Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a movie by Frank Capra, Gary Cooper plays Longfellow Deeds, a country bumpkin living in a small town called Mandrake Falls.  He is surprised to find that he has inherited a lot of money, and he is not sure what to do with it all.  He goes to New York, where the executor of the estate, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), schemes to get his hands on the money to cover some malversation on his part.   Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) is a reporter who wants to write a series of stories about what a hick Deeds is.   She tricks him into falling in love with her by pretending to be a damsel in distress, allowing her to get the inside information she needs.

Eventually, Deeds decides to help people who have become homeless during the Great Depression by giving them land to farm.  To prevent the money from being given away in this fashion, Cedar cuts a deal with a relative of Deeds to have him declared mentally incompetent.  At the same time, Deeds finds out that Babe has deceived him.  He becomes so depressed as a result that he refuses to defend himself at the sanity hearing that will determine whether he should be kept in a mental institution.

During that hearing, a psychiatrist explains the difference between the mood swings of a normal person, which are confined to a narrow range, and those of a manic-depressive, which lurch from one extreme to another. This is the one part of the movie that actually makes sense and is realistic. Furthermore, it is a correct diagnosis.

If a normal person inherited a $20,000,000 fortune, which would be over $300,000,000 adjusted for inflation, he might give a portion of it to charity, but he would never give it all away, even if he were perfectly happy before he got the inheritance. But that is what manic-depressives do when they are in their manic phase. They’ll pick up a hitchhiker and give him the car.

Furthermore, if a normal person were placed in a mental institution against his will by people trying to get possession of his money, he would get a lawyer and defend himself. He would not sit there listlessly at his own hearing, refusing to utter a word, even if he were despondent on account of his having been betrayed by a lover. Only a manic-depressive, in one of his extreme states of melancholy, could reach a state of depression so dark that he would not care if he were institutionalized for the rest of his life.

But we are supposed to reject this diagnosis on the part of the psychiatrist. Instead, we are supposed to think of Deeds as a saint, someone who is too good for this world, whose despondency is the result of being overwhelmed by a realization of how evil other people are. However, even though the diagnosis is correct, that in itself would be no reason to confine someone to a mental institution. The lawyer representing Deeds’ relatives, who want to get possession of the fortune, argues that Deeds needs to be locked up because his scheme to give all his money away to needy farmers threatens to cause civil unrest and undermine the very foundations of our nation. That is preposterous, and no court would take such an argument seriously. Deeds’ excessive philanthropy might be a justification for having a court-appointed fiduciary take control of the inherited fortune for Deeds’ protection, although I doubt it. But it would be in no way a reason for locking someone up in an insane asylum.

On the other hand, what would justify Deeds’ being institutionalized gets very little attention, which is that he routinely assaults people: two poets in a restaurant, a psychiatrist (in a scene we only hear about), the lawyer opposing him at the hearing, and possibly an operatic diva (in another scene we only hear about). Now, anyone who goes around punching people is either going to be arrested and put in prison or confined to a mental institution for the criminally insane. But even though the judge at the hearing witnesses one of those assaults, he seems untroubled by it.

Eventually, Babe convinces Deeds that she really loves him, which inspires Deeds to defend himself, resulting in his being declared sane, allowing him and Babe to live happily ever after.

Suffice it to say that much in this movie is totally unrealistic. The real question is, What is it about this movie that people find appealing? We are not like Longfellow Deeds, nor would we want to be like him, nor would we want to live where he did, in Mandrake Falls. He is a virginal bachelor who never married because he dreamt of saving a lady in distress, a naïve yokel living in a small town, where everyone seems a little dotty. Apparently, people like the idea that there are places like Mandrake Falls, even though they would not like to live there themselves; and they like the idea that people like Longfellow Deeds live in towns like that, even though they have no desire to be like him, or even to be around someone like that for very long.

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