17 January 2011

Characters I like, Ep. 2

*Jean Arthur not included.
More than once I've wondered what I would do if I were to somehow come into a major financial windfall. My inner cynic suspects that I would probably blow a significant portion of my money on a luxury condominium and a high-end booze (lots and lots of high-end booze), but the better angels of my nature would, I hope, convince me to devote at least as much wealth to some noble act of philanthropy, very much in the spirit of Gary Cooper's Longfellow Deeds.

Longfellow Deeds is the eponymous character in Frank Capra's 1936 picture Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in which an unassuming guy from the picturesque burg of Mandrake Falls inherits a fortune from a distant uncle in New York. When he arrives in the city, Mr. Deeds is besieged by all manner of spongers and opportunists out to turn a profit at the expense of the rube cynically dubbed the "Cinderella Man." Far from being a small-town dullard, however, Longfellow Deeds is a quirky mix of pragmatism and eccentricity. Put simply, he's the sort of fellow who will insist on hearing the treasurer's report before allowing the Opera committee to make a decision on funding, but on the other hand will slide down the banister of his staircase, chase after firetrucks in hopes of helping to put out a fire, and play his tuba in order to concentrate.

Such personality quirks are an essential part of the reason why I identify with the character like I do. Just as Longfellow's tuba-playing is cited as evidence of his being "pixilated", I too have a few unconscious tics that manifest themselves when I am thinking about something (these habits were once mistaken for symptoms of autism when I was a kid). Another aspect of Longfellow's personality to which I can relate quite well is the fact that he is no suave lady-killer -- the slightest attention from a pretty girl causes him to act like a big dope. This is most perfectly illustrated by a scene wherein Deeds, following a successful date with girl reporter Babe Bennett (played memorably by the inimitable Jean Arthur), is so excited that he runs down the street at full speed, only to crash headlong into a garbage can. Undeterred, he gets right back up and charges around the corner (at which point we hear him plow into another trash can as the scene fades out). It's precisely the same sort of oafish thing I would probably do (if I ever had occasion to, anyway). Along similar lines, I can't help but appreciate his seemingly out-of-place sense of chivalry -- specifically, Longfellow dreams of rescuing a lady in distress. I don't know that I've ever held such romantic delusions, but I can certainly understand the sentiment.

As Longfellow Deeds, Gary Cooper nailed the "average schmuck" angle so perfectly that it allowed him to virtually reinvent his screen persona. Previously primarily a dashing hero of western and adventure pictures, Cooper came, in the wake of Mr. Deeds, to typify the everyman protagonist (not that he wouldn't return to the Western hero well a few times in his career). Indeed, he and director Frank Capra  reunited five years later for a similarly-themed film entitled Meet John Doe. To make a tired point, it's virtually impossible not to like Longfellow Deeds as Gary Cooper portrays him, and it's very nearly as difficult not to identify with him in a least some way. Even if Gary Cooper hadn't brought him to life so perfectly, the character of Longfellow Deeds would still be an agreeable one -- I find it hard not to like a guy who has a left hook like Jake LaMotta and yet plays the tuba to help himself think.

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