Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) is the quintessential Robert Riskin film and one of my favorites. Written with warmth and humor, not to mention romance, it’s steeped in my father’s philosophy that we should all help each other and especially those in need — the so-called “little people,” an expression my father never would use — which was never more true than in the Depression when there was so much suffering. He believed in the basic goodness of people and understood the complications and dangers of money and avarice. His concerns about the harshness of social divisions are evident all through the film.
A tuba-playing country rube, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), inherits a fortune from a distant relative and, because he already has everything he wants in life – and the many problems that come with being an instant millionaire make him decidedly unhappy — he decides to give the money away to people who need it. A very smart and somewhat jaded big-city reporter, Babe, played by the effervescent Jean Arthur, sees a story about a man she thinks will be easy to make fun of. Big-city lawyers for the estate, who envision themselves as Deeds’ protectors and their own well-paid gravy train, go to court to prove he’s crazy and convince the judge they should take over. Deeds (Gary Cooper) explains himself to the judge who is evaluating his sanity in a final courtroom scene where Deeds sums up what he’s been trying to say all along.
“Suppose you were living in a small town and getting along fine and suddenly somebody dropped $20,000,000 in your lap.
Supposing you discovered that all that money was messing up your life, was bringing a lot of vultures around your neck, and making you lose faith in everybody…
You’d be a little worried, wouldn’t you? You’d feel that you had a hot potato in your hand, and you’d want to drop it…
…It’s like the road out in front of my house. It’s on a steep hill. Every day I watch the car climbing up. Some go lickety-split up that hill on high –
— some have to shift into second – and some sputter and shake and slip back to the bottom again. Same cars – same gasoline – yet some make it and some don’t. And I say the fellows who can make the hill on high should stop once in a while and help those who can’t.
That’s all I’m trying to do with this money. Help the fellows who can’t make the hill on high.”
Deeds, of course, is sane. It’s the rest of us we should be worried about.
The lawyers get their comeuppance and lose. Babe, who has fallen in love with Deeds and grown to see the worth of his values, gets her man and wins.
Like old friends, my father’s characters stayed with him long after the writing was over. The ideas of Deeds kept churning inside and finding their way into other films, like Meet John Doe.
I think Deedswas one of my father’s favorites films, too. He named his dog Deeds. Deeds was dachshund who went with him everywhere — pictured above with him at Columbia studio. When I was growing up, Deeds was still around to my delight – both the wonderful movie and the wonderful dog.