Friday, December 24, 2010
A Change of Heart for Everyone: Frank Capra’s Cinderella Men
Both Platinum Blonde and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town are portraits of men dealing with profound changes in their lives through new and unexpected wealth. Stew Smith’s rapid and successful courtship of Anne Schuyler is sincere enough, but the earlier Capra character is certainly not above opportunism. He is intelligent and on the make. When Smith refers to how lucky he is in the speakeasy, he’s talking about the money, not necessarily the dame. However, the fact that Jean Harlow is hot is certainly a bonus. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town presents a simpler character with a much more ambitious theme and message. The goodness and sincerity of Deeds is placed in marked contrast to a corrupt urban environment, one whose values and behaviors are unquestioned by its denizens. With a Socratic questioning that is both childlike in its sincerity and violent in its manly rage, Deeds’ character holds up a mirror to the vapid materialism and accepted human destruction of New York City, and possibly of the nation as well. The aggressive capitalism, which has failed its society in the Depression, and the daily blood sport of the media set the tone in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and it’s Deeds job to change it. Capra’s thematic ambition has clearly grown significantly since Platinum Blonde. Money doesn’t solve your problems; this message is abundantly clear in both films. In the first movie, the conversion of one man is portrayed through smaller, more intimate scenes that convey his awakening—his eventual declaration of independence from the Schuylers’. The evolution in Capra’s art is most notable in the powerful depiction of group dynamics, reactions, and interactions that culminates in the courtroom scene. The sense of conversion is directed more broadly, and boldly, towards all of the characters, both major and minor. In this skillful emotional manipulation of the masses by Capra, in ways that are both obvious and subtle, the audience is included in the intended reactions of the collective, the community of characters at the end of the film--a possible new beginning for human society. Their conversion is intended to be the conversion of the audience as well.
Capra is clearly smitten with the idea of a “Cinderella Man.” It has a nice, catchy ring to it, though neither character wants to be compared to Cinderella. Neither character wants to be compared to a girl who becomes a princess, however graceful and beautiful. On one level, which is largely unexplored in the movies, this is a statement about gender. But for Capra, it is rather an accessible way to explore issues of wealth and class, though the issue of “who wears the pants” is explicit, and important, in Platinum Blonde. But Capra is focusing on caste, not gender studies. Here is a man who begins the introduction to his autobiography with the confession: “I hated being poor” (Capra xix). But the autobiography reveals a man that is less obsessed with wealth than he is yearning for freedom from class altogether: “I wanted freedom from established caste systems; and from where I took life’s jolts on the chin, freedom could only be won by success” (Capra 93). The director wants to fly. But Capra, Deeds, and Smith don’t want wealth or notoriety the same way that Cinderella got it. They want to be independent as men, and whatever place they have in the world, be it in New York City or Mandrake Falls or Hollywood, is theirs because they have earned it by their own merits. They earned the main chance, or they don’t want the prize.
The central cinematic problem in both movies is, superficially, quite similar. In Platinum Blonde, Capra shows the changes in Smith as he becomes part of the world of wealth and privilege through marriage. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the character of Longfellow Deeds doesn’t change except to fall in love, though there are many scenes on comedy and conflict as he struggles with his new life from a surprise inheritance. The exploration of their respective mansions has great similarity in both movies, even overlapping in the repetition of the echo scene in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Stew Smith is changed by his new world, and he gradually understands that he has lost himself, and his independence. Deeds is steadfast in his goodness and moral compass, and the resolve of this character changes others around him significantly. The singular change of heart of one man is expanded to the mass conversion in the later film. Capra will uses similar techniques in both films, but his confidence and skill with group interactions takes Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to an entirely different level, both artistically and thematically. In Platinum Blonde, Capra more than makes due with what Harry Cohn has given him in terms of cast and budget. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, there is the palpable sense that Frank Capra is calling all the shots; he has every cast member exactly where he wants them. He is the master of his cinematic domain.
In contrast to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, there is a recurring reticence in developing larger scenes in Platinum Blonde. Though there are two large receptions in Platinum Blonde, along with the party mayhem, the audience does not linger in any of these scenes. Instead the director hurries us along to a more private space for his actors. No character development takes place during these expansive group scenes, aside from giving us a realistic, albeit brief, vision of the rich and famous. Capra is eager to take us away from the maddening crowd to develop his characters more intimately. In the first ballroom scene, the real intent is the fountain shot between Smith and Schuyler. The scene is obviously romantic and dreamy, but the fountain both adds to the romance and calls too much attention to itself. What would these characters be without the perfect setting and the flowing fountain? Could their love really exist anywhere else? Smith initially imagines their love can go anywhere, but instead he gets more and more confined to his gilded cage. In the second ballroom reception for the social register, the Spanish ambassador seems quite important on first inspection. He is shot from an angle where we look up to him as a bearded personage of great dignity and authority. He is imposing and austere, and then completely ignored. He doesn’t matter. In this reception, we enter the ballroom at the level of a participant, as if we are one of the special people, but then Capra really wants to get us outside to be alone with Smith and Gallagher. Smith can’t get over her dress; his hands are ever floating above it. This is her scene, not the ambassador’s; it needs a more private space, an individual ambience. The glamour of Gallagher is finally, fully on display, and Schuyler immediately knows that she has a competitor, a wolf at the door. Gallagher is the real and glamorous Cinderella of the movie, which is obvious to everyone but Smith. Despite her beauty, Anne Schuyler here seems more like the vulgar and uncouth step sisters from the fairy tale.
There are many scenes in the films where power and wealth are portrayed by characters being on different levels, and Anne Schuyler appears ominously above them at the second reception. There is not enough privacy at the Schuyler mansion. The amount of time it takes for Gallagher and Smith to ascend to Schuyler shows the difference between Cinderella and one who has been born to the manor. As Smith is finally seeing the beauty in Gallagher that has been around him all the time, the dawning realization that life might be better on the ground is presented in the slow, almost tedious, ascent to his rich princess. These glamorous scenes of hierarchy are contrasted with the speakeasy culture, the casual and beaten world of the low. Smith and Gallagher are filmed at waist level, the camera looking up to their faces when they first enter the speakeasy, thereby setting up a symbolic opposition of high and low culture through simple camera angles. The reversals of high and low are also effectively rendered in the film. First Smith is lower than others in the early scenes at the Schuyler mansion, but later he is the character upstairs looking down at the socialite stooges in the drawing room. Capra uses these scenes to comic effect with the repetitive bowing by Smith and Grayson, but they also have a serious message. When Smith is finally above, he hasn’t really changed as man. Or rather, he has changed in the wrong ways by betraying his values. It’s just a different point of view; nothing is really changed because of wealth. Even though he has risen to another level economically, Smith still has problems—more than he ever had before in his old life.
In Platinum Blonde, Capra needs to get away from the large scenes to a more personal space to develop Smith and how his feelings about his new life are changing drastically. The simultaneous development of a major character and large scenes comes to fruition in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. In the earlier effort, the limit for Capra is really the drawing room interactions that contrast the reporter so incisively with the Schuylers, Grayson, and their servants. This intimacy is a significant strength with Robert Williams as Stew Smith. The feeling in the drawing room is that of an improve actor who has thrown away the script, and the other characters don’t quite know how to react to his zany realism in their face. His versatile intelligence and ranging humor sets the others on obvious edge, and he attracts the amorous attention of Anne Schuyler, though he has the power to resist her wiles initially. With concerted effort, he can still think clearly and write the story the family doesn’t want to see in the papers. But he has caught her eye, and he is willing to be caught in a future trap set by the wealthy vixen. Despite the two Hollywood babes around Stewart Smith, it is hard to take your eyes off Robert Williams in Platinum Blonde. The removal of important scenes of story development is also very effective is Platinum Blonde. He becomes aware that he is something of a sellout through the progressing scenes at the Schuyler mansion, but Smith also effectively sells out through the scenes that Capra has taken out, or rather the ones the director never shot. Capra develops the story by these essential ellipses; he doesn’t show us Smith moving into the mansion instead of Schuyler moving in with him. He doesn’t show us Smith caving in by wearing the emasculating garters. In the smaller scenes, and in the missing ones, Capra develops his character and his story of an increasingly unhappy Cinderella man facing the chop chop of female authority. His awakening makes perfect sense, in the nick of time. The bird in the cage will eventually try to escape, and Capra puts his audience ahead of the character, but not ahead of the movie.
The drawing room is the maximum limit for Capra’s comfort zone in Platinum Blonde. When the scenes get smaller, Capra is even more effective with Smith, and with Schuyler. The tie pulling scene between the newlyweds is initially playful, and even sexual. There is the suggestion that he needs a better tie, and the pulling becomes less romantic and more of a struggle for power, and control, between them. Their singing together is a notable example when Capra uses music to disturb unity, rather than to bring people together. The scene is unsettling rather than cute, which it was in its incipient playful tone; it becomes more haunting than comic. We are pulled in by their initial wooing, but the tie tug of war becomes an omen of emasculation. The tie is going to be snipped. The male Cinderella character really does have something to fear in this house, and the clock striking midnight starts to seem like a pretty good thing for Stew Smith, the erstwhile Cinderella Man.
From Platinum Blonde to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, there is a big step forward in Capra’s ability to portray women with dramatic conflicts. Is Smith blind or merely stupid when it comes to Gallagher? One really has to wonder. Gallagher isn’t Princess in Broadway Bill; she is perfectly available. The very feminine Loretta Young is also not one of the boys, but Smith’s attitude towards her is consistently contrary to how she appears in the movie. It doesn’t quite work, though it certainly builds dramatic tension. But the complexity of Louise Bennett’s situation, both professionally and emotionally, is absolutely believable. Even though there are newsroom scenes, as in Platinum Blonde, Babe Bennett is never one of the boys. She is a girl from the very beginning, which is how she gets the Deeds assignment from Mac, her editor. Bennett allows the city, and the audience, to make fun of Deeds through her reporting of the Cinderella sap from the small town. She provides the jokes and the punch lines. Yet she is deeply sympathetic, and sweetly vulnerable, as a female character. Louise Bennett’s character is vitally important in this film; she is the first cinematic cue for the changes in other characters in response to Longfellow Deeds. If we don’t believe in her, and her reactions to Deeds, we can’t believe in anything else in the movie. It stops here. Deeds never really changes in the film; the other characters rather change around his moral example. He converts the world around him, slowly, personally, then en masse at his insanity hearing. This can only work because the first character, the one who knows him the best, begins to feel that she was wrong about him, and quite in the wrong for what she has done to him. She falls deeply in love with the Vermont sap, the rural “rain man.” The more this movie is considered seriously, which it should be, the more the film’s import should be about Louise than it is about Longfellow. This is no criticism of Gary Cooper, who is absolutely perfect in this role. Few others could play it so convincingly. But the mass conversion to the great virtue represented by Deeds is no easy trick to portray without being preachy and heavy-handed in the delivery of the humanitarian message. It would be hard to believe without Cooper. But it really begins with the first domino of true love; the conversion begins with passion, not ethics. Louise is anything but true, or truthful, at the beginning of the film. Bennett is a woman who knows how the world works; she knows the ropes. Capra presents a female character who is sympathetic and yet devious at the same time—both from the beginning. As with Cooper, a different cast would have made this much more difficult, but Jean Arthur could look innocent, and sincere, while playing a prostitute. She could make Eva Braun look a nice girl from Iowa.
The intimacy of smaller scenes that Capra used in Platinum Blonde is here used effectively to develop Deeds’ love interest. Louise’s deepening conflict with her own heart, and against what she has accepted to be true about the cruelty and caprice of the world, comes through in the private scenes with Deeds. While Deeds pours out his heart to his “lady in distress,” Louise looks more and more in actual pain. When she reads one of his homey poems, the one written for her, it is all too much to bear. His goodness is breaking her heart, and it’s hard not to buy it. Even if Deeds isn’t your cup of tea, it’s hard not to believe in his effects on the formerly hardboiled female journalist. She is the cue for the audience that Deeds is the genuine article. Her conflict is presented in how often she avoids eye contact with Deeds. When they have their sappy musical interlude, she is turned away from him, possibly trying to escape his sincerity. When they talk on the phone, Deeds can’t see her conflicted response, but the audience can see her. When Deeds says that she is different from everyone else as he lies on his bed, she is completely convicted by his earnest belief in her goodness and inner beauty. In his world, she is the devil. The private spaces that Capra has so artfully developed are the same scenes that Babe Bennett has used to fundamentally betray the man that she now loves. She can no longer live the double life. But she will surely lose him if she tells the truth about herself.
The secondary important domino of conversion is Cornelius Cobb, who is not to be underestimated as a character. He is there for a reason. It is easy to forget him on first viewing, but he is vitally important in the film. The media consultant has more than a hint of the gangster about him, and Cobb has some of the funniest lines, and moments, in the film. In the story’s development in Mandrake Falls, Cobb is the greatest skeptic about Deeds and the small town atmosphere that produced him. Merely reading the town slogan, simply as it is, in his nasal New York accent, is quite funny as an introduction to the sleepy and forgettable village in Vermont. Cobb provides a comic urban relief from Deeds’ homespun wisdom and relentless goodness, and there is a grudging, and growing, respect for Deeds from the hardboiled Cobb as “lamb bites wolf.” When Cobb tells Louise that she has crucified the best person who ever came to New York, it is believable, and convicting, because Cobb has really gotten to know Deeds. His respect is the masculine equivalent of Louise’s love for him. In this relationship, the violence of Mr. Deeds actually works, though it wears thin as the film progresses. Cobb is a character who has most likely known some violence in his past. The dialectic of the small town and the big city is most direct in Deeds and Cobb, and Cobb changes instead of Deeds. Though there is a sense of whimsy, and even folly, about the character of Deeds, Cobb recognizes early on that Longfellow is anything but a fool. Both men see through people. Deeds cuts through the crap; so does Cobb. Cobb’s character does something important for Capra in his worldly and crass cynicism. Any potential rejection of Deeds as a character—that he is a sap or a fool or an imbecile—has already been voiced by others, including Cobb, and Bennett in her articles. In this way, Capra beats the audience to the punch about the Cinderella Man; then he has credible and engaging characters change their minds about Deeds. The movie voices our doubts directly. Even the possibility that Deeds is actually crazy becomes an actual trial, the climax of the movie, rather than an unspoken suspicion of the characters in the movie, or the more cynical members of the audience. Any doubts about Deeds are completely out in the open from the beginning. A vulnerable character would not survive such cinematic candor about him. Cobb and Bennett raise him up by their example. He works because they do.
The problem for Capra in Platinum Blonde is how to show the awakening in Stew Smith, one which culminates in his “declaration of independence” speech in the bedroom. The problem in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is how to show the moral awakening in everyone, moving towards a change of heart in the audience itself—how Capra wants the audience to feel about the deeds of his golden and yet ordinary hero. The proliferation of minor characters is the most notable advancement in the art of Capra from Platinum Blonde to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It makes the courtroom scene necessary to bring them all together, and his minor characters have a major impact. Even when Capra doesn’t give minor characters names, they can still be very memorable. The bodyguards and the photographers are examples of this, but the list of effective minor characters, which are developed both quickly and effectively, is quite long in the film. Even the smallest characters come back to the courtroom drama, such as the waiter in the restaurant where Deeds punches out the poets. Even the formerly unseen cop makes an appearance. The proliferation of minor characters is contrasted with only Benjy and Smythe in Platinum Blonde, though the more numerous servants in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town do not equal one Smythe. Since there are fewer characters in Platinum Blonde, it is much more noticeable when one is thrown away casually, as is the case with Michael the brother, who had potential in the film.
A key to how Capra and Robert Riskin are able to flesh out minor characters so economically is nakedly revealed in the courtroom scene itself. The psychological portrait of Deeds, and the psychological portraits by Deeds, reflects the intellectual and spiritual advancements of the director. Every minor character is connected to the psychological quirks and character signatures of the main character in how Deeds is shown to be crazy. So many people have witnessed his alleged insanity. The Faulkner sisters are unforgettable as minor characters, though we didn’t even meet them in Mandrake Falls the first time around. The many minor characters all bring a piece of what the audience knows about Deeds, and they assemble the many puzzle pieces of what Mr. Cedar is trying to prove about Longfellow Deeds—that he is insane. The childish silence of Deeds is hard to take, but it does add dramatic tension to the moment when Deeds does begin to speak in earnest. Here is where Deeds reveals what Capra has learned in the time from one film to the next. From the O filling, to the doodling, to the nose twitching, Deeds finally betrays his highly developed skills of psychological interpretation, his intelligence, and his infallible judgment and discernment about moral character. He understands human nature like the back of his hand. Deeds understands human complexity, so simply and directly. During the trial, when Deeds seemed to be mute and crazy, he has instead mastered the psychological quirks of the entire courtroom, including the judge. Deeds reveals his penetrating, and yet whimsical, understanding in a way that is believable to, and accessible to, everyone, completely turning the tables on the quack doctor from Europe. The simple sophistication of Deeds in this scene highlights his guileless heroism. It also shows us what Capra has learned about human nature, and how to put it in motion in a motion picture. The unnamed courtroom witness, possibly a psychiatrist himself, is now comically aware of his hands and doesn’t know what to do with them without being found out. He has more development in an instant than some of the major characters in Platinum Blonde. What should he do with his hands? What should we? The audience members can’t help but be aware of their own idiosyncrasies and signature twitches. The courtroom is blended with the theater. The innocent conviction of people for their quirks, like the intended conversion, is widespread. Everyone is catching it.
The insanity trial is a cinematic witness of mass conversion, though it is hard to imagine surviving an insanity hearing where you punch out the opposing attorney. That was hard to take seriously, but Capra couldn’t resist the “comic” punch in the nose, even though he clearly wants us to take something about the possibility of a character, and a story like this, very seriously. Watching the movie with an audience brings the viewer much closer to Capra’s intention with regard to group reactions and dynamics which have nothing to do with conformity. A viewer who is alone is more likely to be somewhat skeptical of the group reactions in the courtroom, especially Capra’s tendency to use the courtroom as his laugh track. But it was striking how closely the audience reactions during the screening mirrored the reactions of the people in the courtroom. There was, in fact, very little difference between them. For nearly every individual reaction shot in this scene, the audience knew something about that person. The minor characters were real people. The audience members were real characters.
In Platinum Blonde, Capra demonstrated an understanding that less can be more in a movie. The puttering scene with Smythe and Smith (an intentional similarity in name, no doubt) flows wonderfully out of his first exercise in echoes in a mansion. The effectiveness, and economy, of gesture in the puttering tutorial speaks silent volumes about the inability of Smith to ever master the idle life of the kept man. It is really hard to putter; not everyone can do it. Smythe knows it before Smith, a comical confirmation in the entry hall with grill work in the setting that makes it even look like a cage. The ending of the movie is also notable for a less is more success. The sweet coincidence of the still composing play, and the real action of the movie, both conclude with Smith kissing Gallagher, finally (what an idiot). It works well because it is so simple, yet it is complex conceptually as life imitates art (and vice versa at the same time). In this highly economical scene, the kiss sneaks up on the audience quickly, just like our farewell to these likable characters. The ending is light and just right.
In Mr. Deeds Goes to Down, Frank Capra shows that more can indeed be much more with the sophisticated development of group scenes where major and minor characters combine for greater dramatic effect in the climax of the movie. The goodness of Longfellow Deeds wins out in the end; everyone knows it. But the problem with messiahs is that not everyone buys this proposition in real life, and Capra actually endangers the humanity of some of his heroes by making them too good, and the world too simplistically bad. This problem becomes more serious in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but Deeds works here because of Gary Cooper. But even more importantly, the effectiveness of Bennett and Cobb, and the collective weight of all of the minor characters, eventually overwhelm the audience, and even join the audience with the courtroom participants in the swelling madness of individual virtue that is catching on. It is helpful, and humbling, that Deeds looks more than a little crazy when he finally kisses his Babe at the end. Maybe this messiah really was a nut job. Who will ever know?
Platinum Blonde leaves room for the skeptics and cynics to have a small change of heart on their own terms because the conversion of Smith is on such a smaller scale. Yet it is still important. Money doesn’t answer any questions, and it creates more problems than it solves. Smith wants his independence. He wants Gallagher, and he finally gets her—end of story. It is less ambitious as a conversion, but it is also less invasive as a romantic triumph over envy and materialism, and our fundamental misconceptions about what really makes us rich inside. The vice-addled Smith is refreshing in comparison with the perfectly noble, sometimes wooden Mr. Deeds. In Mr. Deeds, everyone drinks the Kool Aid at the end, with the exception of Mr. Cedar who gets a punch in the nose instead. This is not to say that this viewer didn’t like the flavor of the punch, and didn’t want a second cup, or three, of the holy hooch. I’m all for Christianity, but I know the maddening crowd too well. So does Capra. But the highly unrealistic economic message lingers still, a little uneasily, after the movie is over. The Depression wasn’t overcome by more farmers in the field, or by one man’s “insane” philanthropy. The over idealization of small town life is also present in Mandrake Falls and Mr. Deeds, even with Capra’s successful attempts to get us to laugh at both whenever possible early in the film. Small towns are no more likely to produce a Jesus than a big city. Frank Capra walks a very fine line in successfully distinguishing the audience of his actors in his climactic scene with the actual audience whose change of heart he is so earnestly seeking. A lesser director wouldn’t have been able to pull it off.
Works Cited List
Capra, Frank. Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1997.