weekly inspiration #1 MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936)
The known tale of a young man from a small town who is taken to the big city when he becomes the sole heir of a distant relative. With no real fascination for the fortune he receives, he tries to find his path in the concrete jungle with a moral compass while everyone around him tries to swindle him or claim right over his money.
Finally, his idea of putting the fortune to good use, helping people in need with work, is seem as insanity. You may say this is a wise-old tale, or a dated story. I will agree to that: it is most certainly a very well known narrative that has been widely recycled. However, if you label this a dated movie, I shall have to disagree. The character may be a familiar good-hearted individual that the viewer already expects to be taken for a sucker. But I am myself a sucker here. A sucker for Frank Capra. And this is Capra at his best - heartfelt Capra. The archetype for this story is so recognizable that Capra repeats it himself (almost ipsis litteris) in many of his other movies. Of course the famous protagonist played by James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” shares the formula. However, the character that is almost a carbon copy of Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds is Stewart’s Jefferson Smith. Being released three years after Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington doesn’t share only a similar title, but a type of protagonist that is willing to do good and look for purity inside a rotten society, and a leading lady. Frank Capra summons Jean Arthur to this time, instead of taking Mr. Deeds for a fool and exposing him as one in order to further her career just to be enchanted by his integrity and come to regret her lack of thereof, instruct and support Mr. Smith. In both movies Jean Arthur appears as her sympathetic self, and as usual it seems hard to figure out what is acting and what is Jean au naturel.
If somebody was used to bringing up Arthur’s charisma to a character this was Frank Capra. And if somebody should be known for capturing that charisma on film, it should be cinematographer Joseph Walker. Walker worked with Capra and Arthur in both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith and in the Academy Award winner You Can’t Take it With You (1938).
Walker has continuously presented Ms. Arthur in soft, magnificent beauty lighting, with glowing eyelight that always adds to her character - whether she is seducing a small town boy or regretting that -, without distracting from the always mesmerizing contrast he imprints in those movies. By no means they fall into the noir category, or does the lighting point that way, however, the darkness he chooses for specific moments could remind of a noirish way to portray a character. Nevertheless, the deep shadows and bright highlights he offers could not be more effective to enhance the narrative at hand. Therefore, the scene from Mr. Deeds that has the biggest impact on me is this one I present here. Even though Joseph Walker offers the most glamorized renditions of stars’ faces without distracting from the narrative and never contrasting with his high contract in pictures, it is the moment that he chooses to dim the light on one of those stars that mesmerizes me the most.
In this sequence, Gary Cooper is locked up in the psychiatric ward of the county’s hospital for being considered insane. He is about to face a court to address the allegation he should not be responsible for his inheritance once he is a mentally unstable man. The claim is based on the fact he wishes to offer farmers the chance to work on lands that they can come to own according to a financial support agreement. As to be expected, the greedy, corrupted men (and woman played by Ms. Arthur) from the big city find that the only possible explanation for his lack of greediness is insanity. This is his darkest moment and it is portrayed as so. It is the one time in the movie where the audience doesn’t see Gary Cooper’s face. It doesn’t have to. He expresses more emotion with his statuesque silhouetted profile and rim light on his lightly moving hands than any piece of dialogue could.
For the never retired moral tale of integrity versus greediness, for another incredible collaboration between director Frank Capra and cinematographer Joseph Walker, for the great performances of the leading actors (as in any Capra movie), and last but most definitely not least, for the exquisite combination of high contrast photography with glossy, detailed, and highly polished beauty lighting marking another great picture signed by Walker, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is not dated, but finely aged, like a good drink. And, as such, it must be enjoyed.
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Until the next inspiration...
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