As we continue our exploration of the work of beloved filmmaker Frank Capra, which began with the outstanding “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and continued with the somewhat overrated Best Picture winner “You Can’t Take It with You,” we come to a second entry in his filmography that many probably aren’t as familiar with. “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” was something of a hit in 1936, at least with the Academy, for it was nominated for a slew of Oscars that included Best Picture, Best Director (which Capra won), Best Actor, and Best Screenplay, but was it actually worthy of all this recognition, or is it simply another case of one of Capra’s films not standing up to the test of time?
As the film opens, a rich man dies in an automobile accident, leaving a vast fortune of $20 million to a nephew, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), that he hardly knew. After a sleazy lawyer, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), tracks him down, he brings Deeds to New York City to take care of business and to start living the life his Uncle was accustomed to. Deeds, being a naïve country boy from a small town, takes some time to get used to all of his new surroundings, which isn’t made any easier by the fact that he has to deal with people showing up at his door asking for (and in some cases demanding) money.
He becomes somewhat more relaxed when he meets a young woman by the name of Mary (Jean Arthur), whom he falls in love with, but little does he know that Mary is actually Babe Bennett, a newspaper reporter who is secretly writing articles about Deeds’ activities. Things only become worse when Deeds decides to give away his fortune, prompting Cedar to make a desperate play by legally questioning Deeds’ sanity, resulting in a farcical courtroom battle to determine if he is mentally stable.
I should probably begin by apologizing up front if this critique ends up sounding incredibly similar to my review of the previous entry in the “Capra Collection” series, “You Can’t Take It with You,” but the truth of the matter is that they end up having almost the exact same positives and negatives.
Starting with the former, we have a top-notch cast led by Gary Cooper (Oscar nominee for Best Actor) and Jean Arthur. Cooper gives a marvelous performance that combines a delightful naivety, a desire to do what’s right, and an odd temperament that has him punching people that make him angry. Deeds is a bizarre, unpredictable character, but Cooper rolls along marvelously with the various changes he goes through throughout the film, leaving behind a strong, unforgettable portrayal of a man thrown into a difficult situation.
The change that Jean Arthur’s Babe has to go through is no less difficult, first wanting nothing more than to get a few headlines by getting close to Deeds, but soon finding out that he’s not the man everyone thinks he is. Her genuine outpouring of emotion, particularly during the climactic courtroom battle, is a strong reminder of her talent (and is also a very probable reason as to why Capra would want to bring her back for a couple more pictures).
Now we come to where there’s a bit of a mix between the good and the bad, and that, of course, is the film’s storyline. It’s pleasant enough in spurts, setting up an interesting situation that has a peculiar man from a small town coming to the big city after suddenly inheriting a large fortune. There’s a lot that can be done there, and screenwriter Robert Riskin (Oscar nominee for Best Screenplay) tries his best to come up with events to fill it, but just as he would do with “You Can’t Take It with You” a couple of years later, he ends up over-filling it with superfluous scenes that only end up stretching the film out far too much. There’s a great beginning and a compelling climactic ending, but the middle portion definitely could have stood to be trimmed down a little bit to help the pacing and make it flow better. To put it simply, there was really no reason that this film had to be two hours, especially when it contains a number of scenes that do nothing to help advance the story.
What we end up with is another example of a fascinating story getting smothered under a little too much excess. With more focus on the story, this too might have been another Capra classic that everyone still talks about to this day (like “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”), but thanks to its slight overindulgence, it’ll merely have to be remembered as a minor work in his filmography that contains some great performances (a commonality in his work) and which had a fair amount of potential that got lost in the editing process.
“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.33:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The film has been repaired and scanned in 4K from the original negative, resulting in a beautifully-sharp image that makes the film look almost new again. The booklet in the film’s case shows examples of how damaged the original print was, but from the look of the finished product, it’s clear that they did a marvelous job with the restoration. The Mono DTS-HD Master Audio has also been fully restored, allowing the full dynamic range of the original recording to come through loud and clear. Overall, the film has been brought back to life splendidly, ensuring that it continues on for another 80 years and beyond.
Commentary with Frank Capra Jr.: An excellent commentary in which the director’s son gives you a lot of interesting background info about the film.
Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (11 Minutes): A fascinating featurette in which Frank Capra Jr. reminisces about the making of the film.
Booklet: Built right into the film’s case is a booklet featuring an essay about the making of the film by film historian Jeremy Arnold.
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Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” features a pair of great performances from Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, and a story that is partially compelling, but it’s ultimately let down by an overlong runtime that the film isn’t able to sustain. There’s also something to be said for Capra’s usual sure-handed direction, so we can at least say the film’s one Oscar was well-deserved, but in the end, this is simply another case of a supposed classic that just hasn’t aged well.