Deep reserves of humor and heart distinguish Frank Capra's 1936 comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, considered by many to be the prototypical screwball comedy (others pinpoint Capra's 1934 It Happened One Night, so he wins either way). Adapted by screenwriter Robert Riskin from the 1935 Clarence Budington Kelland story "Opera Hat," Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a sophisticated comedy with an often blazingly fast pace to its dialogue, a quintessential Gary Cooper performance in the title role, and an especially tenacious leading lady in Jean Arthur.
Capra shows his unerring instincts for audience engagement right from the opening shot of the film, as a banker's car careens off a cliff, inciting a search for the heir to the banker's $20 million. The "lucky" heir turns out to be Longfellow Deeds (Cooper) of the Vermont town of Mandrake Falls ("Where the scenery enthralls/Where no hardship e'er befalls"). Twenty-eight and single, "jolly good fellow" Deeds co-owns a tallow works but truly makes his money writing greeting-card-style poetry. In stark relief to the cynical city boys who come in search of him (especially Lional Stander's wiseacre "Corny" Cobb), Deeds is "honest, sincere, and good," taken with childlike whims (fire engine-spotting) and playing the tuba with the local band.
Whisked to New York City to attend to the inheritance, Deeds swiftly reveals his savvy as fakes and exploiters ("busy in a crazy competition for nothing") surround him. The "corn-fed bohunk" is catnip for a hungry press, which derisively dubs him the "Cinderella Man." The Morning Mail assigns whip-smart, streetwise Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter Louise "Babe" Bennett (Arthur) to get the goods on Deeds, which she does by capitalizing on his notion of "saving a lady in distress." Babe steps into that role in the guise of poor little "Mary Dawson," but when Deeds immediately begins making sweet romantic overtures (like eagerly calling over a violinist in a restaurant), Babe just as quickly begins to question what she's willing to do to win a month's paid vacation from her editor (George Bancroft).
The plot thickens around the late banker's villainous attorney John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), who rallies another relative to challenge Deeds' claim to the inheritance on the grounds that he is mentally incompetent. It's on this point that Capra shows his Steinbeckian liberalism, as Deeds goes from playing defense against scammers to playing offense by offering social welfare to the deserving, namely poor and hungry farmers still suffering under the effects of The Great Depression. Capra satirizes the notion that only a fool would part with his money in such a way, instead positioning charity as the responsibility of the wealthy. The picture plays out as a fable of innocent idealism and true patriotism versus cynical greed.
Capra coaxes great performances from the top to the bottom of his company. He also shows directorial brilliance in his unusual and highly effective visual choices, like playing one of Arthur's saddest scenes with a vantage on her back, which has the counterintuitive effect of making it yet sadder. Capra gets great intimacy to the dialogues between Deeds and Bennett by capturing them in well-composed two-shots, and he's a master of pace, unafraid of long silences as characters think, but capable of fast-talking hilarity just as well. The picture is as dramatically sound as it is funny. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was influential in its time and can still be found in the DNA of so many modern comedies (overtly so in the Coens' underrated The Hudsucker Proxy). And on its eightieth anniversary, it's every bit as entertaining as it ever was.
Simply put: if you love movies and have a Blu-ray player, pick up Sony's 80th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Derived from the recent 4K restoration of the 1936 film, this hi-def A/V transfer presents the film in a manner that's as good as it's ever looked on home video, by a long shot. A booklet included in the release includes an extensive explanation of how the film was sourced (using the very best of available elements, and primarily the original negative), scanned at 4K resolution, and cleaned up using digital tools for scratch removal and seamlessly wedding clips or even frames from multiple sources. The results are breathtaking for this once faded, hazy, scratchy film. Improvements to the soundtrack may not seem quite as dramatic, but the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Monaural track represents probably the best the film has ever sounded, with all crackles and pops vanquished and any hiss reduced to an absolute minimum for a clear and satisfying listen.
This edition retains the disc-housed bonus features from the previous Sony DVD: a spotty commentary by Frank Capra Jr. and the preferable featurette "Frank Capra Jr. Remembers...Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (11:11, SD), in which the director's son covers the most important details about the film's writing and development, casting, themes, and place in Capra's career, with interesting details like Jean Arthur's horrible fear of performing for the camera.
Adding considerable value to this release is the Digibook packaging of this latest issue in the "Frank Capra Collection." The 30-page booklet includes plenty of production stills and poster and lobby card images, as well as an excellent new essay on the film by film historian Jeremy Arnold, the star's key credits, and the aforementioned essay "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Restoration in 4K" by Rita Belda.
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