MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (Frank Capra; USA, 1936)
I was thinking just now how, for my tastes, Capra's comedies have never quite hit the same heights as those made by his peers. Films by Lubitsch, McCarey, Hawks, and Preston Sturges have remained more memorable, lingered deeper in the memory. His erring towards innocent, naïve characters leaves a semi-sweet taste, but I've been more beguiled by the fiery word-battles, snappy wit, and a kind of robustness that I've felt is delivered by all those directors. As a gloss on the memory, Capra feels thin.
But after casting my mind back to some of his other comedies, it seems there's a little more to Capra than I gave him credit for. For a start, his characters are not all innocent oddballs – Clark Gable's reporter in It Happened One Night out-does any other screwball-comedy character in the smart-ass stakes. In You Can't Take It With You, although the incessant happiness of the main family is vaguely cloying, there's a spark and energy that is allowed to naturally breath. No forced eccentricities here – just characters rich and satisfied with their own freed creativity. It's not 'big' moments, but 'small' moments that provide rich viewing. For some reason I'm thinking here of how Jean Arthur answers the phone with her teeth in You Can't Take it With You, because she's quietly nestled inside the moment of having her hands held by James Stewart and she can't be bothered to remove them for a ringing phone. A little moment, naturally played and not at all goofy.
In Mr Deeds Goes To Town we get another innocent oddball character, an out-of-towner who undergoes the scrutiny of the big-city media and the big-city public, driven to believing he's insane because of a handful of over-analysed idiosyncrasies. After consumption, the film, as usual for a Capra vehicle, feels fine but light. But there is weight to this vehicle. It's not via the delivery of any message, whether that might be questioning the meaning of sanity and normality, or promoting the ideals of the 'common person' as preferable to those of the 'city-bound cynic.' Messages are fine, but that's not the meat to this sandwich. This kind of weight is the same kind of heft that seems to fill Capra's other apparently-light vehicles – in the small details. Capra's camera seems to draw out a kind of minimalism in Gary Cooper's performance, lingering on his frame to highlight angularities and rhythms of movement. Cooper's sullen stillness in the early part of the courtroom scene allows for the minutest of glances to impart a visual richness. There's a kind of quietness inside many scenes in this film, and this lack of rushing seems to be particular to Capra. There's an unhurried air to his films, allowing for tiny yet noticeable gaps in dialogue and little spaces between one moment of action and the next. And then there's occasional symmetry, people carved into space to create appealing little visual sculptures – the moment when Mr Deeds and his three manservants all play with echo in the lobby of his house is an exquisite example of this.
So, maybe I've been a little too tough on Capra. I can't help but rate other comedies from this era higher than Mr Deeds Goes To Town, but that's not to say there isn't any visual appeal to this film, or any other Capra comedy.