Sunday, February 13, 2011

Christ Imagery in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

We took a break the other night to watch Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the "Best Picture of 1936" according to the National Board of Review. It's a charming comedy and, as is frequently the case in classic movies, good acting compensates for the lack of special effects. My enjoyment was enhanced by an added dimension missing from the Wikipedia plot summary and rarely discussed in detail elsewhere:
  1. Parents: The first clue--I missed it--is that the names of Longfellow (Gary Cooper) Deeds's parents are apparently Mary and Joseph. (In his excellent detailed review, Tim Dirks calls this "an unusual Christ-like reference.")
  2. Betrayal and Crucifixion: Longfellow proves himself surprisingly shrewd, with the exception of "Babe" Bennett (Jean Arthur), a New York reporter who gains his confidence in order to "crucify" him in the local press.
  3. Disciples: In addition to Babe, Longfellow's converts include his initially sceptical troubleshooter and, perhaps, his men-servants, whom Longfellow prohibits from kneeling before him. He'll put on his own shoes, thank you very much.
  4. (Virtually) Sinless life and Gospel Message: According to the corrupt lawyer who wants to manage Longfellow's new-found wealth, Longfellow is "naive as a child." Babe declares, "You're much too real." Ironically, Longfellow said much the same thing to Babe. I conclude that Longfellow's gospel message is égalité, fraternité, et realité. Salvation, as one would expect, is through romantic love.
  5. Cleansing the Temple: Longfellow hosts a reception for the opera, and then turns them out "bodily."
  6. Feeding of the Multitude: After an encounter with a homeless man, Longfellow decides to give away his fortune to provide a new start for down-and-out farmers. He orders his aide to provide sandwich lunches for the 2,000 men waiting to register for the program.
  7. Arrest and Imprisonment: To stop Longfellow, the lawyer arranges to have him arrested on the charge of insanity. He is imprisoned briefly in a mental hospital.
  8. Trial: At his insanity trial, Longfellow says nothing in his defense ...until, of course, Babe professes her love and the whole thing turns around. Longfellow, it turns out, is the only truly sane (=real) person in the courtroom.
Sappy, to be sure, but more fun than I've made it sound.

Note: There is a 2002 remake starring Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder, which had a budget of $50 million and received a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 21%. My advice: Watch the original, which cost under $1 million, and won Frank Capra a second Academy Award for best director.

Other general discussions of Christ imagery in Frank Capra movies may be found here, here and here.

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