In the 1936 film Mr Deeds Goes to Town the eponymous character, Longfellow Deeds, is a small town poet who inherits 20 million dollars from his distant uncle. The solicitors responsible for the money arrive in Mandrake Falls to inform Mr Deeds of his new fortune. Immediately we understand that Mr Deeds does not share the same values as the city solicitors who are surprised, and a little exasperated, at his apparent disinterest in the news. ‘Why do I need 20 million dollars?’ says Deeds, satisfied with his life in the small town community. The solicitors don’t understand, setting the pattern for a comedy of misunderstanding.
We, the audience, know that Mr. Deeds is not stupid, while those around him presume that he is. Having moved to the city to take up his new responsibilities we see that his ways of responding to situations are often at odds with the normal functioning of that milieu. One of his responsibilities is to meet with people asking for money. The opera committee, for example, expect that a country poet will be a pushover in their efforts to secure funding for the year ahead. He tells them he likes music. He plays the tuba. They all smirk at one another, hardly suppressing their luck at finding such a sap. A ‘patron of the arts like your uncle’, they tease him. But when Deeds hears that they don’t make any money he makes it clear that he will not invest anything of his own fortune in the opera, even if it is ‘for higher reasons’. The overweight men are frustrated, not so much by his refusal, it seems, but by his insight.
All this while, as Deeds bats one flatterer off another, it is clear that we are not just witnessing a simple case of an ‘innocent’ revealing the taken for granted and problematic relations of wealthy, urban society. Deeds is not innocent. He responds to situations because he thinks about them, not because of some quaint beliefs that he has translated to New York. Unlike in other stories where the ‘innocent’ show up the ‘enlightened’ through some vague sincerity Mr Deeds reveals situations, frustrates people, obstructs the normal functioning of society through his capacity to understand what is happening and respond to it.
At the restaurant he is invited over to a table where several famous writers are sitting. Deeds knows who they are and had asked the waiter to elicit the introduction. Deeds writes poems but only for postcards: short, sentimental lyrics. The writers pour Deeds some wine and begin to patronise, smiling at each other and winking. After only a few exchanges Deeds becomes aware of what is happening. He pulls his seat back from the table and addresses the table. He rejects their behaviour and while allowing that he might not be as accomplished in his writing asserts that he has appreciation for verse and that, he argues, is enough. After this small speech he punches two of them. A small brawl erupts as the restaurant is thrown into chaos. Out of the melee one of the writers, so drunk he can hardly stand, approaches Deeds to apologise. He declares Deeds’ act of protest one of the best pieces of drama he has seen in years and congratulates him. He invites Deeds to a night on the town as his guests.
This violence seems to contradict the presentation of a man who is reasonable. Such violence is extreme in any situation. But Deeds justifies his fists as necessary, something that arises at various points in the film. At times when he is not listened to, or can’t possibly be understood because of how he is received by the unjust sensibilities of his antagonists, he is forced to resort to something that will be understood unequivocally. Where people do not accept what he is saying, do not accept him as speaking reasonably and intelligently (the writers continue to laugh even as his heartfelt speech is being uttered) he can only resort to violence. Sometimes speaking is not enough to convince someone because it is simply not heard.
Even while we see Deeds as a hero, as a voice of reason and truth amidst the cynicism and smugness of the city, he continues to be presented to the public, and the public receive him, as a ‘Cinderella man’, as a country man made good. But some people around him begin to be infected by his sensibility. This is the (impossible) struggle at the heart of the film, the struggle between a situation that possesses people and a single person or event that can somehow possess that situation and so break it down. On one side Deeds is demoralised and undermined by the taunts and representations of his eccentricity in the media. He is prevented from doing what he wants, how he wants. The money is a burden stealing his time away. He is wanted by everybody. As in Don Quixote the world refuses to allow that Deeds’ way of acting and speaking is anything but naivety and delusion. As time wears on he is subject to the machinations of this cynicism. Like the barber and the curate the greedy solicitors plot the downfall of Deeds, not forcing him into their own sensibility but by turning the world against his. Ultimately the film turns on whether they can prove he is insane, and thus incapable of managing his own affairs, including the money he has inherited.
Babs Bennett, who at the beginning of the film is the exemplar of the conniving, selfish individualist, conning Deeds into thinking she was seduced by him, is slowly brought into his joyful, naïve world. She tells him on a park bench, after they have accompanied one another in playing their imaginary instruments, her on the drums and he playing the tuba, that he reminds her of his father and the games she played as a child. Other characters, those who spend time with him and have, in their own way, nothing to lose, become interpolated in a similar way, infected with his humour and idiosyncrasies. And of course the audience is drawn in. As in other Kapra films (I am told) the film presents the struggle between the individual, or the singular challenge, and the powers that be, the institutions and laws that function to prevent the disruptive force of subjective desires. At one point, in the midst of the struggle, Babs says to her sister: ‘I don’t know if he’s the greatest man I’ve known or the stupidest’. So always is the battle of hope against pragmatism.
The film reaches a climax over the issue of money. Up until this point Deeds has done what he wants with relative impunity (he gets drunk and dances in the streets naked, feeds donuts to a donkey and kicks a party of esteemed guests out of his house because he doesn’t like them). But the minute he attempts to do something radical with his money the vested interests intervene.
Already disillusioned with the world, and after discovering the lies of his beloved Bennett, Deeds is confronted with a desperate farmer who forces his way into his house. The man is distraught at what he has heard of this ‘Cinderella man’ frittering away his money while communities are strung out with nothing to eat. He waves a gun at Deeds’ and then collapses. Deeds is struck. He has a dinner made and watches the man stuff his whiskered mouth with dirty hands while he sits in his dressing gown with a thoughtful look. Deeds decides to give away his money to farmers. The city goes into a frenzy (newspapers swirl onto the screen with the dramatic news). Hundreds of people from the country fill the lawns of the house desperate to be part of the programme of poor relief. Deeds sits at a desk administering the money himself. Suddenly 20 million seems paltry.
It is 1936, the Great Depression. Where once the free pursuit of individual profit had been the basis of social and economic democracy, that greed was now the evil that democracy had to fight against. Germany and Russia got their own forms of state control (National Socialism and State Socialism), with their own consequences. In America they got the New Deal, an unprecedented extension of government into the fabric of social and ecological life. As the state became the defender of the market the people were, as always, represented as both victims and perpetrators: the greed that caused the problem and now the beggars than required help. Philanthropy appeared in this hiatus. The hordes of starving people were offered social welfare in the form of soup and bread at food depots that cropped up on scoured land and slum tracks.
Revealing the radical new world of welfare Deeds is brought to court on the accusation that he could not possibly be of reasonable mind if he was giving away his money. He is kept in a hospital until the court opens. He refuses to speak- no reason is given but the confusion of events, the final frustration of his simple, heartfelt gesture seem to combine to make him mute (exactly a century earlier another rural poet, John Clare, was introduced to the city and soon found himself locked up in an asylum in Epping Forest). The court scene is by far the longest in the film. Two contrasting elements make it significant.
The courtroom is mostly filled with those same farmers who are benefitting from Deeds’ generosity. While it appears they respect and appreciate him as a man it is also true they will get no money if he is put back in the hospital. What is significant is that this group of people, combined with the characters we have been convinced of Deeds’ honesty and reason, are all aware of his innocence. Indeed it is made to be understood in various ways that everyone, even the judges, realise that the solicitors who have brought the case are making their claim solely so that they can keep their hands on the money. It is in this context that the judge is forced to call order a remarkable number of times. At least seven times he tells the unruly courtroom (unruly because of their sense of injustice) that they must remain quiet otherwise the court will be suspended. When people try to make their voice heard, their passionate pleas, they are told to be quiet and ‘wait their turn’. Even when it is made clear by the person wishing to have their say that they have not been called as witnesses and thus have no ‘turn’ the judge silences them. The injustice of the system, the silenced voice of the people, is made abundantly clear. At all times, rippling under the surface of this performance, the roles of judge, defendant, witness and courtroom, is the possibility of an imminent riot.
But finally Deeds is galvanised into explaining and defending his position, of, presumably, speaking in the name of justice and freedom. Firstly, he rejects the accusations of the solicitors and the ‘expert witness’ (a doctor trained in the disease of manic depression) by going through each accusation. He makes it evident that while they have accurately described his various eccentric ‘habits’ that does not mean he is different to anyone else. Everyone else does strange things, he says, including the doctor who it turns out doodles strange pictures on his note pad. Rather than deny his insanity he excuses it. He then turns to the question of the money. He tells a familiar story.
“From what I can see, no matter what system of government we have, there will always be leaders and always be followers. It’s like the road out in front of my house. It’s on a steep hill. Every day I watch the cars 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 fellas 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 fellas who can’t make the hill on high.”
The parable is clear to everyone. It is at once rabble-rousing, a victory for democracy, and at the same time deeply conservative. At once the discipline of medicine (the claims of insanity) and the power of money (the solicitors) appear to be turned over in the face of individual freedom yet at the same time these two phenomena are presented as being ‘natural’. Deeds’ defence makes no claim for a positive alternative (one, for example, where there are no divisions between rich and poor, insane and sane) because his argument is derived from a set of contingent relations between the past and the present (this is justified because of that, this makes sense because of that) presented as universal.
There was a moment (only one) when the ‘naturalness’ of inequality was bucked. As Deeds works tirelessly on processing the applications for those in need he is asked by his personal adviser whether he wants a sandwich. He reluctantly says yes and then realises that he must also offer one to the assembled masses. He orders the kitchen to make sandwiches for everyone. But at that moment the elderly German labourer in ragged clothes that stands immediately before him pulls a sandwich from his coat and tells Deeds he can have it. Deeds accepts. For a moment the relationship is reversed: giver and receiver, hero and victim.
This moment is forgotten by the time Deeds arrives in the courtroom (perhaps they knocked it out of him in the hospital). But more than just that moment he seems to have forgotten his own experience of injustice. When Deeds arrived in New York we saw his frustration was not from being incapable but of being perceived as being incapable. When he was at dinner with the writers he did not presume to be as well practiced in poetry as they were but he did expect to be treated as an equal, someone who can talk about things in a reasonable way. His decision to punch them arose from this frustration. They will not hear him unless he does something that upsets their sense of right. This is evident when he is congratulated for ‘showing them up’.
In the court scene we see the people straining towards something similar. We see the injustice of a system that will not let the people speak. Even though an injustice is being carried out right before our eyes (of the audience in the cinema and in the court) the system prevents it from being addressed- there are ways of behaving that must be maintained. Unlike in the scenes where Deeds was shown to break the normality of the situation by precisely acting beyond the limits of what was normal in that situation, by ‘speaking up’, the judge persistently silenced the crowd and the crowd obliged. A collective decision by the people to realise justice by breaking the boundary between the audience and the judge and speaking for themselves (rather than the rules and codes that ‘represent’ them) never happens. Instead Deeds offers a speech that reinforces this very order, this very distribution of roles between the people and the powers that be. He tells the story of every government system, the story of the three classes, of those who can and those who cannot, the story of the natural order of things in which equality is only a naïve, utopian or nihilistic principle. In ‘reality’ some are more capable than others and those some must help the poor. Most strange in this scene is the incongruence of Deeds’ properly rational speech, the confirmation of an order of inequality, and his final act. The Judge asks him if he has anything else to say. Deeds punches the lead solicitor. For the first time in the film his fists are completely unjustified. The judge, concerned throughout the scene for order in the court, ignores the act as if nothing has happened. Because nothing did happen. The Judge’s verdict: ‘Mr Deeds’ is the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom’.
Deeds finished his speech by telling the court what he planned do with his money. It was enough, he says, to buy 80 farms of ten acres each with a cow, a horse and some seeds. In the rapturous aftermath the audience (once again the courtroom and those in the cinema) don’t ask about the hundreds of other people that were queuing outside his house. There were far more than 80 people- even he seemed relieved when he was arrested and the straining mass of monosyllabic farmers were no longer breathing down his neck. This point is made in another way: despite being the hero Deeds never escapes his role as the ‘idiot’: he will always be an innocent from a country town, unless, of course, he becomes a cynic. In the same way the farmers, represented for the most part as animal-like, will continue to scrap and starve, waiting for crumbs to fall from the table above them, the unattainable plane of equality.
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