The Original Feel Good Movies

My mother raised me on old movies. Grey movies, as my sister calls them, enchanted me from a young age. Period pieces, glamorous films of the 1930’s and 40’s, Lawrence Olivier, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, you name it.

This evening I turned on one such film, Mr. Deeds goes to Town, starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur and directed by Frank Capra. Capra, as most Americans know or ought to know, is a forefather of the “feel good” movie genre, as evidenced by It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the film I’m watching now. If you have not seen all of these movies, I highly recommend each of them. I also recommend particular timing for each movie. The first two need to be watched at Christmas time, most advantageously on Christmas Eve.
We have a tradition in our house to watch Mr. Smith on July 3rd, just in time for Independence Day. It Happened One Night should be watched when you lose your faith in love, and Mr. Deeds really helps when you lose your faith in humanity.

I guess the last description was a bit of a stretch. I turned this movie on out of joy and not of disappointment in the state of humanity. I suppose both incentives work. But the thing is that this movie positively charms. All of the Capra films do, but this one is so light hearted and full of quirky insights into human nature it stimulates the viewers’ imagination. As far as I am concerned, entertainment is really at its best when it manages to truly engage my attention, especially when it continues to do so no matter how many times I’ve seen the movie. Mr. Deeds succeeds where so many other films fail in terms of really capturing stories about real people, quirks and all.

In the story, Mr. Deeds lives in a small town and is getting along quite happily until some lawyers show up saying he has just inherited $20 million. Despite not wanting anything to do with the money, he is soon sucked up in a whirlwind of New York City responsibilities all tied to his inherited wealth. Since his story constitutes news, all the reporters in town want a piece of him, especially Jean Arthur’s character, Babe Bennet, who fakes an ingénue well enough to get close enough to Deeds to write nasty, insider stories. The film reaches its pivotal moment when the lawyers have Deeds arrested for insanity when he tries to give his money away.

On a side note, this story was remade recently with Adam Sandler and Winona Rider. I did not see this fake Mr. Deeds. It was an idiotic Hollywood movie to try to remake this film. Who in their right mind could ever think of redoing a Capra piece? What’s the point when the original is worth its weight in gold? Not to mention, why would anyone entertain any thought of casting Adam Sandler in a Gary Cooper role? I mean, seriously, look at this face.

The intriguing plot of the movie is greatly strengthened by the quirky characters. Deeds himself is a great character, full of heart and charm, and well, he is Gary Cooper after all. Deeds plays the tuba to think and writes greeting card poetry for a living. He says that people in New York are so busy living they forget how to live. The best example of this idea happens at about half way through the movie when Deeds has his three servants all sing to create a chord in his echoing stairwell, telling them all, “Let that be a lesson to you.” Corny Cobb, Deeds’ press management, has the most wonderful, nasally New Yorker voice you’ve ever heard coming out of a movie of this era. Sarcastic and biting, Cobb’s one liners make you giggle throughout the movie. I’d quote these lines, but it is really his delivery that makes them funny. Another two couple of characters would be the photographers who follow Arthur’s character Bennet around. At one point, Bennet starts singing Swannee River along with Deeds singing humoresque. When they hear this, the photographers chime in, again with a fast-talking, nasally New York dated accent, “Hey, maybe they wanna make it a quartet!” During the insanity trial, the lawyers invite two of Deeds’ neighbors from his small town to testify against him. They say he is pixilated, and I would be giving away too much of the movie to explain what that means.

If you watch this movie, watch carefully. Think about what it took for the writer to build this screenplay. Think about what a detailed observer of human nature Capra had to be in order to create something like this. If I were an editor, I would be tempted to remove so much of this movie, thinking it detracted from the plot. To have Jean Arthur play with a piece of string at her character’s introduction, or to have Corny Cobb read a poem about Mandrake Falls aloud in that voice of his, or to have Cooper chase his butler down the stairs just for the fun of it—all these things individually don’t add to the plot directly, but when the movie ends and you find yourself rather choked up, you realize that all of these tiny nuances added so much to the audience’s ability to feel connected to these characters and therefore it is precisely those little things wherein lies the genius.

My pastor in Chicago made a tangent once in his sermon about entertainment. He said that we need to be careful that we don’t seek entertainment passively, else we find ourselves zoning out and losing touch with reality. Instead, we should read books, watch films, and listen to music with an active mind, trying to learn from what we see and hear so as to better understand the real world around us. I think about this a good deal whenever I have a tough day and all I want to do is resume couch potato status in front of a series of sitcoms. Doing this, however, never makes me feel better, no matter how much I expect it will. To be passive is really just to waste time participating in unhealthy behavior. It would be much more restful to watch something good, something that captivates you, inspires and moves you. That may be a tall order, but it happens more often than you may think. Sometimes you find these forms of entertainment without even trying. This Capra film left me feeling so uplifted, revitalized and mentally energized that I stayed up late writing this blog post. This film leaves you with no option but to pay attention and actively engage. Now that’s a feel good movie.

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