Get Outta Town: The Charm of Naturalness in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”

Is “complicated” a word you would use to describe your life? How about “hectic”? “Crazy busy”? When we use these descriptives, they suggest that we’d rather be using other words to describe our lives, like “simple”, “exciting”, or “care-free”. How do we make that a reality? How can we lead more simple lives that don’t feel borderline insane?

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No doubt you have heard about Mr. Deeds (2002), the Adam Sandler film which you thoroughly enjoyed if you’re a dude, or which your younger brother thoroughly enjoyed if you’re a girl (if you’re a girl AND you enjoyed this film, you’re a diamond in the rough). It’s the story of a country bumpkin named Longfellow Deeds who leaves his cozy life in middle-of-nowhere, Vermont – which is the same, I guess, as the middle-of-anywhere, Vermont – to inherit the fortune left by his recently dead uncle. Classic story of a small town boy’s experience in the big city, right? Probably a remake of some film from the forties, right? Yes, and yes (well, 1936…close enough), but there’s more to it. The other day I watched the original Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, directed by none other than the legendary Frank Capra, and I learned that the story of the tuba-playing poet-turned-millionaire is actually about a lot of things. Who knew? Remove Sandler’s antics, and there are truly life-changing themes to be seen at the heart of this tale. One theme is how simple living is closely connected with honest living and the naturalness that can only come from a clean conscience.

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Martin Semple the millionaire dies unexpectedly, and the conniving Mr. Cedar is the attorney charged with locating the familial heir to Semple’s millions. When Mr. Cedar and his minions first meet Longfellow Deeds, Semple’s nephew, they are shocked to find how childlike he is. They tell him of the twenty million dollars he has recently obtained…and Deeds hardly bats an eye. The money concerns him little; more pressing is the question of who will play lead tuba for the Mandrake Falls band when he goes to “town”. While his new city “friends” scheme how to win a fortune from this so-called man-child, Deeds’ attentive affection towards people rather than money or power wins us over immediately.

However, Deeds is not as naive as Mr. Cedar and company believe him to be. In fact, it may be more accurate to attribute the behavior of Deeds to a childlike imagination and innocence rather than naivete. With each seemingly idiotic deed – like feeding donuts to a horse until it “asks for coffee”; tagging along with city firemen in case they need another hand; proposing to a sly news reporter who is actually out to ruin him; and finally, giving away his fortune – Deeds’ antagonists hold his innocence in more and more contempt. Eventually, their contempt grows into a maddening desire to prove that only an insane simpleton would give away so much money to strangers. For this incomprehensible act of charity, Deeds is brought to court, where the prosecutor provides numerous reasons like those mentioned above to support the claim that Deeds is certifiably insane. Rejected by both the news reporter and the people of the city, Deeds’ breaking heart can offer no defense – initially, anyway. However, men like him don’t meet their ends in defeat. As one wise person boldly proclaims, Deeds may actually be the sanest person in that courtroom. But I don’t want to spoil anything for first-timers!

As the film reaches its climax, some may recall G.K. Chesterton‘s words on the poet who is thought crazy for having his “head in the clouds”. Yet, G.K. says, it is the logician (read “schemer”) who, trying to fit the clouds into his head, actually goes mad. The complex weaves and plotting of Deeds’ accusers leave them utterly bamboozled; those who let Deeds reteach them how to see things with childlike wonder and simplicity rediscover the beauty of naturalness: Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Be kind, be honest, be courteous (especially to women). The crooked and the unnatural, who seek always to take, turn, and twist a person into a profit, will end up entangled in their own tricks and go mad. Those who strive to be straight-shooters will walk a straight road will arrive at their desired destinations (with their heads on straight, too).

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) does not emphasize the slapstick humor which propels the comedy in the remake. If that’s what you want to see, then by all means, watch the newer version and enjoy the hay out of it. I always do. My point is, even though we don’t get to see Gary Cooper careen through the air and then crash onto a tabletop after giving the ol’ slide-down-the-mile-long-staircase-banister maneuver a try, Capra does deliver what really counts. The story of Mr. Deeds, after all, is not ultimately about the escapades of a lovable buffoon, part Forrest Gump, part Bob Wiley. It’s about an ordinary, simple man who is able to change the hearts of many – not with money, wit, or strategy, but with honesty, simplicity, and the wholesome charm of naturalness. Capra’s original black n’ white version shows us that kind of wisdom without any distractions. So dig out your old copy, dust it off, and give it second try. If you don’t have it, let me know. You can borrow mine.

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