Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1939): Political Ideology in Capra’s Movie

The juxtaposition between Country and City, in Murnau’s Sunrise” and other silent movies of the 1920s, and the condemnation of the Big City (The Crowd”) became even more explicit and  manifest in features of the 1930s.

Arguably, no director had made a more extensive use out of these conceptual contrasts than Frank Capra.

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a quiet man from Mandrake Falls, suddenly inherits a vast fortune of 20 million dollars, which changes his life. “I don’t need it,” says Deeds, wondering why his uncle had left all the money to him. Thrust into the cutthroat jungle of New York, Deeds is subjected to the manipulations of editors, reporters, shysters, and other parasites. At the end, realizing that money has brought him only unhappiness, he decides to give it up and go back to his town.

The film begins at the train station of Mandrake Falls, where attorney Cedars and his colleagues arrive to inform Deeds of his inheritance. They all seem nervous and impatient, victims of the fast tempo of New York. “Small towns like this always affect me strangely,” says Cedar. The welcome sign makes them even more nervous: “Welcome to Mandrake Falls. Where the scenery enthralls. Where no hardship befalls.” It is a friendly town, though. “Everybody knows Deed,” says an old man, “Fine fellow. Very democratic. Talks to anybody.” Deed’s housekeeper explains, that Deeds is in the park, arranging for a bazaar to raise money for a fire engine. Proud of his greeting cards’
poetry, she recites one for which he was paid $25: When you’ve nowhere to turn. And you’re filled with doubt. Don’t stand midstream, hesitating. For you know that your mother’s heart cries out. I’m waiting, my boy, I’m waiting.”

Accidental death, a prominent motif of small-town films, has also been part of Deeds’ life. His parents froze to death in a storm, and his uncle was killed in a car accident. Alone in the world, he is still unmarried and unattached. “He’s too busy,” his housekeeper, reasons, besides, “he’s got fool notions about saving a lady in distress.” Never away from his town, Deeds’ motivation to go to New York is to see Grant’s Tomb. For his departure, the town arranges a grand farewell, with the band playing “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” In New York, Deeds encounters salesmen, politicians, moochers, “all wanting something,” exploit him. “The world is full of pests,” warns Cedar, “you need someone to keep cranks away.” Cedar’s first advice concerns the press: “One must know when to seek publicity–and when to avoid it.” Indeed, before his arrival, reporters think he’s “a lousy copy,” a country bumpkin who ha “still got hay in his teeth.” Deeds appears–but only appears–to be childish, and the movie explores the disparity between surface appearances and real essences, a favorite theme of small-town movies. “The boy’s a simpleton,” says Cedar, “as naive as a child,” and his uncle’s common-law wife describes him as “a yokel” and “a country lout.”

At first he manages to elude the reporters, which infuriates editor MacWade (George Bancroft). Deeds has been in town for three days and what have his “numbskulls” reporters brought in, “a lot of flat, uninteresting routine stuff, that any halfwit novice could have done better!” He thus assigns his ace reporter, sob sister Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) to “cover” Deeds’ visit. Babe is doing it, not for the challenge or interest, but for material considerations: a month’s vacation with pay. In their first encounter, she pretends to be a “fainting” unemployed stenographer, but Deeds is delighted to have finally found his “lady in distress.” Soon Babe’s stories about “the Cinderella Man” appear on the front page, with pictures of Deeds holding up traffic and feeding horses doughnuts, and headlines like “Small Town Poet Laureate Shows Big City How to ‘Cut Up.'”

As in other Capra movies (Meet John Doe”), Babe is basically a good girl, a product of a town near Hartford. Babe has often thought of going back to her “beautiful little town,” a place that always “smells as if it just had a bath.” She still loves Nature, reminiscing how she adored going fishing with her father. Indeed, Deeds and Babe’s romantic scenes takes place in Central park, the closest site in New York City to Nature. Deeds is a Nature lover: back home, he liked to take long walks, spending hours in the woods. Deeds reminds Babe of her father: He talked like him, played the drums in the band, and even advocated Deeds’ philosophy: “No matter what happens, don’t complain.”

Babe’s roommate, Mabel, is also from a small town. “They toughened us beautifully!” says Babe, “That’s what they call being wise and sophisticated.” But falling in love with Deeds has confused Babe so much that she can’t make up her mind whether he is “the most imbecilic idiot” or the “grandest thing alive.” Wholesome and fresh, Deeds looks like a “freak” in the City. “He got goodness,” Babe tells Mabel, “Know what that is No, of course, you don’t. We’ve forgotten. We’re too busy being smart-alecky. Too busy in a crazy competition for nothing.”

Mr. Deeds” consists of encounters between Deeds and representatives of City folks. Each encounter ends with a lesson, a moral learned by Deeds and made explicit for the viewers. For example, Deeds has never met “famous people” on the caliber of writers Henobery and Morrow, but they prove to be condescending, poking fun at him. This provides an occasion for a speech about the values of cultural relativity and urban provincialism. “I know I must look funny to you,” says Deeds, “but maybe if you came to Mandrake Falls you’d look just as funny to us.” The lesson, in Deeds’d words: “All famous people aren’t big people!” True to his nature, he wants to “bump” their heads together; one of Deeds’ quirky habits is to beat those who displease him.

Deeds is naive but no fool. He finds that City people to talk about women “as if they were cattle.” “Name your poison,” says Cobb, “and I’ll supply it” (blond, dark, tall, or short). Though not a young man, Deeds lacks any experience with women. Told that his uncle sometimes had as many as twenty women around the house, he asks, “What’d he do with them” “It kind of puzzles me why people want to do a lot of work for nothing,” says Deeds to Cedar, when the latter wants the power to deal with the Opera’s Board of Directors, “It isn’t natural.” Douglas, the chair of the Board, expects no difficulty in getting Deeds to put up the entire deficit. But, shocked that the opera doesn’t make any money, Deeds deduces that “we must give the wrong kind of show.” He rejects Douglas’s argument, “You can’t think of art in terms of profit and loss.” “I don’t see why I should keep opera alive,” says Deeds, “for people who obviously don’t want it.” According to his logic, “if the public doesn’t want our merchandise, we’ll just have to change things around–or close up the business.”

Deeds doesn’t understand “why people go around hurting each other why don’t they try liking each other once in a while” “People here are funny,” he tells Babe, “They work so hard at living, they forget to live.” And he quotes Thoreau: “They’ve created a lot of grand palaces here, but they forgot to create the noblemen to put in them.'” It’s an earlier, though not the only, reference to Thoreau in such movies.

The movie advocates populism and egalitarianism, underlined by values of Christianity: Every person is “God’s creation” and talented in his own right. Every individual possesses some talent and should do his/her best with his/her natural gifts. “Maybe it’s comical to write poems for postcards,” Deeds tells the writers, “but it’s the best I can do.” The movie favors making the most of one’s life, by choosing to live where one fits in.

Objective circumstances do not count much in Capra’s world; it’s the subjective perception of reality that matters. When Babe says that to most people Grant’s Tomb is “an awful let-down,” Deeds disagrees, “It depends on what they see.” Deeds sees “a small Ohio farm boy becoming a great soldier,” and “the beginning of a new nation.” “You’re too much real,” says Babe, “go back to Mandrake Falls. You belong there!” The recurrence of such words as small and little, reflect the filmmakers’ populist philosophy of the “little people.”

Told that he has been deceived by “a dame who took you for a sleigh ride that New York will laugh about for years,” Deeds is deeply hurt. In crisis, his dreams shattered, he wants to go back home. But an unexpected meeting with a starving farmer changes his mind. The farmer can’t believe that Deeds spent thousands of dollars on a party, when people are starving all around him! “Did you ever think about feeding doughnuts to human beings! (instead of horses).

At first, Deeds thinks he’s a “moocher” (like the rest), but then decides to distribute his money among the poor. Deeds is now accused of possessing a “distorted mind, afflicted with hallucinations of grandeur, and obsessed with an insane desire to become a public benefactor.” He has to prove his own sanity in court.

At the trial, Cedar charges that Deeds has been behaving strangely all his life, “that his derangement is neither a recent nor a temporary one.” Dr. Malcolm concludes that his patient is “mentally deranged,” and Dr. Fraser, an Austrian specialist, concurs, it’s “purely a case of manic depressive.” However, the “strongest” testimony against Deeds is provided by the two spinsterish sisters, Amy and Jane Faulkner, who describe him as “pixilated,” because “he walks in the rain without his hat and talks to himself; sometimes, he even whistles and sings!” What the sisters don’t tell the court is that they live in his house without paying any rent.

The debate revolves around the question of what constitutes “normal” and “abnormal” behavior. As other small-town films (Dr. Bull,” Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), Mr. Deeds” rejects the opinion of experts (psychiatrists), in favor of common sense. “My opinion is as good as the quack psychiatrists,” says Babe. Throughout, Deeds dismisses the views of experts: managers, lawyers, writers, and psychiatrists. The film cherishes individualism and eccentricity, but rejects nominal definitions of normality.

Deeds plays the tuba whenever he wants to concentrate, insisting that, “Everybody does something silly when they’re thinking. For instance, the Judge here is an O-filler, Dr. Fraser is a doodler,” and others are “ear-pullers, nail-biters, or nose-twitchers.” “He could never fit in with our distorted viewpoint, because he’s honest, sincere and good,” Babe tells the court, “If that man’s crazy, your honor, the rest of us belong in straitjackets.” The judge concurs, pronouncing Deeds “the sanest man that ever walked into this courtroom!”

Mr. Deeds” proposes simplistic solutions to the Depression. What people need is “ten acres, a horse, a cow, and some seed,” but they have to work for it: “If they work the farm three years, it’s theirs.” “No matter what system of government we have,” philosophizes Deeds, “there’ll always be leaders and always be followers.” Using the steep hill road as a metaphor, he explains: “Every day I see the cars climbing up. Some go lickety-split up that hill on high, some have to shift into second and some shake and slip back to the bottom again. Same cars, same gasoline, yet some make it and some don’t, and I say the fellers who can make the hill on high should stop once in a while and help those who can’t.”

Deeds is in favor of benevolent neighborliness, helping “the fellers who can’t make the hill on high.” Deeds (and Capra) ignore the fact that the inequality begins before climbing the hill: not everyone owns a car, and not everyone has the same car; people’s point of departure determines their life chances.

The movie rejects handouts by the government and supports self-help and hard work. Deeds gives up his money because “I never earned it,” and because “so far, it’s brought me nothing but hard luck.” The starving farmers need some “push” and encouragement; the rest will be taken care of by the Protestant ethics of entrepreneurship and hard work. While Mr. Deeds” does not criticize the existence of an upper class and the prevalence of wealth, it does criticize rich people’s lack of awareness. If one could only “open their eyes,” the rich would be willing to help the starving class. The inherent benevolence of human nature is not in question, though it is the role of the underdog to humanize and sensitize the rich and powerful, who may be snobbish, childish, frivolous, and irresponsible–all correctable ills.

Capra expresses his belief in a benevolent (Republican) government, though not an active one. The Welfare State model is rejected in favor of “laissez-faire” economy. “Our government is fully aware of its difficulties,” says Cedar, “and can pull itself out of its economic rut, without the assistance of Mr. Deeds or any other crackpot.” But just about how, the film fails to specify and the government remains an abstract force. As one critic pointed out, by making specific political attitudes (New Deal policies) irrelevant, Capra diffused the issue into unarguable American generalities.