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June 14th, 2009

Deeds, not greed cloaked by legalese.

I finally watched the 1936 Frank Capra-directed screwball comedy (for which he won a Best Director Oscar) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town late last night/early this morning; I was surprised at how much I liked it and even more surprised at how much the missus liked it. (She hates It's a Wonderful Life and barely tolerates It Happened One Night -- this from a woman who never saw a show on Oxygen or Lifetime that she didn't like.)

But what really gave me a "I wonder if..?" wibble was the sanity hearing at the end of the movie: Gary Cooper plays Longfellow Deeds, a greeting card poet and eccentric from Mandrake Falls, Vermont who is the sole heir to the $20M fortune of his deceased uncle, a banker and notorious dirty old man, who finds himself besieged by the old goat's shady business associates (principally the principal of a NYC law firm, John Cedar, played by Douglass Dumbrille), an attorney claiming to represent someone whom he styles as his uncle's common-law wife, and another ne'er-do-well nephew who was cut out entirely of their uncle's will; Deeds also finds himself the target of a Pulitzer Prize-winning tough dame reporter named "Babe" Bennett (played by Jean Arthur, who played a similar role opposite James Stewart in Capra's 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), who comes to regret her hatchet jobs on Deeds when she falls in love with him. Because Deeds won't sign a power of attorney for the firm of Dewey Cheatum & Howe -- err, Cedar, Cedar, Cedar & Buddington -- and because he eventually announces a plan to give away $18M of his fortune in creating and supplying farms for several thousand destitute farmers (there is a Depression going on, y'know), Cedar arm-twists the other nephew into signing an order committing him to a mental hospital, and initiates a sanity hearing against him.

Cedar hoists the Jolly Roger at the sanity hearing when he fulminates against Deeds' plan to help the farmers, thundering that the government couldn't possibly survive in the face of such "crackpot" schemes to help the needy citizens that the government wouldn't, or couldn't. This got me thinking that perhaps Deeds' screenwriter, Robert Riskin, had slipped in a covert swipe at the various and sundry moneybags (what's the plural of "moneybags"? "moneybagses"? "moneybaguettes"? "moneybaggages"?) who denounced FDR as a "traitor to his class" and the New Deal as "Jewish communism." One could even stretch the point, if one so chooses (and I chose, trust me, I so chose), and see Cedar's screed as a veiled threat -- "Deal with this Leveler commie symp, or we will" -- somewhat along the lines of the coup that the Liberty League and the DuPont family (along with J.P. Morgan & Co., E.F. Hutton, GM, and "Rockefeller interests") plotted against FDR in 1934.

The coup stalled out when the man they tried to recruit as their military leader and Il Duce, retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, blew the whistle on them, resulting in some unduly tentative meetings before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) -- the committee refused to summon any DuPonts or "anyone from the house of Morgan" to testify -- that were only desultorily, and somewhat derisively, reported in the press. Charles Higham in his Trading With the Enemy: The Nazi-American Money Plot, 1933-1949 (NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995 [originally published in 1983 by Delacorte Press]; ISBN: 0-76070-009-5) writes:

"It was four years before the committee dared to publish its report in a white paper that was marked for 'restricted circulation.' They were forced to admit that 'certain persons made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country...[The] committee was able to verify all the pertinent statements made by General Butler.' This admission that the entire plan was deadly in intent was not accompanied by the imprisonment of anybody. Further investigations disclosed that over a million people had been guaranteed to join the scheme and that the arms and munitions necessary would have been supplied by Remington, a DuPont subsidiary."

-- pps. 164-65


A somewhat fuller account can be found in It's a Conspiracy! by "The National Insecurity Council" (Berkeley, CA: Earth Works Press, 1992; ISBN: 1-879682-10-9), pps. 179-84; a more complete telling can be found in Jules Archer's The Plot to Seize the White House (NY: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007 [originally published in 1973 by Hawthorn Books, NY]; ISBN: 978-1-60239-036-2).

Capra is often derided for the saccharine, cheesy, or corny content of his movies; and yes, they certainly do have these qualities, some moreso than others. But they also have a dark undercurrent that helps leaven the schmaltz: It's a Wonderful Life has the grim, noir-ish vision of Potterville (which still looks like a place that many of us would like to visit, if not actually live in -- kind of like the Big Apple in the early 1970s), and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town has a brief scene of the naked and conniving grasping of corporate greed-hogs who sternly proclaim that they and they alone know what is best for the working stiff -- or the not-working stiff, as the case may be. Not too relevant to today's economic-political conditions, hein..?


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