanwyck).
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the story of what happens to Longfellow Deeds when he inherits a great deal of wealth ($20 million, much more in 1936 than now) from an uncle he barely knew existed. Mr. Deeds really is a stereotypical American with a date stamp of 1936. He isn’t that unusual even by modern standards. He is not an “urban sophisticate” but many of us still aren’t. In a way that was perhaps more common for his time, Longfellow Deeds is a subtle idealist not accustomed to cynicism. Deeds’ life in Mandrake Falls, Vermont might not seem that odd to many of us today who didn’t grow up in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles (to pick on a few modern American cities).
After Deeds’ wealthy uncle: Martin Semple, dies, a delegation of New Yorkers visit Mandrake Falls. Some members of this group have been less than honest in handling Semple’s funds. They figure that someone from Mandrake Falls will probably be easier to keep in the dark about the true nature of their dealings than even the mostly absent and womanizing Mr. Semple was previously. They are in for a surprise. So also is Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper). Mr. Deeds has the attitude that most people are generally good. Growing up in Mandrake Falls has given him that predilection. However, now he will have to deal with people from outside his native Vermont hamlet, where he runs a tallow works, plays the tuba in a local band and writes greeting card poetry. Although such things may appear “unsophisticated” to people from a metropolis such as New York, it also ought to be apparent that someone who can do those things is not a simpleton, nor a stranger to the business world.
Longfellow Deeds really doesn’t need the money or the extra projects that will come along with it. However, after encouragement from John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), the representative of his uncle’s lawyers: Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington, Deeds decides that he will come to New York to take charge of the situation. His send off from Mandrake Falls is a large event in the small town. In an odd symmetry, his arrival in New York is even more noted by New York newspaper people who dub him “the Cinderella Man.” They pay a great deal of attention to him and his exploits in their tabloids. First among those newspaper people is “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) who feigns being a struggling working girl: Mary Dawson, in order to meet Deeds with the hidden purpose of acquiring a better position to cover his adventures in the big city.
Deeds falls hard for the false persona of Mary Dawson and eventually “Babe” Bennett returns the sentiment, but not before Deeds has gotten a taste of what the more parasitical elements of the big city - especially the lawyers at Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington - have been doing with his uncle’s wealth. At one point Deeds wonders aloud about why so many people come to his uncle’s house. His press agent, “Corny” Cobb (Lionel Stander, a great character actor) answers with the question: “Why do mice go where there’s cheese?”
Eventually Deeds comes up with a solution to the “problem” of his uncle’s wealth which might not please some people who favor corporate America. Some might say that Longfellow Deeds doesn’t understand Capitalism. The truth of that would depend on what one means by Capitalism. From the suggestions he makes to the board of the Opera group to change the operation of the music house and its productions to end large deficits, Deeds seems to have a good understanding of how to run a business. When he says that it isn’t natural for people to want to work for nothing, Deeds seems to show a good understanding of the market. In addition, his solution to dispensing with his uncle’s wealth is not one that involves coercion or the state in any way. Also, it does involve him personally making decisions based on his judgment about where his uncle’s wealth will do the most good. It is an individualist solution.
A certain consequence of Deeds’ actions will be exposing the swindle which Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington have been perpetrating. Naturally, Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington, especially John Cedar, oppose Deeds. They begin a court challenge of Deeds’ sanity (a dubious concept if there ever was one) in an attempt to wrest his uncle’s wealth from him. If that much isn’t enough to get you interested, well, maybe nothing I write here would be.
There will be those who do not see the individualist virtue of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, just as many question the individualism and dedication to the market of It’s a Wonderful Life. However, I believe it is important to remember that what is often favored by “big business” is not necessarily what would occur in a free market. John Cedar of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington, like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, may be a business man, but neither of them are true free market advocates. Like It’s a Wonderful Life protagonist George Bailey, Longfellow Deeds is also a business man, and like George Bailey he does not rely on governmental action to solve his problems. Instead, as George Bailey learns and Longfellow Deeds already knows, what matters most is what can be done -- the difference that can be made -- by one individual.