Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, is a quiet bachelor who writes rhymes for birthday cards and plays the tuba for concentration. Informed that he has inherited twenty million dollars, he goes to New York City to collect it.
Swarms of people come after him to try to get some of the money, but the only one he will talk to is Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), who attracts his attention by fainting. She tells him she is an unemployed secretary, but in reality she is a tough journalist out for a good story. He has a lot of fun feeding doughnuts to hungry cab horses and chasing fire engines.
When some snooty poets make fun of his rhymes, Deeds says, “I know I must look funny to you. Maybe if you came to Mandrake Falls, you’d look just as funny to us…. But nobody’d laugh at you and make you ridiculous-’cause that wouldn’t be good manners.” He tells Bennett his impressions of the city, explaining that the wealthy people in New York “work so hard at living, they forget how to live … They’ve created a lot of grand palaces, but they forgot about the noblemen to put in them.”
Bennett writes a newspaper story making fun of him, calling him “The Cinderella man,” and he becomes a figure of ridicule. But she realizes she has fallen in love with him, with his innate goodness and sincerity and his ability to have fun.
Heartbroken by her betrayal, and disgusted with life as a wealthy man, Deeds makes plans to give the money away to help poor farmers. But unscrupulous relatives take him to court, arguing he is not competent and they should have control of the money. He is too miserable to defend himself. But Bennett persuades him that she loves him and he must try. And the judge concludes, “In my opinion, you are not only sane, you are the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom.”
This is one of Frank Capra’s populist classics, and its Depression-era sensibility is still appealing. Finding meaning in life through helping others is well-presented, as are the issues of what makes people important (Deeds says, “All famous people aren’t big people”). The public policy issue of how much help we give to those “who can’t make the hill on high” is something teenagers with an interest in politics might like to pursue.
The issue of the role of the press is even timelier now, as public figures and even private ones are considered fair game.
More important, and more relevant to young people, especially teenagers, is the issue of cynicism as a mode of approaching the world. Bennett says, “He’s got a lot of goodness, Mabel. Do you know what that means? No, of course you don’t. We’ve forgotten. We’re all too busy being smart alecks.” That’s a good description of teenagers who put on a cynical demeanor to protect themselves from being vulnerable.
A thoughtful journalist once said that a reporter’s responsibility was to be skeptical without being cynical, and that statement is a good way to open a discussion of this issue. Deeds’s statement that “It’s easy to make fun of someone if you don’t care how much you hurt ‘em” is also something for kids to think about.
It is also worthwhile to consider how the same facts can be interpreted differently. Deeds plays the tuba, feeds doughnuts to horses, and wants to give money away. Those actions can be seen as foolish (as portrayed in Bennett’s newspaper), crazy (as portrayed by the lawyer), or endearing (as portrayed by Cooper and Capra). What does that tell us about being careful to challenge “spin”?
Families who see this movie should talk about Why Babe Bennett’s editor wanted her to make fun of Deeds. What do you do to help you concentrate? If Mr. Deeds inherited the money today, what group do you think he would give it to? What would you do if you inherited twenty million dollars?
This movie popularized two words: “doodle” and “pixilated.” As Deeds points out, doodling is highly individual. A dreadful 2002 remake starring Adam Sandler is not worth watching.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take it With You, also Capra classics. Let the kids “doodle” while watching the movie, and see what they come up with. They might also like to try making up some words of their own.