A seminal comedy from Hollywood's Golden Age, Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington spins a fascinating depression-era morality tale with heart and humor. The film also epitomizes its director, Frank Capra, with its chiaroscuro dramatic style, both lighthearted and dark. Though Capra traces a cynical streak through most of his narratives, he's never cynical about his art. His films are pure entertainments with uplifting and hopeful statements about humanity (like the American flag) "still there" when the smoke clears.
Showing the director's impatience to get to comedy and character (despite a nearly two-hour running time), Capra leapfrogs exposition. Inside two and a half minutes (and that includes about a minute of credits), millionaire Martin W. Semple dies, Semple's attorneys fly into action, and the action moves from New York to Mandrake Falls, Vermont, small-town home of Semple's heir, the tuba-playing poet Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper). The lawyers and press agent Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) inform Deeds of his $20 million inheritance and whisk him off to the big city, where everyone wants a piece of him, and the lawyers (led by Douglass Dumbrille's oily John Cedar) begin to plot against his dreaded common-sense authority. Though Deeds proves not to be an easy mark for swindlers, he falls head-over-heels for double-dealing dame Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), who's ostensibly Deeds's dreamed-of damsel-in-distress but actually a muckraking reporter filing daily dirt on the so-called "Cinderella Man."
Loosely based on Clarence Budington Kelland's serialized story "Opera Hat," Deeds benefits from the trenchant dialogue of Robert Riskin, a favorite Capra collaborator. Beside developing a classic romantic comedy complication that's organic to the story, Capra and Riskin charmingly contrast the idyllic oasis of Mandrake Falls to the self-interest and greediness of New York. Mandrake Falls prospers with community, while the backbiting big city feels the full weight of the depression, having, after all, created it. The implied solutions to the depression are, on one hand, simplistic but also reflect the essence of the real recovery of American industry. As always, Capra frames the message as human drama; when Deeds tells Bennett, "People here are funny. They work so hard at living, they forget how to live," Arthur's contented moonlit gaze turns instantly to one of self-doubt. She later runs with Deeds's sentiment, calling city life "a crazy competition for nothing."
Great performances--like Arthur's fetching dual role of hardboiled Bennett and "world's sweetest ingenue" Mary Dawson--make the picture. Cooper's earnest visage at once reveals bashful sensitivity and holds reserves which come to life when his fiery temper boils; for a leading man, Cooper shows peerless understatement. He's appealingly square, like the movie itself. The supporting cast--from gravelly sourpuss Stander to the uncredited Margaret Seddon and Margaret McWade as the sisters who insist Deeds is "pixelated"--adds to the Capra magic.
In the end, Capra films are always about the people, and here, he's as infuriatingly uninterested in materialism as his hero. Instead, he focuses on heart-tugging and laughter (and scored the 1936 Best Director Oscar for his efforts). Deeds swells with vintage Capra moments: the before and after of the offscreen bender led by Walter Catlett's Morrow, an impromptu (romantic!) drums and air-tuba combo in the park, and several other delicious non-sequiturs which let some of the air out of the "important" themes. In what might be the film's emblematic scene, Deeds discovers the echo in his estate and insists that the entire staff stop everything to test it. When the nonsense sounds subside, Deeds slyly rebukes them: "Let that be a lesson to you."
This must-have disc exceeds all previous home video editions, but be prepared for frequent blotches on the film-like image. They're a small price to pay for a fine presentation (culled from a Library of Congress restoration print), including a clean, hearty soundtrack. Modest but welcome extras include a roughly ten-minute featurette aptly called "Frank Capra, Jr. Remembers...Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," a spotty audio commentary by Capra, Jr., a small gallery of vintage lobby cards, trailers for three other Capra films, and nice bios for Capra, Cooper, and Arthur. The keep-case booklet includes informative production notes.
In his interview and commentary, Capra, Jr. discusses his father's script and casting choices, stylistic techniques, and innovations to get around studio boss Harry Cohen's dictum that directors could only print the best take of each scene; he also spills the beans on Jean Arthur's difficult idiosyncracies.
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