We’ve taken the word Capracorn for granted. Too often we throw it around simply as a synonym for any film by director Frank Capra. It’s actually more complex.
To be a Capracorn film you need:
- A common man
- A feisty, independent woman
- A big machine out to destroy the little guy
- Overt sentimentality
- Sharp, witty dialogue
- Engaging minor characters
- A deft touch with romance
- An overwhelming sense of decency and innate goodness
That’s a lot to fit into a film, let alone make it feel effortless and real, too. But in movies like “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Meet John Doe” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” we got all of the above and more. The common thread pulling it all together: the collaboration of Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin.
Capra was the first director to put his name above the film title because of his belief in his singular vision as a filmmaker. Except – and this is tough to say since I always took pride in using “Capracorn” in a sentence – films are not a one-person art form. Capra had a vision, yes, and a great one, but that vision needed the talents of other craftsmen, including a screenwriter. In at least 10 of those films, that screenwriter was Riskin, whose name is in the credits of 13 Capra movies. Without Riskin, there was no Capracorn.
As Pat McGilligan writes in the intro to “Six Screenplays by Robert Riskin” (all films directed by Capra), “Capra was certainly ‘the name above the title,’ but Riskin was the man who provided the story or script, without which these would have been nothing but a title.”
Sadly Capra often downplayed Riskin’s role which eventually led to the split of one of film’s greatest writing-directing duos after they made “Meet John Doe” (1941).
It’s time, then, to put Riskin in the spotlight through discussions of his films in “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, The Blogathon,” hosted by Classic Movie Hub and Once Upon a Screen.
It’s all in celebration of the new book “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir,” written by their daughter Victoria Riskin.
Ironically, the Riskin film I chose to celebrate– “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” – also is the very film in which Capra, according to his autobiography “The Name Above the Title,” adopted his “one man, one film” philosophy, i.e.: he was the sole artistic voice behind the film. (“Mr. Deeds” also was the first film Capra put his name above the title.) So it seems even better to give Riskin his due with “Deeds.”
“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” was special to Riskin, who called it his favorite film and even named his Dachshund after the main character, Deeds. The original idea came to Capra and Riskin from a serial in American Magazine called “Opera Hat” by Clarence Budington Kelland. (Yes, that’s where Riskin got the name for the law firm that provided a running joke in the film – Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington.)
In “Opera Hat,” a greeting card poet named Longfellow Deeds inherits an opera company and becomes involved in a murder. Riskin took that basic idea, streamlined the story by removing the murder and backstage melodrama; added his trademark witty dialogue and made a few pivotal changes. New to the movie would be the dramatic courtroom scene at the film’s end, necessary to see our hero hit bottom to give others the chance to redeem themselves. Riskin also fleshed out Deeds and added other characters, most importantly newswoman Babe Bennett. Without Babe, Mr. Deeds – the movie and the man – wouldn’t succeed.
* * * * *
The 1936 film starred Gary Cooper as the tuba-playing Longfellow Deeds who lives in the small town of Mandrake Falls where he writes poetry on postcards. His serene life is jolted when a trio of men with dubious motives whisk him away to New York City to claim a $20 million inheritance from his late Uncle Martin Semple.
He’s barely in New York a day, being fitted for a suit in his new mansion, when the seemingly naïve Deeds surprisingly shows he can hold his own. Deeds may be a “country bumpkin,” but don’t underestimate him: that childlike man chasing the fire truck isn’t a fool.
As the slick lawyer Mr. Cedar (played by Douglas Dumbrille) is working to get the power of attorney to control the money, the opera board of directors is waiting downstairs to charm Deeds into covering their debt of $180,000, and another attorney shows up claiming Uncle Semple had a common-law wife and child.
With Deeds clearly uncomfortable as he’s being pinned and prodded, it looks like they are all about to get their payday until he turns the tables on them. It’s delightful to watch.
“Salesmen, politicians, moochers – they all want something. I better think about it some more,” Deeds says before putting everyone in their place.
First the opera directors: “If it’s losing that much money, there must be something wrong,” he tells them, refusing to give them money.
He reminds Mr. Cedar that “you’re not my attorney yet. Not till I find out what’s on your mind.”
Then there’s the double whammy on the two competing lawyers. “I don’t like your face,” he tells “Mrs.” Semple’s lawyer. “Besides, there’s something fishy about a person settling for a $1 million when they can get $7 million. I’m surprised that Mr. Cedar, who’s supposed to be a smart man, couldn’t see through that.”
These encounters set up what we’ll see through the film: a man with a childlike sense of wonder that camouflages his unexpected smarts.
But Deeds has an Achilles heel: the need to help people and a dream to rescue a damsel in distress.
Enter Babe Bennett.
* * * * *
Gutsy gals like Babe are a staple of Riskin stories. Think of the spoiled heiress Ellie in “It Happened One Night” and the tough news reporter Ann in “Meet John Doe.” These are women who aren’t afraid to fight for what they want.
Babe (Jean Arthur) is a reporter looking for her big break and she thinks she’s found it in Longfellow Deeds. She makes a pact with her editor: the scoop on Deeds for a month’s paid vacation. It’s a deal.
Babe sets up Deeds in dramatic fashion by feigning a fainting spell in the rain outside of his mansion. She gives him a fake name and tells him she’s hungry and in need of a job, foreshadowing a later scene with a farmer who really is starving and in need of work to feed his family. He “rescues” her by taking her to dinner where they slowly get to know each other. (Although we get the impression their meeting saves Babe from more than fake hunger.)
This early restaurant scene is important because it compactly sets up important elements we’ll see develop through the film that will converge for its climax: Babe’s internal struggles with writing the stories; how Deeds is laughed at by the big-city folk and how it affects him; and the growing relationship between Deeds and Babe.
When Deeds sweetly beckons the restaurant’s strolling violinist to cheer up Babe, her face softens just enough to see she’s already getting in over her head.
Moments later Deeds is thrilled at being invited to a table of famous “literati,” but his joy is dampened by the realization they only wanted to make fun of him. They would look out of place in his hometown, he tells them. “But no one would laugh at you and make you feel ridiculous – ‘cause that wouldn’t be good manners.”
When Babe gives him permission to “sock” the writers (a word he likes to use), he does just that and impresses her. You can see Babe is torn: she’s already smitten, but also sees her chance for a good story. The story wins out and they take off for a night on the town that becomes the first of many headlines: “Cinderella Man on Spree.”
And Deeds is on a spree – an emotional one – with Babe.
* * * * *
While the lawyers are conniving to get the fortune, Deeds and Babe spend more time together with the expected results. Deeds already wants to return to Mandrake Falls. “A man ought to know where he fits in and I don’t fit in around here,” he astutely tells Babe.
She then shares memories of her own small-town upbringing in a lovely little passage of dialogue:
“It’s a beautiful little town, too. A row of poplar trees right along Main Street. Always smelled as if it just had a bath.” (Every time I hear her say that line, I inhale trying to capture that scent.)
It seems neither one is where they belong.
Those memories seem to jolt Babe, who is tired of deceiving Deeds and decides to leave town. But Deeds arrives to take her on a walk in the fog where he gives her a poem. As Babe reads it aloud she realizes it’s a proposal and can barely keep her emotions in check.
From this point, the script moves fast. Before Babe can give him an answer the next day, Deeds learns she is the reporter behind the Cinderella Man stories and he is devastated. He prepares to leave when a despondent (and hungry) farmer shows up at his home and pulls a gun. Feeding the distraught man, Deeds devises a plan to give his money to farmers. (The themes of hunger, unemployment and desperation mirrored the social issues of the times.)
With thousands of farmers lined up at his house to apply for the money, Deeds’ former lawyers, now desperate, have him arrested on an “insanity warrant.” This final deception is too much to bear and Deeds gives up, refusing to defend himself or hire a lawyer for court. The lawyers pull out all the stops, turning many of Deeds sweet gestures against him – from his tuba playing, to feeding a horse doughnuts and even getting the gentile Faulkner sisters from Mandrake Falls to tell the court how Deeds is “pixilated” or a bit daffy. “He walks in the rain, without his hat, and talks to himself,” one gives as proof.
At this emotional crux of the film, we’re all in with the characters. We sense the crushing hopelessness of Deeds, who is worn down by betrayal. We feel the urgency of his assistant Cobb (played by Lionel Stander, in the film’s best supporting role) urging him to fight. And we feel the desperation of Babe who knows she has helped put Deeds in this terrible spot. (Deeds’ hopelessness is echoed in a mob scene in “Meet John Doe,” where Riskin’s similarly dejected John Doe has also given up.)
When Riskin finally has Deeds stand up for himself, it’s in a way that’s true to the character: quietly, with an understated sense of humor and a lot of common sense. “If a man’s crazy just ’cause he plays the tuba, then somebody better look into it, ’cause there are a lot of tuba players running around loose,” Deeds says.
Amen to that.
It’s been 83 years since “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” was released, yet its social themes and concern for the individual remain as important and topical as ever. Many of Riskin’s words can be quoted today and, in fact, have been used in the political world. President Ronald Regan once famously quoted Deeds in a 1981 speech.
My favorite Deedism that would serve anyone’s life well to remember is when he tells Babe that people in the big city “work so hard at living, they forgot how to live.”
One thing we know for sure after getting to know Riskin’s Longfellow Deeds: We could all benefit from being a little pixilated at times.