Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Good questions, bad assumption

Yesterday’s rant about using the same rating to classify an American classic, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, as MTV’s Real World: Key West drew a couple of good questions from cmhl. Did I watch the movie – and did I find it objectionable?

Of course, yesterday I didn’t say that Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (not to be confused with the similarly named Adam Sandler film from 2002) is an American classic. I assumed that everyone knows this. This was a bad assumption – which directly prompted cmhl’s good questions.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was directed by Frank Capra, the same filmmaker who gave us It’s a Wonderful Life.

Surely It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most well-known movies of all time. It was almost done to death in the late ‘80's or early 90's when it temporarily slipped into the public domain: It was on some channel in Chicago almost continuously every Christmas for a few years. What parent doesn’t smile knowingly as a very stressed out Jimmy Stewart pantomimes putting the petals back on Zuzu’s flower? And next time you watch, notice the movie that’s playing at the theater when George Bailey ‘returns’ to Bedford Falls. (It’s The Bells of St. Mary’s. Henry Travers, who plays the hapless angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, also starred in that classic – as the businessman whose hard heart is melted by the prayers of Sister Mary Benedict – a most unlikely role for Ingrid Bergman – and the melodic maneuverings of Bing Crosby, returning to his Oscar-winning role as Fr. Chuck O’Malley.)

So, yes, I watched Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – and, no, it’s not offensive. The movie is 70 years old – and curiously modern: Jean Arthur plays Babe Bennet, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, no less, who goes undercover as Mary Dawson, newly employed stenographer, in order to get close to new millionaire Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper, taciturn as always). Deeds inherited his millions from an uncle who died racing his car off a cliff on an Italian mountain (the movie’s first scene); before that, Deeds had been a successful poet – turning out sentiments for greeting cards – and playing tuba in the town band in Mandrake Falls, Vermont. The lawyers who’d been managing the uncle’s fortune (and stealing a fortune of their own) hope to keep right on going with the seemingly naive bumpkin Deeds.

Deeds falls in love with Babe, but he thinks she’s a “lady in distress.” He takes her out to see the literati at a restaurant (that was supposed to suggest the famous Aglonquin Round Table) – but their mean-spirited put-downs lead Deeds to pop one of the patronizing poets right in the kisser. Another poet, impressed and apologetic, offers to take Deeds and Babe out on a ‘good old fashioned bender’... and Deeds returns home, accompanied by a policeman, and unaccompanied by his pants. We see none of this; that might be offensive. Besides, we can imagine the homecoming – and that’s funny without having to see it. The real humor is watching Deeds react to the butler’s recitation the next morning. Deeds is contrite and penitent – even before his flack and all-around cornerman, Corny Cobb, brings him the morning paper – with Babe’s article on the front page.

Deeds is a fish out of water. He’s a volunteer fireman at home – so one night he jumps on a passing fire engine to offer his services. So there is grist for Babe’s articles – she’s not making stuff up – but she exaggerates and slants and turns Cooper into an object of public scorn – the “Cinderella Man.” But even as she’s writing these articles, her cynical shell is beginning to melt, as she realizes that Deeds isn’t the goof she’s portraying, but is really a warm and genuine and caring man.

When she finally sorts out how she feels, will it be too late? And then Deeds decides to give away his fortune, to people who really need the money. And then Deeds is put on trial: Go see this movie. And let your kids watch.

Let me suggest two more Frank Capra movies in case the video store or the local library don’t have a copy of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town available. It Happened One Night was quite risque in its day: Clark Gable removed his shirt – and wore no undershirt. This supposedly had a negative impact on undershirt sales. You may have to explain to your children that there once was a time when it was considered inappropriate for a man and a woman to sleep in the same room, even in separate twin beds, if they were not husband and wife.

Imagine if Nora Ephron remade Mr. Deeds today: When Babe went undercover as Mary Dawson, she moved in with Mabel Dawson, a clerical employee at the newspaper, in order to provide a little extra ‘cover.’ Ms. Ephron would have her moving out of the apartment that she shared with someone like Greg Kinnear so that there could be a scene in which he whine about how she was putting her work ahead of their ‘relationship.’ (For the record, You’ve Got Mail is a somewhere between a remake and an homage to another Jimmy Stewart movie, The Shop Around the Corner.)

And, speaking of Jimmy Stewart, the other Frank Capra movie that you should put on your list is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, also starring Jean Arthur. Yes, it’s another fish out of water plot as Jefferson Smith is appointed to the United States Senate as a result of a most unlikely coin toss. This movie should be required viewing in every school civics class – even though I know, in that shriveled up cinder where my heart of hearts used to be, that Senator Paine (Claude Rains) probably wouldn’t do what he does in this movie at the very end. Harry Caray, as the Vice President, has a tiny role – and makes the most of it.

1 comment:

cmhl said...

I'll have to watch this movie-- and "the shop around the corner" (I loved You've Got Mail)..

and you are correct sir!! Poison Ivy is by the Coasters, apparently a later remake was by Human Nature!