Saps and Cynics

That guy is either the dumbest, stupidest, most imbecilic idiot in the world, or else he’s the grandest thing alive. I can’t make him out.

— Babe from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the most recent Frank Capra movie I’ve had the pleasure to view. And despite stiff competition, it’s now my favorite.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story (this does include those who have seen Adam Sandler’s Deeds), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the story of a simple, small-town man who inherits millions and moves to a big city where he is quickly swarmed by greedy vultures eager to take advantage of his backwoods ways. This includes a scheming, quick-witted, jaded reporter, unfortunately named “Babe”, (Jean Arthur) who finds herself won over by his kind, open, earnest perspective.

What happens when Longfellow Deeds realizes he’s just out to be had? Will Deeds be just another victim of the greedy? Or is it possible he can turn the entire system on its head, changing hearts and minds in the process?

I’m sure that for a lot of people it qualifies as Norman Rockwell schmaltz. And indeed, I could accuse Mr. Capra of a lot of sentimental drivel, but to do so would be undercutting the story and the performers.

I didn’t root for Longfellow Deeds because the camera shot his profile well, but because of the way he turned a snob on his head. I rooted for him because he’s curious and joyous and compassionate.

I didn’t fall in love with Deeds because the music swelled when he spoke, I fell in love with him when he slid down the banister in his mansion and tickled his finger along the instep of the statue at the bottom. I very much fell in love with Gary Cooper.

I didn’t cry when Babe read Deed’s poem because the poem was exceptional, but because Jean Arthur was exceptional.

Perhaps I’m a sap and always have been, but what Capra gets right over and over and over again, is that the saps who seem like easy prey to the world are the strongest of champions in the world. It’s the truest of paradoxes, the weak things of this world overcoming the strong, the humble Davids overcoming the world’s Goliaths.

Which is not to say we should forget the cynics. No, Capra found a use for them and so do I. We need cynics. We need those people of critical intellect who devote huge portions of time to ferreting out those who are fake, vile, who are hypocrisy themselves. It’s these cynics who live in the soot and darkness of public spheres who serve the purpose of refining the rough diamonds.

In two of Capra’s movies it’s Jean Arthur who does the dirty work of putting the diamond under a bit of pressure. She’s so used to the double talk and the false advertising that she doesn’t see a gem when she’s in front of one.

But look what she does when she steps back and sees the thing for what it is, after all her abuses (intended or accidental) begin to reveal the quality of what is underneath rather than crushing it. It’s the cynics who must rally the troops, marshal the masses, encourage (how preposterous!) the reluctant, and fight for the saps.

It’s a brilliant and unbeatable combination. Saps and cynics, unlikely friends as they should be, manage to bring out the good in each other. For it’s these two unlikely heroes who both expect the best from the world, and will fight most passionately to make it so.

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