Sunday, 24 February 2013

Mr Deeds Goes to Town (US, 1936, Dir. Frank Capra)


Most people with a passing awareness of film history will have at least heard of Frank Capra, but perhaps not all will appreciate just what an exalted status the director had in 1930's Hollywood. Before the likes of Welles, Hitchcock or Sturges had truly emerged, and long before film writers began scrutinising the output of Howard Hawks and John Ford, Capra enjoyed a standing unseen since the heyday of DW Griffith.

This was due in no small part to the enormous success of his seminal screwball comedy It Happened One Night, the top grossing film of 1934 and the first to ever pick up all five major Oscars. It swelled Capra's pockets and his ego, allowing him unprecedented leverage with his studio Columbia (hereafter his name would appear above the title), but with the expectation he could deliver more of the same.

For their follow-up Capra and his regular collaborator Robert Riskin eventually settled on a serialised story called Opera Hat, by the prolific author Clarence Budington Kelland. Given that Budington, who would later dabble in politics, was an ardent conservative and critic of Roosevelt's New Deal it's ironic that Riskin's script would espouse an economic policy that draws obvious parallels with that of FDR. But by all accounts the writer only took the bare bones of the original premise: that of a simple country man (Gary Cooper) who suddenly finds himself the reluctant inheritor of his late uncle's $20m fortune.

Naturally not everyone is best pleased that this yokel has his hands on unfathomable riches, particularly when it becomes apparent to his legal advisors that he may not be the malleable puppet they'd hoped for and begins making rather radical plans to redistribute his wealth amongst the poor. He also draws the attention of a savvy reporter (Jean Arthur) who makes a play for his affections in ruthless pursuit of an exclusive only to fall under the spell of his bashful whimsy.

It seems that Cooper was Capra's first and only choice for the eponymous Longfellow Deeds and it's hard to imagine any leading man, even James Stewart, who could have embodied the hero's gauche, straight-talking decency to such captivating effect. Cooper's unique quality was an ability to turn his limitations as an actor into an asset; his physical stature and chiselled looks may be imposing but his brittleness translates into fragility. To see his moral convictions shattered by a manipulative, cynical world is a painful experience.

Events culminate in a court hearing in which Deeds, whose sanity has been called into question by his former lawyers and another claimant to his uncle's estate, must prove he's compos mentis and regain his faith in humanity. It's a rousing if contrived finale.

In his commentary track for the dvd reissue of the film Frank Capra Jr suggests his father felt compelled to raise questions about his own success, and the egregious excess of Hollywood in general, in a period when regular working Americans were undergoing great hardship. One could observe there were probably more constructive ways of addressing this than making it the subtext of a film. What's more even if we were to take it as a rallying cry for social reform it leaves unanswered questions; we never see the final result of Deeds' radical ideas and by the conclusion he might be perceived as dangerously akin to a demagogue.

Capra would return to these themes in the other films in this triptych, Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and perhaps most provocatively Meet John Doe (1941). In the latter film, in which Cooper again becomes the unwitting champion of the common man, the director comes close to intimating that beneath the crowd-pleasing sentiments he may have felt greater ambivalence towards the masses than is generally held.

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