Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: 80th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)31 Oct, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Douglass Dumbrille.
From the 4K looks of this Frank Capra-Robert Riskin staple from the Columbia Pictures library, one can almost speculate that a Sony release of the Three Stooges shorts in super high-def might find people lauding those comedies’ own visual content or mise-en-scene (albeit mise-en-scene accompanied by eye-pokes or maybe smashed thumbs from a ball peen hammer). Mr. Deeds Goes to Town looks stunning in the latest Sony-controlled Capra to rate a ta-da-da-da-ish Blu-ray at a time when the parent company is otherwise ignoring its library or farming it out to Twilight Time and Region B distributors. Echoing previous U.S. releases of You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Digipak-ing here utilizes glossy paper for still photo reproduction and includes both a good backgrounding essay (Jeremy Arnold) and a two-page layout of lobby cards. And in terms of what’s on the screen, it further reminds us that for all of Capra’s defining common-man sentiments and ability to direct actors, his films (when showcased the right way) were enduring advertisements for the trademark luminosity of cinematographer Joseph Walker — the director’s favorite and the one who shot a majority of the most important Capra films, all the way through It’s a Wonderful Life.
Of course, it never hurt to have Gary Cooper as a photographic subject, though he brought more to his movies (and especially this one) than impossible handsomeness. According to multiple sources (including the late Frank Jr. on the disc’s bonus commentary), Capra never considered anyone else for the role, figuring that Cooper was the only choice to bring off a whopper premise about a small-town Vermont tuba player considered crazy because he wants to dispense an unexpected $20 million inheritance to the Depression downtrodden as a grub stake for the family farms his largesse will make possible. Longfellow Deeds is almost too good to be true, especially in this day and age, but you know what?: Cooper was, too. So if in terms of the 1936 movie year, I’m more of a Modern Times/Ceiling Zero kind of guy, I’ll never discount what Capra’s movies meant to the 1930s. Judging from the spin that even the minor actors put on their roles here (which are sometimes limited to single scenes), the evidence is strong that Capra in his prime could have gotten a strong performance out of a pencil sharpener, if pressed. Though he did win his second best director Oscar, Deeds lost best picture to (cough) The Great Ziegfeld, though it did take the New York Film Critics Circle’s top honor in the second year the organization voted.
An amazing thing here — and also in terms of her subsequent career trajectory as well — is that co-star Jean Arthur had been in movies since her 1923 screen debut in John Ford’s Cameo Kirby and was 35 when Capra gave her what became the actress’s breakthrough role. You can argue this last point a little because Arthur had finally dented the wall at least some with her performance in Ford’s 1935’s The Whole Town’s Talking, a delightful comedy whose co-written Riskin script (with Jo Swerling) still gives it the feel of a Capra movie. In the 14 months that separated the release of Talking and Deeds, Arthur appeared in five additional films (one of them was the now unjustly obscure Diamond Jim, with a Preston Sturges screenplay). But Deeds is really the one that finally put her over with the public at a relatively advanced age, and from this point on (allowing for a handful of minor mid-’30s releases already in the can), she more often than not appeared in major pictures up through her feature swan song with Shane. But with Deeds, Capra had to fight for her with unenthused studio chief Harry Cohn, which is probably the 435th argument they had that month.
Capra Jr. notes on the commentary that one possible problem with Deeds is a villain who could have been more formidable — a point I can understand and one he rectified in subsequent us-vs.-them achievements. Yet Douglass Dumbrille as the oily adversarial lawyer proves to be as much of a textbook foil for Cooper as he was for Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope, and there’s one scene where Cooper has the same reaction to shaking his hand as Hillary Clinton would to shake Donald Trump’s these days. There’s also H.B. Warner’s warmth as the judge in the movie’s climax (filling the role that Harry Carey Sr. later would in Mr. Smith) — and also John Wray’s chilling scene as a desperate farmer who threatens to kill Deeds, which is almost as searing as John Qualen’s unforgettable turn early in The Grapes of Wrath playing a character (“Muley”) in similar straits. This release is a must if you’re a fan of the film, and the fact that it’s billed as an 80th anniversary edition gives me hope that Sony releases the Capra-Riskin-Walker Lost Horizon on Blu-ray next year when it turns 80. What with the previous Capra releases — as well as recent Criterions of Only Angels Have Wings, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and with His Girl Friday coming in January — Walker’s work has been getting a on of merited Blu-ray representation in relatively recent days. So here, then, is a Blu-ray wish for the Walker-shot The Awful Truth, which took another player who’d been around a long time (substitute Cary Grant for Jean Arthur) and made him a superstar as well.