good deeds

Posted: July 8, 2013 in Arts, Observations and Commentary
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Deeds in court

I re-watched Mr. Deeds Goes to Town a few days ago, Frank Capra’s 1936 fanciful tale of Longfellow Deeds, an everyman from rural Vermont who inherits a vast fortune. It contains many hallmark Capra elements: a good person forced to confront a whirlwind of greed and/or corruption, a sentimental and idealized view of small town life, a smart, savvy female lead, and snappy, intelligent dialogue. It is by all accounts very Capraesque.

The first time viewer may think the movie horribly dated, one that shows every wrinkle and crease of its 77 years. We no longer tolerate plot advancement through a barrage of swirling newspaper headlines. Current films – at least decent ones – do not have characters blatantly telegraphing their intentions through exaggerated expressions and let-me-spell-it-out-for-you dialogue. Today we would be shocked if certain scenes were delivered (as they were in this film) without a wisp of irony or sarcasm corroding the edges, like when Deeds leaves for New York with his entire hometown sending him off or when he visits Grant’s Tomb and reflects upon what he sees. When these things happen in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town it is easy to understand how people today would dismiss the entire affair as just another corny old movie, not worth the effort, no longer relevant. How seriously can you take it when a character hops uninvited aboard a New York City fire truck responding to an alarm and the firefighters heartily welcome his assistance? Perhaps that was feasible back then, but in 2013 it screams pure hokum from a world long gone.

Yet to shuttle this film aside for a few outdated story-telling techniques and obsolete social customs would be premature. The heart of this movie beats through Robert Riskin’s wise screenplay, one filled with gentle humor and spot-on cultural observations, insightful and appropriate today as they were in the middle of the Great Depression. Consider the following.

“People here are funny. They work so hard at living they forget how to live.” – Deeds’ matter-of-fact reflection after spending a few days in New York City.

“There was a fellow named Winslow here a little while ago, wanted to handle my affairs for nothing too. It puzzles me why these people all want to work for nothing. It isn’t natural.” – Deeds response to an attorney who claims his firm will manage Deeds considerable investments for free.

“Even his hands are oily.” – Deeds, after reluctantly shaking hands with the same attorney.

“They created a lot of grand palaces here but they forgot to create the noblemen to put in them.” – Deeds again commenting on New York, this time quoting Thoreau.

“Here’s a guy that’s wholesome and fresh. To us, he looks like a freak…He’s got goodness, Mabel. Do you know what that is? No, of course you don’t. We’ve forgotten. We’re too busy being smart alecks. Too busy in a crazy competition for nothing.” – Babe Bennett, the cynical reporter who cozies up to Deeds in search of extravagant headlines, then begins to regret it.

There is wisdom in those lines, but it is Deeds’ speech towards the end of the pivotal courtroom scene which resonates most deeply. He is explaining why he wants to use his new fortune to help those less fortunate.

“From what I can see, no matter what system of government we have, there will always be leaders and always be followers. It’s like the road out in front of my house. It’s on a steep hill. Every day I watch the cars climbing up. Some go lickety-split up that hill on high, some have to shift into second, and some sputter and shake and slip back to the bottom again. Same cars, same gasoline, yet some make it and some don’t. And I say the fellas who can make the hill on high should stop once in a while and help those who can’t. That’s all I’m trying to do with this money. Help the fellas who can’t make the hill on high.”

Helping the fellas who can’t make the hill on high. Try as I might, I can’t see anything dated about that.

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Comments
  1. I LOVE this! Especially that final quote. Perfect!

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  2. bronxboy55 says:

    I took film courses in college and learned how to see those old movies in context. Many were groundbreaking for their time, but seem antiquated and amateurish now. I have to admit that I’m spoiled by modern film techniques, and have trouble watching the classics. But I think you have a talent for discussing them, John. Maybe there’s a book here.

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  3. BrainRants says:

    In spite of the dated plot devices you cite, oldies are good. Sadly, we don’t seem to take chances on good stories anymore and just churn out another film-version comic book. Why? Comic books are better… as comic books.

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  4. Kayjai says:

    I’ve never watched this particular movie…I should check it out. Nice post, John.

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  5. sparklebumps says:

    That’s what I think when I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”. George is ready to commit suicide over losing $800. Really, $800 is still a lot of money to me. Maybe not suicide-worthy, but definitely devastating.
    “A Streetcar Named Desire” is another one. Sisters can still be married to raging alcoholics who lust after their sister-in-laws.

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  6. It’s a great movie, and just as relevant today as it was then. That courtroom speech is a beauty, isn’t it? Gary Cooper was pretty easy on the eyes, too. He leaves me positively pixilated.

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