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from a discussion of
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
The true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
From its opening week at Radio City Music Hall almost exactly fifty years ago, Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town broke box office records of all kinds and even threatened to eclipse the success of the greatest cinematic hit of the era, Chaplin's contemporaneous Modern Times. What makes the extraordinary appeal of both films of more than merely commercial interest is that each represented a daring departure from its respective director's past work. For whatever complex personal or political reasons, in the spring of 1936 both Chaplin and Capra, hitherto known more or less as directors of fantasies, farces, and romances, released films that emphatically engaged themselves with practical political and social events. Modern Times and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town both take as their explicit subject the expressive predicament of the individual almost lost in (or a semiotician might say "spoken by" or "inscribed within") the technologies and bureaucracies of the contemporary world. This represents a radical complication of the situation of the individual in both Capra's and Chaplin's work. No longer is he on his own socially or expressively. He is embedded everywhere in a system of alien structures and pressures that make individuality itself a problematic concept. There is no space here for a consideration of Chaplin, but this is the shift in Capra's work that I would like to explore in the following pages, a shift that changes everything about the nature of personal expression in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Capra's subsequent work.
Early in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town there is one particular scene that summarizes the newly threatened situation of Capra's protagonist. Having just inherited $20 million from a distant relative and moved from Mandrake Falls, Vermont, to a mansion in New York, country mouse Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) is being outfitted in new clothes by a group of tailors while his lawyer and executive secretary talk at him. Capra uses a series of medium-distance shots to take it all in: the tailors measure, pinch, prod, and gather him; Deeds' lawyer, sitting on one side of the room, offers him advice on his estate and the financial responsibilities of his new position; and his personal secretary warns him about the press and public that will assault him. Meanwhile, a series of visitors and butlers come and go from adjacent rooms with requests for Deeds' opinion or claims on his time. There is nothing quite like it in any of Capra's earlier films, but it is a scene that significantly will be repeated in one form or another in all of the major films from Deeds on: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, It's a Wonderful Life, and State of the Union. Both visually and narratively it succinctly figures the embattled social and expressive situation of the central characters in all of those films.
Longfellow is being warned about the predatory and invasive inclinations of the populace by his staff, but the warnings are themselves forms of predation and invasions of privacy. There is no escape from pressures for Deeds, not even in his own home. He will never be able to avoid being under public scrutiny. Even his subsequent "courtship" of Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) will have to take place in public-in front of nosy reporters snapping photographs and writing stories about it and, in a courtroom, during a public hearing on his insanity. Performances have become public events as never before in Capra's work, and one can perhaps see a veiled autobiographical reflection of Capra's own changed situation in the thirties as he became a director who was himself, after the success of It Happened One Night in 1934, an increasingly sought-after, preyed-upon public figure.
The image of the tailors working on Deeds expresses another more specific and sinister threat to the self as well. The individual is liable not only to bureaucratic pressures and social scrutiny, but is actually threatened with being made over into something or someone else. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Capra's later films raise the harrowing prospect of losing control of one's own identity. A tailor (or in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a "Taylor") goes to work on the individual's identity, beyond either the explicit control, consent, or sometimes (in Smith and Meet John Doe) even the awareness of the character. It is a nightmare erasure of the self about which much of Henry Adams' or Sam Shepard's work might be said to be an extended meditation. The individual comes perilously close to being refashioned in someone else's image of him or of being absorbed into the cultural styles around him. (Meet John Doe, most obviously, and It's a Wonderful Life, most subtly, are in effect feature-length nightmares about the consequences of such an event.)
If this represents a new fear in Capra's work (as I believe it does), it should not be surprising that Capra's dramatic metaphor for his characters changes between his earlier and later films to reflect Capra's new perception of the situation of the individual. The earlier films imagined the principal characters as being, explicitly or implicitly, the "artists" and "authors" of their own identities. Capra's central characters up through It Happened One Night were authors of their own independent roles. Like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in that film, they were brilliant and daring masters and mistresses of self-improvisation-of improvised dramatic postures and tones, stances and styles, which they tried out, manipulated, and discarded as audacious actor-directors of their own autonomous selfhoods. But in the later films, the major characters have ceased to be the makers of their own identities and destinies and have become instead characters acting in a script of someone else's authoring, directing, and producing. They are no longer the authors or directors of their own parts, but the players of parts prescripted by someone else. They perform not as self-pleasuring dramatic improvisers, but as actors playing roles within which they have only the narrowest margin for free interpretation.
On the basis of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and the films that follow it, there is every reason to believe that Capra's conception of his own situation as an "artist" in film has ominously changed as well. The central figures in Capra's films almost always represent alter egos for the director himself and figure his conception of what it is to be a filmmaker, an artist like himself. The later films are no different from the earlier in this respect. But while the earlier films imagine creation to be an act of largely solitary, individualistic, and autonomous authorship, the later ones imagine the writer-director-producer to be much more like an admittedly idealistic, but also extremely practical and pragmatic politician. The director-figure in these films must involve himself with a tangled web of interpersonal relations, group decision making, and bureaucratic compromises. Capra's ideal of artistic achievement has changed. The artist/filmmaker is less a visionary-dreamer working cut off from the world in a "studio" (in the sense in which a painter or sculptor works in a studio) than a man trapped in the confusion of the other sort of "studio"–in the middle of a crowd of people, down on the floor making endless snap decisions, expressing his dreams not outside of or as an alternative to, but within and by means of, resistant institutional and social structures.
Capra's earlier films esteemed states of reverie and idealism as positive ends in themselves, but his later work rejects such states of dreamy disengagement. George Bailey's, Jefferson Smith's, and Longfellow Deeds' idealistic dreams are imagined to be just dreams, worthy of being patronized by other characters or by viewers of their films as long as they fail concretely to engage themselves with the bureaucratic and social realities of their worlds. It is imperative that they convert their dreams into practicalities. To be adequate as an artist in these later films is to be capable of expressing oneself in the practical forms and structures of institutional and social life. The Deeds, Smith, and Doe trilogy is, in the largest sense, an extended study of a central character's capacities of performance in these changed circumstances: in public, in front of an invariably hostile or indifferent audience from which he is unable to turn away or to remove himself imaginatively, in a situation in which the authorship and interpretation of his particular role is largely out of his hands. The central character's inchoate, yearning dreams and ideals must be translated into alien forms and structures of social and linguistic expression that he is unable to escape or alter.
With his regular crew-cameraman Joseph Walker (with whom this was Capra's sixteenth collaboration), set designer Stephen Goosson, and sound engineer Edward Bernds-Capra brilliantly uses the expressive resources of cinematic space and sound as ways of registering Deeds' social and bureaucratic embeddedness and of measuring his marginal capacities of performance in the film. He plays with the volume and resonance of Deeds' voice and the scale of his figure in the various vast institutional spaces through which he moves in the course of the film, contrasting his small, quirky movements against the static massiveness of the sets. No scenes more comically capture Longfellow's (and, by extension, Capra's) capacity to remain undaunted by, to perform within, and therefore to humanize an otherwise inhuman cinematic, social, or institutional space than the episodes in the foyer of Deeds' New York mansion. The hall is impersonally enormous in scale, stone-cold and colorless in its marble appointments and neoclassical severity, and forbiddingly chilly in feeling, but, recalling a similar scene in Platinum Blonde in which Stew Smith plays hopscotch on the floor of the Schuyler mansion, Capra shows Deeds refusing to be intimidated into frigidly decorous behavior within it. He slides down the marble banister; enters into a sexually suggestive relationship with a nude statue at the base of the stairs (perhaps half identifying with its conspicuous exposure and vulnerability), and tries out the echo of his voice within its cavernous space. Before our eyes and ears, Capra demonstrates how to master and domesticate an otherwise overwhelming space, how to make it into a possible home for the individual human body, spirit, and voice. Deeds then attempts to liberate the hired help by forming an imaginative community with the butlers, whom he playfully encourages and coaches in testing the echoes of their voices in the hall.
His behavior is, by any possible interpretation, rather nutty, but for Capra such zaniness and eccentricity are always a healthy sign insofar as they represent a step toward freedom and creativity in the midst of oppressive expressive circumstances and daunting social surroundings. When Deeds behaves childishly (by sliding down the banister or later by locking his would-be bodyguards in a closet), impulsively (by punching a poet who patronizes and insults him at an Algonquin-style gathering), or whimsically (by running to the window when he hears the siren of a fire engine and declaring "That's a pip!"), Capra is celebrating the possibility of Deeds' making room within the structures of his role and the social constraints on his behavior for such quirks and idiosyncrasies. He is also reveling in his own directorial ability to break his scenes away from the potentially repressive or predictable structures of narrative in the direction of the unforeseen and unsystematizable. The parallel between Deeds encouraging his butlers to experiment with the sounds of their voices in performance in the foyer and Capra encouraging his actors to improvise on the set of a sound stage should not be missed. Like a film director working with his actors, Deeds teases, taunts, and cajoles those around him into a freer, more spontaneous performance. With the possible exception of Hawks, no director of his era had a more Emersonian distrust of predetermined, prefabricated, predictable styles and relationships, or was more interested in making room for apparently oddball routines as long as they might be productive of fresh human insights or pleasure. That is why both Capra and Hawks encourage their narratives and actors to go a little crazy at times-letting scenes and impromptu bits of stage business run on slightly longer than expected, eliciting improvised flourishes, or letting the camera become distracted by a minor character longer than strictly necessary for the requirements of maximally parsimonious narrative exposition.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town effects, in large part, a deliberate comparison of two contrasting styles of behavior, acting, theatrical blocking, and photography. On the one hand, as I have suggested in a general way, Deeds represents a series of stylistic choices involving personal, theatrical, and photographic improvisation, eccentricity, decentering, and centrifugality, while on the other hand his opponents in the film, most notably the lawyers who try to bilk him of his newly inherited fortune, represent styles of personal, theatrical, and photographic overcentering or overdetermination, concentricity, and centripetality. Capra explicitly contrasts the imaginative, social, and dramatic idiosyncrasy, pointlessness, and open-endedness in many of Deeds' scenes with the scenes at the law offices of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar, and Budington, which are as overdetermined and overfocused as the scenes with Deeds are shaggy and loose.
Capra initially ushers us into that other dramatic world with a complex fifteen-second tracking shot showing the entrance of the shyster lawyer John Cedar (Douglas Dumbrille) into his firm's law offices. It is the sort of virtuoso set piece of camera movement down a winding corridor and past and around a dozen different characters from which directors like Hitchcock, De Palma, or Kubrick generate entire scenes. But it is typical of Capra's suspicion of cinematic or verbal tendentiousness and of photographic or social overdetermination that he uses this passage of cinematic virtuosity as a summary expression of the inhumanity and insensitivity of Cedar's world. The calculated mechanics of the camera's movement communicates the calculated mechanics of human movements and relationships in the world in which Cedar exists. The angular; impersonal tracking movements of the camera dolly tell us how impersonal, rigid, and confined physical, social, and psychological movement is in these law offices.
In short, while Deeds represents an opening, Cedar and those allied with him in the film represent a dramatic narrowing of performative possibilities. They limit human movement to prescripted destinations that are mechanically blockable and trackable within such virtuoso camera movements. They yoke imagination and desire to the expression of a prefabricated purpose and point. That is why their scenes and relationships can be acted, blocked out, and photographed this way. To the extent that human movement is expressible, analyzable, and trackable in this intricately mechanical way, Capra suggests that it can not be free, entertaining, creative, or profoundly interesting. The middle-distance camera setup that Capra uses to photograph Longfellow's eccentric carryings-on in the foyer of his mansion is a recognition of the impossibility of understanding and photographing his unpredictable quirkiness in a similar way. For Capra, the performance of a truly creative character will never be regimented or restricted by the movements of the camera or cinematically followed or analyzed in such a mechanical or abstract way. The camera and the director must learn simply to just stand still and watch and make room for Deeds' (and Cooper's) delightful, inventive, unpredictable, performative eccentricity, just as a viewer must learn to sit still and watch such a performance without preconceived notions or schemes of understanding that would define or limit it in advance.
In fact, it would be hard to imagine a clearer contrast than that presented between the cinematic practices of Hitchcock and Capra. Hitchcock's subscription to his "actors are cattle" philosophy of writing, directing, lighting, photography, and editing is totally of a piece with his reliance on cartoonish personal confrontations and characterizations, virtuoso camera movements, and the subjugation of a character's (or an actor's) possibilities of free dramatic performance to the requirements of the inexorable eventfulness of the plot. Nothing could be further from Capra's aesthetic.
A film which takes as its dramatic subject the study of a character's attempt to inhabit, humanize, and master the social and physical spaces around him, and which consequently puts such a premium on the per-formative subtlety of the actor who plays him to express such complexly changing relations between himself and the spaces and persons around him, asks at least as much sensitivity of its director, supervisor of photography, and editor. The performer must withstand the repressiveness of the technologies and bureaucracies of filmmaking as much as the repressiveness of the technologies and bureaucracies of society. The filmmakers must be aware of all the performative constraints they inevitably place on a performer and the potentially repressive and frustrating relationship between their institutional and discursive technologies of control and his attempts to keep his performance free from outside control. It would be a betrayal of the central character and leading actor even greater and more devastating than Cedar's betrayal of Deeds within the film if the filmmakers, in their technical decisions about lighting, blocking, camera placement, and editing, unconsciously worked against or defeated the actor's efforts to make a free space for eccentrically creative and unprogrammatic human performance. It is in this respect that Capra, Walker, Goosson, Bernds, and Gene Havlik (co-editor of the film with Capra) not only live up to the performative example Gary Cooper sets as Longfellow Deeds, but in some respects even set a higher standard for free and unsystematic performance than that which he represents. At moments they de-institutionalize the visual space of the standard academy frame and the rhythms of Hollywood editing even more inventively and audaciously than Deeds works to de-institutionalize the mansion he lives in or Gary Cooper works to de-institutionalize (that is to say, to de-Hollywoodize) the gestures and tempos of his acting.
This frequently takes the form of opening up the frame space in unexpected ways, allowing unorthodox bodily positions within it or tolerating surprising movements and unconventional bodily repositioning during the course of a single shot or scene. There is a striking moment in a scene that takes place in a park between Bennett and Deeds. They are sitting side by side on a park bench talking when at one point Jean Arthur pivots her body ninety degrees away from the camera's line of sight to turn to speak to Cooper more intimately. There isn't one director in a hundred who would not have yelled "cut" and taken this opportunity to cut on motion to make a new camera setup at a right angle to the first. But Capra stays with the take, and the uncanny effect is of the character having momentarily freed herself from the confining grid of the filmic gaze itself, exercising a capacity to move independently of the camera or the frame space, turning away from the potentially imprisoning technology of the well-composed shot to share a private moment, as it were, with the other character in the scene. (This turn away from the camera–and therefore from the audience–to, in effect, withdraw from the shot into an unphotographable privacy is comparable to Ellie Andrews' turn away from, and flight from, cinematic scrutiny in her final scene in It Happened One Night.)
There is a slightly different effect in an even more unorthodox shot in an earlier scene in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Babe Bennett is sitting in the foreground of the shot to one side of and in front of her newspaper editor's desk, talking to him about Deeds, whom she has been following and writing stories about for the paper. Meanwhile, as is her habit throughout the early scenes of the film, she performs a series of meaningless little magic tricks to keep her hands busy while she talks. In the midst of a trivial coin trick and in the middle of this fairly complex conversation with her editor, Jean Arthur accidentally (or deliberately?–could this have been planned and rehearsed?–it seems extremely unlikely) drops the coin she has been fooling around with. While the dialogue continues and the camera keeps running, she casually feels for it in her lap. (As an experienced trouper, Arthur undoubtedly assumed she could pick it up, resume the trick, and finish the take without a break.) But this is where the scene starts to get weird. The coin isn't in her lap. So still keeping up her scripted dialogue while she rises from her seat a little, she discreetly glances down while she talks and looks for the coin on the chair. Still not finding it, she gets down on her knees on the floor and searches under the chair. With this last movement she not only drops entirely out of the editor's sight-line behind the desk, but almost lowers herself out of the sight-line of the audience of the film, almost but not quite entirely out of the bottom of the frame space. But the coin isn't under the chair either. Searching around some more, she finally discovers that it has rolled under the seat cushion of her chair. She picks it up, sits back down, and completes the scene. It is one of the strangest and most astonishing moments in film. Long before the analogous late work of Antonioni, the frame space is revealed as being the merest convention. It is an artificial grid that provides a necessarily partial and imperfect view of a reality that seamlessly extends beyond its range of comprehension. One can move around in it improvisatorily, spontaneously, almost at whim, even to the point of threatening to ignore it or drop out of it in pursuit of an impulse.
One more scene might be mentioned as yet another example of Capra's iconoclastic use of cinematic space. A little later in the film, having fallen in love with Bennett, Deeds calls her on the phone from his bedroom. Capra photographs Cooper lying on his back in bed from the level of the bed, with the camera looking down the length of his body from his head to his sprawlingly crossed legs. There are few shots like it in film, unless one thinks back to a similar shot of Loretta Young eating an apple in bed and talking on the phone flat on her back in Platinum Blonde, a film not coincidentally about the same subject–the capacity of a character and his director to establish a free and creative relation to both the physical and social and the cinematic and formal spaces around him. The shot strikingly captures Deeds' vulnerability and false sense of security when talking to Bennett (who, unknown to him at this point in the film, has been using him as a pawn in a scheme to advance her journalistic career). But even more than that, it conveys the possibility of an innovative relationship between an actor and the positioning of the lights and the camera. In a film concerned with the ways society strait-jackets the individual (metaphorically and literally, as in the scene with the tailors) and limits free movement and expression of imagination and desire (in the first place with bodyguards, but subsequently with even more insidious forms of psychological, social, and moral control), Capra is working as hard as his central character and his starring actor to explore possibilities of freedom. By opening up and de-institutionalizing the space of the frame and the pacing of the acting in such scenes, he establishes a cinematic level of performative freedom and creativity that his central characters will have to attempt to live up to socially and bureaucratically.
The previous examples are all from the first hour or so of the film. Although Deeds and Bennett begin the film with significant but admittedly marginal possibilities of free movement, they lose even that marginal performative mobility as it proceeds. They become increasingly trapped in a more and more confining visual matrix that corresponds to the increasingly confining social force-field working on and through them. Possibilities of creative movement become less available as the increasing number of close-ups and the accelerated pace of Capra's editing progressively immobilize them in space or restrict their movements within the frame. This paralysis of creativity then becomes one possible definition of the essential dramatic situation Deeds and Bennett must cope with in the final half-hour of the film. They must find a way of expressing themselves in the changed visual and temporal situation in which they are plunged by Capra's changed camera work and editing, just as they must find a way of asserting their freedom within the oppressive and nearly overwhelming bureaucratic structures of Deeds' insanity hearing.
But there is a crucial point yet to be noticed. In each of the scenes I have mentioned, freedom and creativity have become assertively public and interpersonal achievements, qualitatively different from the sorts of activities Capra's earlier central characters indulged in, such as painting a painting, writing a play, or staring off a balcony into the distance (in Ladies of Leisure, Platinum Blonde, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, respectively). Deeds' or Bennett's positionings and repositionings within the spaces of these shots are exciting and challenging precisely because they are not solitary individual acts of vision or imagination. They are social achievements shared with another character or characters, which must take into account the actions and feelings of those other characters. Deeds works to communicate his playfulness to his butlers; Bennett turns toward Deeds on the park bench to share an intimate revelation with him; Deeds lounges on his bed while talking to Bennett on the phone. These are moments essentially different from and more difficult to achieve than the still, silent, visionary communings with the stars and the landscape favored by many of Capra's early figures.
And that leads one to recognize the immense importance of the fact that the entire mimetic organization of Capra's work shifts from visual to verbal structurings of experience around the time of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The films of the early thirties–most obviously Ladies of Leisure, Forbidden, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, but also The Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, and Lady for a Day–concern themselves almost exclusively with acts of visionary possession and shared visionary communities, as expressed by predominantly visual strategies of scenic representation within the films themselves. But–and the importance of this change cannot be overstated–the films of the middle and late thirties (in this respect It Happened One Night is a transitional work) and the forties (Capra's final two important films, It's a Wonderful Life and State of the Union) juxtapose modes of verbal and social communication against modes of silent visual and visionary possession. It is as if Capra were engaging himself with and re-enacting, in the very trajectory of his career, the split in the experience of film itself between the rival claims of the eye and those of the speaking voice, or more generally, as if he were fighting in himself and his films the war between the two ways of knowing that has been waged for two centuries in American literature and art.
The essays of Emerson and the poetry of Robert Frost represent perhaps the most obvious examples of bodies of work which, like Capra's later films, have incorporated into their own nervous systems the dialectical conflict between the claims of the visionary eye and those of the social speaking voice. The final stanza of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" might almost be read as an explicit reflection on this central tension in American art:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The artist is tempted to lose himself entirely in his visionary vision of loveliness, "dark and deep" but is simultaneously called back to himself and the world by the claims of society and all of its syntactic, metrical, social, and spoken "promises to keep." What Frost recognizes in his sly performance in this poem, and what many of Emerson's essays might be considered to be an extended meditation upon, is a situation of inevitable doubleness; to live in vision is necessarily to see through the claims of time, space, and society, to exempt oneself from interpersonal entanglements, burdens, and obligations; while to become a vocal performer is inevitably to make the opposite movement–to reach beyond the self to recognize and honor one's enriching, troubling, stimulating social connections and verbal entanglements with others. The distinctive achievement of both Frost's poetry and Emerson's essays is not merely to meditate on this split in the American consciousness in the content of the writing, but actually to embody it in style and form. Both are visionary writers-who in their most audacious work attempt to express moments of vision in the voice tones of ordinary social speech. They attempt to speak the sublime in the tones and styles of social intercourse. They in their work, like Capra in these late films, embrace and embody the division of consciousness they are writing about. They made it their own and live with it and through it in their style. If vision represents dreams and desires, dialogue is duty and responsibility. The true daring of Capra's work, like Frost's and Emerson's, is its attempt to hold both realms in one thought while, I would argue, the comparative irresponsibility and insipidness of most avant-garde expression, from Maya Deren in film to Lee Breuer, Julian Beck, and Robert Wilson on stage, result from its failure to test desire against duty and vision against the counterpoised claims of society and interpersonal verbal expression.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe, not to mention the two postwar films, powerfully argue that vision alone, however inspiring or exalted, is not sufficient. The principal characters in these later films, however grand their imaginations, however compelling their ideals and dreams, must learn to talk persuasively, passionately, and effectively to each other and to hostile characters around them. They frequently begin these films as if they were dreamers left over from Capra's earlier work, but in the course of the films they must learn how to translate dreams into deeds and ideals into words, speeches, and other social forms of expression, and relentlessly to negotiate the space between the realms of duty and desire. That, I take it, is the explicit subject of both Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Characters must learn to convert their imaginative and visionary capacities into practical worldly forms of verbal and social performance. Deeds' and Bennett's progress in the course of the film will be measured in their development of the capacity to use their voices socially, to talk, talk, talk, as social performers in front of public audiences.
One should not need to explain why film, of all twentieth-century art forms, is perhaps uniquely suited to exploring the difficult relation between visual and verbal impulses. What Deeds and Smith have to do in the course of their films, in learning to translate back and forth from one sort of impulse to the other–from private vision to public expression, from intangible ideals to institutional embodiments of them–is what Capra had to do as a Hollywood filmmaker every time he made a movie. He had to negotiate the gap between his own private imaginations and inchoate desires and the assertively public forms of the film in which they might be expressed. And even more important, he had to stage the transaction between these realms in a medium that in and of itself repeats this division of realms in its own formal division of allegiance between communicating through pictures and through words. To make a standard Hollywood narrative feature film is to be forced relentlessly to compare visions and words: to weigh the power of immediate, compelling, cinematic visions against the social responsibilities and obligations built into the time-bound, social forms of dramatic dialogue and conventional popular narrative exposition.
It is precisely because of the overwhelming importance of social and verbal performance in the film that one finally has to judge the specific social and verbal performances presented in the first hour or so of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (including most of the scenes already mentioned) to be of a trivial if not downright irresponsible sort. Longfellow's acoustic high-jinx with his butlers in the hallway of his mansion, his "Swanee River" duet with Bennett on the trash can in the park, and her coin and rope tricks for her editor may be expressions of a generally desirable individuality and originality, and examples of healthily creative, improvisatory muscle-flexing, but they can hardly be the expressive basis for a mature relationship or an ultimate strategy of survival in the world in which Deeds and Bennett live. They must convert heavenly labials into practical and worldly gutturals. They must translate their own yearning but inarticulate echoes, hootings, and musical and poetic effusions into the forms of common, syntactic speech.
Capra's cross-cutting from scenes of the romance growing up between Deeds and Bennett to scenes of plotting and scheming going on in the law offices of Cedar, Cedar, Cedar, and Budington reminds us that the pair cannot live in a world of their imaginations. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, It's a Wonderful Life, and State of the Union will each rely on similar cross-cutting between scenes of play or idealistic dreaming involving the principal characters and scenes of Machiavellian scheming involving another set of characters to place and implicitly criticize the impracticality and irresponsibility of pure dreaming and idealism in the films. Dreams and ideals must be less pure and more socially expressible. The dreamers are forced to confront the schemers, and more than that, they are forced to convert their own private, impractical dreams into schemes of practical, public action and social expression. That process of conversion is the central drama of all of the late films.
In the course of the film's narrative, the two central characters in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Deeds and Bennett, are forced to enact this process of translation of dreams and ideals into actions and words. They are, as a result, forced to leave behind the styles of gesturing, speaking, and consciousness with which they began the film and to invent other styles in their place. One style of acting breaks down and gives way to another in the course of the film; Capra abandons one cinematic style for another.
But since this change takes place entirely differently for the two central characters, I want to deal with them one at a time. Let me consider Bennett first and then Deeds. In a special, rhetorical sense of the term that I want to define, Capra moves Bennett and his work into the realm of modern melodrama about halfway through the film. By melodrama, however, I don't have in mind particular kinds of dramatic stage properties, events, or character types that appeared most notoriously on the Victorian stage–scheming villains and innocent virgins, titanic combats between Good and Evil, deathbed confessions, thunder and lightning, and duels in the night–but a state of consciousness and an especially heightened and uniquely post-Romantic style of expression that sometimes, especially in its more popular or debased forms, has included such things. In his Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks has gone farther than any other contemporary critic to define the melodramatic utterance as a style in itself and to differentiate it from the lurid stage events and tawdry emotionality that are usually mistakenly taken to be the essence and not the accident of melodramatic expression:
Melodramatic rhetoric, and the whole expressive enterprise of the genre, represents a victory over repression. We could conceive this repression as simultaneously social, psychological, historical, and conventional: what could not be said on an earlier stage, nor still on a "nobler" stage, nor within the codes of society. The melodramatic utterance breaks through everything that constitutes the "reality principle" all its censorships, accommodations, tonings-down. Desire cries aloud its language in identification with full states of being. Melodrama partakes of the dream world. . . and this is in no wise more true than in the possibility it provides of saying what is in "real life" unsayable. . . . Desire triumphs over the world of substitute-formations and detours, it achieves plentitude of meaning.
The triumph of desire over repression and the speaking of what cannot be said in the codes of society are, I think, the key concepts to keep in mind when one attempts to describe what happens to Bennett and to this film in its second half. Insofar as social and narrative forms and manners are repressive, in the sense in which Brooks uses the word the melodramatic (or operatic) moments in this film and in Capra's subsequent work are efforts to break through what is defined and bounded by mere manners and social forms, to release powerful moral, imaginative, and passional energies that cannot be expressed in other ways. In the tradition of American transcendental expression, Capra attempts to liberate intensities and mobilities of feeling and imagination that are fundamentally opposed to all psychologically or socially normative forms of expression. The transcendental impulse at the heart of Capra's work is its most ignored aspect. His films have altogether more connection with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century expressive traditions of American gothicism, romanticism, and transcendentalism than with the twentieth-century forms of American populism and nationalism in terms of which they are usually described. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is only trivially and unimportantly about a political or social problem and solution. It is a profound exploration of an expressive problem that runs through most of American art–the problem of the expression of the free imagination and the imagination of freedom in the inevitably compromising and repressive structures of bureaucratic, social, linguistic, and narrative organization.
That is why what happens in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is only quite trivially described by saying that Bennett and Deeds fall in love with each other. Rather (under the guise of the rather sketchily presented romantic development) in the character of Bennett, the film discovers and attempts to make a place for the expression of desires that, in Brooks's phrase, "[break] through everything that constitutes the 'reality principle all its censorships, accommodations, and tonings-down." The style of the work itself disrupted in an attempt to make room for the energies and movements of a desire that is at odds with all "realistic" or "classical" narrative representation, just as it is at odds with structures of social organization and expression.
Brooks' description of the stylistic world of melodrama is an almost letter-perfect description of the change in Babe Bennett's (and Jean Arthur's) style of performance in the second half of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town:
The desire to express all seems a fundamental characteristic of the melodramatic mode. Nothing is spared because nothing is left unsaid; the characters stand on stage and utter the unspeakable, give voice to their deepest feelings, dramatize through their heightened and polarized words and gestures the whole lesson of their relationship. . . . Life tends, in this fiction, towards ever more concentrated and totally expressive gestures and statements.
To understand how Babe's personal styles, Jean Arthur's acting styles, and Capra's cinematic styles change, one needs only to compare the scenes I described earlier with those in the final hour of the film. In the first half of the film Jean Arthur idly ties knots in a rope, does coin tricks, and plays witty little verbal games in her conversation. There is an appreciation of the accidental, the unfocused, and the casual in life, acting, and film in these scenes that reminds one of the comparable relish for the improvised in Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning and The Rules of the Game or in much of Hawks' work. But with the second half of his film Capra moves in a direction Renoir never did and one that Hawks could only fleetingly glance toward. Capra turns decisively away from an interest in the casual and random to an entirely different sort of scene making for Bennett. Beginning with the unfinished telephone call between herself and Deeds about halfway into the film, she and he (in a different way) are transported into a stylistic world the opposite of the random, unfocused, and relaxed. It is a world of "totally expressive gestures' in Brooks' phrase, in which every facial expression, glance, and movement is freighted with an emotionally almost overwhelming "plentitude of meaning?"
Medium and long shots are replaced by medium-close shots and close-ups of her face agitated by violent emotion. Bennett's expressions and gestures are magnified into powerful significance on screen, and her speech becomes as powerfully charged with passion as her gestures, so that, as never before, every word she speaks and, even more important, every pause or hesitation between words becomes fraught with passionate significance.
Brooks talks about the fullness or "plentitude" of significance in melodramatic expression, but as he well understands, this fullness is at the same time a profound emptiness in another respect. As gestures and words are increasingly burdened with significance and charged with emotion in one way, they simultaneously empty themselves of significance in other ways. That is to say, as Babe's (and Capra's) style becomes more imaginatively and emotionally intense, more melodramatically meaningful, it becomes less expressive, coherent, or meaningful by realistic or social standards of narrative expression. Where earlier in the film Babe was coolly voluble, articulate, witty, and verbally poised to a fault, her speech now becomes hesitant, stuttering, and hysterical, or simply ceases altogether for long periods. The language of society becomes inadequate to express her overcharged feelings. In short, as her speech becomes fuller of a private, melodramatic, tonal richness of significance and depth of feeling, it becomes less and less publicly intelligible by the standards of realistic, classical, or institutional codes of discourse. Tonal meaning displaces semantic meaning. (Which is why the more passionately' she speaks in Deeds' defense during the hearing, the more the fair-minded judges–and not merely the rival shyster lawyers who oppose Deeds–fail to understand her.) The movement into a world of melodramatic significances is a movement into an expressive realm that denies itself adequate translation into institutional or social forms of expression. In the nightmare of the liberated consciousness enacted by Bennett during Deeds' hearing, to speak a language even partially answerable to the intensity and liability of imagination and desire is irrevocably to cut oneself from the discourse of society. By all social or legal standards, she proves herself "insane" at his insanity hearing. Her language and performance are deranged beyond any social or legal utility.
But film above all other narrative forms has the capacity of offering an alternative visual "text of muteness" to supplement (or at times even replace) the verbal or linguistic "text of muteness" represented by a character's spoken language. Film, unlike a novel, can offer us the experience of pictures in addition to the experience of words, pictures that have an impact and intensity that allows them to replace the words spoken and to substitute their fullness of visual meaning in place of the emptiness of verbal meaning of the newly impoverished or "crazed" language of the characters. This unique expressive potential of film is not lost on a filmmaker who began his career with silent pictures. During the second half of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Capra's lighting, photography, and editing offer a visual spectacle of powerful pictorial silences and super-meaningful inarticulatenesses that in intensity and expressiveness frequently surpass Bennett's verbal melodramatics. The final half-hour of Deeds is a visual extravaganza of briskly intercut close-ups of her agitated gestures, glances, facial expressions, and bodily movements, which succeed in "speaking" visually more powerfully and poignantly than anything earlier in the film, in ways that dialogue and social or legal discourse cannot. Capra forces a viewer to remain simultaneously aware of both kinds of utterance–the melodramatic and the non-melodramatic, the sublimely visual and the classically verbal, by choosing to have the switch to melodrama occur first over the telephone in a conversation with Deeds and then in a courtroom in his defense–two forums in which linguistic decorum and highly conventionalized codes of discourse reign. He wants a viewer to be able to hold in one glance both the stimulating private expressive power and the frightening public expressive limitations of melodramatic utterance.
In the love poem Deeds reads to Bennett before he discovers her real identity, he has a line that might summarize the changed conditions of expression for Babe herself later in the film: "My heart longs to cry out, if it only could speak?' Language in any public, conventional use of it proves inadequate to "speak" the feelings of her "heart." Bennett's intensities of desire cannot be "spoken" in any more direct way than between the lines, in her pauses and stutterings, in the hysteria of her tones, in the silence of her agitated gestures and looks. Capra's expressive lighting effects, photographic close-ups, and accelerated editing rhythms pick up the burden of signification that verbal language cannot bear. We and she have moved the maximum distance from the world of journalism in which she and the film itself began, where all human events can, by journalistic definition, be verbally articulated in coolly coherent, emotionally neutral sentences, paragraphs, and narratives. For Capra, from this point on in his work, significant human experience and filmmaking begin where journalism, realism, or naturalism leaves off.
But let me now switch from Bennett to Deeds. The voice Longfellow Deeds arrives at by the end of the film is equally different both from what he starts with and from what Bennett ends with, and is at least as complex a stylistic achievement as hers. Like Bennett, Deeds is reduced to silence and inarticulateness as a result of his confusion when she betrays him and the lawyers entrap him, but when he eventually emerges from his silence in the final fifteen minutes of the film, his voice is entirely different from hers. Most accounts describe the process of Deeds' regaining his voice in reductive psychological terms similar to those they apply to Bennett. For example, a recent synopsis of the movie describes his progress as follows: Deeds begins the film in a state of beatific innocence, undergoes a period of doubt and despair, and finally emerges from it when Babe professes her love for him during the hearing. At that point he regains the idealistic voice and vision he had temporarily lost and wins the court over with his country-boy reasonableness and down-home common sense. But such an approach is as inadequate to the understanding of Deeds' progress in the film as a description of Bennett's movement from journalistic cynicism to romantic infatuation would be. Both Bennett and Deeds lose the voices with which they began the film and eventually regain their voices in the hearing room, but the voices they regain at the end are neither the ones they started out with, nor merely voices of romantic innocence, idealism, naivetÈ, or common sense.
How are we to understand the stylistic possibility embodied by Longfellow Deeds? Most past critics apparently would have answered by saying that Capra is (quite simple-mindedly) suggesting that the meek can and will inherit the earth, that innocence and gentleness will succeed over all opposition. But I would argue that the contrary of innocence is being displayed by Deeds (and Capra, who collaborates with him) in Deeds' final, climactic courtroom performance. His incontrovertible accomplishment in the concluding section of the film is to shed every vestige of whatever "innocence" he might be said to have originally had and to demonstrate one of the most stunning displays of verbal and social sophistication in all of film. Deeds becomes a kind of literary textual critic par excellence, a critic apparently subtler and more profound than any of the critics who have tried to understand him. When he rises to speak during the final minutes of the insanity hearing, Deeds is the opposite of innocent. He shows himself the master of all social and legal attitudes and manners, to the point of, in strict literary-critical parlance, wittily and playfully flaunting his ability to "deconstruct" the utterances of all of the witnesses and lawyers working against him at will. He systematically takes up each of the major pieces of testimony that have been used against him in the hearing and (most brilliantly and exuberantly in the case of the testimony of the Faulkner sisters) reveals the essential textuality of the discourse–tracing and explaining to the court the particular set of arbitrary codes, assumptions, and consistencies that generate the text and that attempt to control and limit its interpretation. Deeds explicitly treats each of the principal pieces of testimony against him as a system of rule-governed discourse, temporarily entering into and explaining each "author's" particular set of discursive assumptions and parodically adopting his vocabulary prior to suggestively indicating the limitations of each one.
To do this once is to liberate oneself from the expressive tyranny of a particular text, but to do it more than once, to realize that it can be done to every possible text, sooner or later, is to do much more. It is to recognize the structurality of structure. As every deconstructionist is aware, this process of "entering into" and sympathetically comparing a series of texts in such a way is potentially a strategy of escape from the force-field of all texts. Deconstruction, that is to say, notwithstanding its suspiciously trans-Atlantic origins, is thoroughly consistent with and eminently convertible into an all-American assertion of freedom (which is why the Gallic theorists have received such a resounding welcome in Baltimore and New Haven). Deeds' activity of deconstruction is a prototypical American way of levering himself outside of all texts, of asserting the artificiality of all systems, institutions, and codes of understanding. It is a form of mastery and an audacious assertion of the reader's/speaker's/critic critic's recognition of, and consequent ability to escape, the shackles of all linguistic entrapment.
It is not accidental that Deeds initiates the whole process with a brief, witty Derridean jeu. He prefaces his initial act of critical prowess over a specific text with a short exordium about the nature of all texts: he talks about ecriture and the necessary gap between experience and verbal expression figured in a playful discussion of what he calls "doodling" and "o (or "oh!"?) filling" and other forms of extralinguistic "playing"–like his "playing" the tuba to help him write. Deeds may be a country boy, but it is sometimes forgotten that he is also, like so many of Capra's other central figures, an artist–a musician and a poet–one who, all evidence suggests, has thought as long and hard about the nature of verbal, social, and artistic expression as his creator.
But there is really no need to invoke fancy French pedigrees for Deeds' performance. Deeds is a performer in the mainstream native folk tradition of Mark Twain and Joel Chandler Harris. He is teasing society and parodically playing with the rules, customs, and conventions of his own and others' speech in a thoroughly American way. As his elaborate digressions, witty asides, and assertively rustic illustrations and metaphors communicate, Deeds is toying with the rules and forms of testimony, stretching them, and testing their capaciousness. (And when I say Deeds, I mean Capra and his co-writer Robert Riskin, of course.) But as in all of Capra's films, one kind of "playing" is inseparable from another. Deeds is having fun, and he is poking fun, but perhaps most important of all, he is "playing" in the dramatic sense of the word as well. He is turning the court into a stage for a consummately entertaining, improvised performance that expresses his own unsystematized and unsystematizable imaginative energy. Which is, in the very eccentricity of his performance, to escape from those who would demand a more systematic form of behavior and style of testimony and self-defense from him.
As one watches and listens to his delightful and self-delighting verbal and social performance in the courtroom, one remembers that Deeds is by avocation a performer on the tuba who plays with it in the same contrapuntal way that he plays with tones and styles here–making his presence felt and heard not by blending into the melodic line, but by tracing an innovative counterpoint to it in the apparent comic clumsiness of his oom-pah-pahs. It seems hardly accidental that one of the most touching scenes in the first hour of the film explicitly celebrates this contrapuntal aspect of his playing. At the farewell party hastily thrown together for him at the Mandrake Falls train station, Deeds plays the sole tuba in the band that sees him off. As the train slowly pulls out of the station, the band breaks into the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" (a tune that was virtually a signature piece in Capra's later work). Deeds stands with his tuba on the back platform of the train as it pulls away from the crowd in the station, and, in a directorial masterstroke and a coup de theatre of sound engineering, Capra and his sound man, Ernest Bernds, create the illusion that, in between passionate waves and shouts of farewell to the lifelong friends he is leaving behind, Deeds is still playing the tuba accompaniment to his own farewell party. That offbeat performance on his own behalf (and yet also selflessly for the benefit of his listeners), in its syncopated mixture of earnestness and quirkiness, is an affecting visual and acoustic anticipation of something very much like the offbeat verbal and social performance he stages later in the courtroom.
In effect, Deeds' achievement in the courtroom is that he demonstrates his ability to "play" in society, with linguistic tones, styles, and metaphors, as creatively and wittily as he showed himself capable of musically playing for and to himself on the tuba all along. To be able to play this way in a courtroom one has to recognize that a social institution like a court, and the discourse that is admissible or speakable within it, is as artificial and arbitrary, yet as complex and potentially stimulating a creation of the human imagination, as the theory of musical harmony and counterpoint. In the earlier films Capra's protagonists tried simply to rebel against society and its arbitrary rules and codes or to leave them behind; here there can no longer be a question of taking or leaving them. Codes are everywhere and everything is encoded. There is no nature, or reality, or realm of pure idealism to run away to. Any momentary leverage over social discourse must be achieved from within the system. If one is to survive, these styles and systems are what one must emphatically learn to play on, play with, and play against. This is the truly radical shift in awareness in Capra's work that is announced by Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, although it is a radicalism which, because of the nature of its insight, possibly appears to be a new conservatism.
If Capra's heroes no longer attempt to flee from the repressive forms of society into a world of the imagination and romance (as most of Capra's earlier protagonists, including Peter and Ellie in It Happened One Night, aspired to), it is because for the first time they recognize that the society they flee from is itself an artificial, arbitrary creation of the human imagination and that any other society they would bring into existence outside of it would be no less artificial and arbitrary. If that sounds like something discovered by Wallace Stevens and elaborated by John Ashbery, it is in fact an American insight that can be traced from at least as far back as the writing of those deconstructionists before the fact–Jonathan Edwards, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William James. There can be no escape from artificial relations. The fact that the outcome of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town turns not on solitary transactions between a transparent eyeball and a landscape, a shared vision, or a silent glance or romantic embrace between lovers, but on the result of public testimony in a hearing in a courtroom is Capra's insistence that there is nowhere to run to, no "world elsewhere" outside of artificial, social, or linguistic codes of expression.
But Capra recognizes that the structuralist awakening can sanction several distinct kinds of response, as different from each other as the differences between European and American understandings of the deconstructionist enterprise. One possible response is the kind of affectless anomie or devil-may-care nihilism demonstrated by Bennett at the beginning of the film. As a reporter she has become aware of the structurality of verbal and social structures and of the pervasiveness of artificial codes, and is liberated to be indifferent to all of them. As she says at one despairing moment during the hearing: "it's all a game"–life, language, and all expression is all only a game with codes and rules like any other sufficiently inclusive game, and consequently, in her despairing formulation, one might as well abandon all beliefs and simply, indifferently, amorally play out one's turn. A second possible response to the recognition of the pervasiveness and artificiality of these structures might be called the Iago response, epitomized by the lawyers in the hearing room. They have seen the fictionality of the reigning fictions and they respond with cynical opportunism and ruthless manipulation. If it is all an artificial game, then one plays to win and any tactic that will succeed suffices. A third response, represented by the crowd of despondent and disenfranchised farmers who attend the hearing, is another kind of alienation or despair different from Babe Bennett's, in which one feels oneself to be utterly powerless, shut out from any capacity of authorship within the system within which one is inexorably inscribed and trapped. Since no one authors the systems that oppress us, no one can change or affect them, and all attempts at action are necessarily futile and pointless.
It is instructive and important that Capra incorporates these three distinct responses within the dramatic structure of the courtroom scene because, if I understand what he is doing, he is articulating a fourth response in the figure of Deeds himself. It is, however, one that is so easily confused with these others that we need their simultaneous presence in order to be entirely clear about how importantly different it is. To what might be called these European responses to deconstruction, Longfellow Deeds might be said to offer a uniquely American vision, that, even as it recognizes the artificiality of all received forms of experience, offers the possibility of a performance that is neither despairingly nihilistic, manipulatively opportunistic, nor despondently alienated. Deeds offers the per-formative possibility of an optimistic aesthetic of parody, play, and artistic mastery that revels in its ability dramatically to tease fun out of the old forms and to play meaning into new forms of its own imaginative creation. As a result of the utter and absolute decentering of his world, Deeds is finally released not to despair, opportunism, or nihilism (stages that he passes through in his hour of silence), but to true creativity (which he arrives at in the courtroom in his final performance). He is able to tease and toy with forms (the forms of legal testimony in the courts, for example) as he never could if they were grounded on the bedrock of God, King, and Truth. Deeds is progressively alienated from the social and moral structures in place around him and from his own experience in the course of the film, but his alienation is converted into a joyous principle of mastery and free movement as he finally rises to address the court. Alienation is discovered to be a mode of freedom. Life and expression do become a game of sorts, but it is not a game of manipulation, anomie, or cynicism. It is an adventure in the creation of a margin of free movement to be used in maneuvering through the institutional and formal structures in place around him. It is interesting that William James' pragmatic philosophy–of which I take Deeds' courtroom performance to be the supreme dramatic example–was itself accused of being all of the other things Deeds' performance comes so close to being mistaken for, a form of cynicism, opportunism, alienation, or valuelessness. In his writing James had to work as hard as Deeds and Capra do in this film to steer a free course among these shoals–and was perhaps as unsuccessful in being generally understood as they are here.
This is a form of deadly serious play that dares to assert that we can create our margin of freedom as we go along. The capacity to play for these high stakes is exactly what Deeds' adversaries, formidable as they are, lack. To their artificial, de-centered, ungrounded tones and styles Deeds or Capra does not oppose something more natural, centered, or grounded (since there can be nothing and the search for it will only lead to disillusionment or cynicism), but a mobility and quickness of movement among the various social structures and intellectual force-fields that they lack. This is the point of Capra's parade of the eight witnesses who testify against Deeds. It is not that any of them is especially evil, deceitful, or even stupid, except insofar as a person locked into one style or tone of speech and consciousness is all of these things. Each witness embodies a system of thought and relationships. That is each one's only limitation, but it is an enormous one, and in presenting their testimony in a series of quick vignettes, Capra makes us acutely aware of the structurality of each witness's structures.
The bodyguard gives a Mickey Spillane-like tough-guy version of events. The sentimental Irish pushcart owner tells his tenderhearted tale of man and horse. Madame Pomponi turns on her operatic affectations. Psychiatrist Emile Von Haller offers–what else?–a psychoanalytic analysis of Deeds' behavior. And the lawyers raise their objections and cross-examine the witnesses within the rigid and repetitive codes of legal behavior. Capra's comic target is not opera, or psychoanalysis, or the legal system, but is rather all of these things insofar as they would systematize understanding and experience. The Freudian psychiatrist, for example, is not the butt of the usual string of heavy-handed Hollywood jokes about Viennese accents, men with goatees, or infantile psycho-sexual determinants of behavior. Capra's objection to him (as to any one of the others) is that he would squeeze the life out of a human being and the scenes he makes by making him accountable to the sort of abstract system of interpretation from which Capra labors so hard to free his most interesting characters and his entire film. When he finally does rise to speak, Deeds begins his response to all the testimony he has heard with a humorous discourse on "doodling" because it is just this sort of expressive individuality and eccentricity that these systematic understandings would either prohibit or, in the case of psychoanalysis, absorb into a systematic technology of knowledge.
But one final possible response of the self to this imaginative situation needs to be mentioned. One way of breaking free from what Hawthorne called "the world's artificial system" is to retreat into silence, stillness, and passivity–to attempt to withdraw from all expressive systems and insulate oneself in one's own privacy and inscrutability. That is what Deeds initially does (and many of Hawthorne's own characters do). It is a prototypical American response that can be traced from Hawthorne to Cassavetes. Hawthorne's work in particular is a virtual anthology of ways in which the puny and beleaguered self, threatened with being absorbed into an alien system of relationship or understanding, can, in a last-ditch effort, assert its putative freedom by means of an act of self-defense that is almost indistinguishable from self-annihilation. In danger of being "spoken by" an impersonal expressive system, it can, as its final free action, perform an act of self-erasure on itself. Reverend Hooper, Sylph Etheridge, Ilbrahim the "gentle boy," and Prudence Inglefield, like dozens of other Hawthorne characters, not only withdraw from the social communities of expression within which their narratives situate them, but ultimately withdraw themselves from the expressive environments of the works in which they appear. They become ghostly expressive presences in their own stories, with almost no social or linguistic form of self-expression available to them. In the scenes of his initial psychiatric confinement and his stony silence during the first part of his trial, Deeds momentarily embodies that imaginative hazard. Ironic detachment, social disengagement, and imaginative withdrawal represent recurring' threats to Capra's characters, just as they do to Hawthorne's. Deeds, Smith, Doe, and George Bailey (and Frank Capra himself) all wrestle with the ever-present temptation to beat the system by dropping out of it, to prevent the expressive erasure of the self by means of an act of self-erasure.
But Deeds, I would emphasize, finally arrives at another response. He shapes a performance out of a simultaneous engagement and detachment–out of shifting movements of susceptibility and withdrawal, of passionate involvement and slightly ironic removal, of alternating stylistic vulnerability and mastery– in the American tradition of the greatest imaginative performances of Hawthorne or Whitman, which is why in the largest sense the voice he arrives at by the end of the hearing, like these other American voices, deliberately eludes all systematic understandings or descriptions of it. He begins the hearing in vulnerability and weakness and ends in a modest, humble, grateful, folksy mastery. In between he is alternately or simultaneously playful and preachy, puckish and moralistic, sternly logical and digressively anecdotal, warmly comical and morally indignant. But as he fashions a performance by means of parodically deconstructing the tones, styles, and forces that would otherwise oppress him, he is nothing fixed, systematic, or predictable. What William James would have called the "fluxional" qualities of his voice and his stylistic performance are its essence. Of course, as Deeds clears a small free space for the movements of the self, one cannot forget that he is really only acting as a stand-in for his polymorphically performative creator. It is Capra's lovingly comical and parodically ventriloquistic demonstration of a performative mastery of social tones and verbal styles–not only in the scripting and directing of the testimony against Deeds and Deeds' final masterful courtroom performance, but in every preceding scene of the film–that represents an American ideal of free and creative performance even greater than the one Deeds embodies. It is Capra the filmmaker who is most free and powerful here, making others free with the exhilarating example of his own stylistic capaciousness.
Deeds is, in his essence, an exploration of what can be made of a situation of irremediable performative marginality. That is why, in the first scene in which we meet him, he is lifted out of Mandrake Falls, taken away from family, friends, and all past social connections. He is a homeless alien, as are Smith and Doe who follow him. Each is uprooted from his old world background and identity and suddenly set adrift in a brave new world of uncharted paths and relationships. Yet Capra's argument is that, powerless and alienated as he is, the modern hero can shape a performance that is more than a match for anything he faces. The power of a marginal performance is the only power available to Deeds, and yet it is enough. Capra imagines Deeds first, last, and, always as an outsider to the systems he negotiates. He has no inherent institutional authority, cachet, or constituency. He can never overcome his essential powerlessness, alienation, and marginality, and in fact the performance he shapes must not deny those realities of his existence, but be shaped out of a profound acknowledgment of them. This is the profound performative metaphysic of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and the reason an analysis of it either as a screwball comedy of manners or as a "realistic" or "populist" courtroom drama is so inadequate. The working title of the film script was originally A Gentleman Goes to Town, but what I am suggesting is how far beyond the definition of mere gentleness, gentility, or gentlemanliness Capra and Gary Cooper move Deeds' performance in the process of making the film. It is precisely as far as Bennett is propelled from being a mere "lady" in distress, as she is referred to initially, to being the heroine of the most suggestive sort of melodrama, with a richness of consciousness and intensity of feeling that beggars language and social expression.
In the melodramatics of Bennett and the performative playfulness of Deeds, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in effect outlines two distinct and profoundly contrasting responses to the individual's radical loss of personal or institutional authority and power. One is a "happy" possibility (Deeds' masterful performative puckishness) and one is sad (Bennett's stammering melodramatic anguish), but both accept as the fundamental state of affairs the marginality and alienation of the individual in a society that he is unable imaginatively to leave and within which he must therefore shape some sort of public expressive performance. In the Deeds-Smith-Doe trilogy and the two major films after the war, Capra will seesaw uneasily between endorsing Bennett's melodramatic, doomed, stuttering inarticulateness and hysteria and Deeds' poised, confident, performative volubility and mobility as the outcome of this marginality that he most believed in. There is no doubt which he preferred, or for that matter which outcome any of us would prefer to imagine our lives in terms of. But the happy outcome is perhaps a whistling in the dark. In Capra's subsequent films, he will repeatedly explore the happy possibilities of verbal and social performative prowess of the sort Deeds displays in this film as a response to institutional disenfranchisement, social powerlessness, and the unavailability of possibilities of visionary transcendence; but he significantly will not be able to exorcise the convulsed ghost of Bennett from his work. In various transformations her character, her melodramatic gasps and stares, and her trembling voice will increasingly haunt the later work, gradually but inexorably displacing the spirit of Deeds from his confident position of eminence. Bennett represents an imaginative unappeasibility and inexpressible ardor that Capra will, against his own will, increasingly come to be possessed by, as he loses faith in Deeds' possibilities of social and verbal performance in the world.
In Capra's earlier films it was enough if the central character exercised a purely visionary and meditative power. But these later films ask that the self attempt to fashion a public identity and find a speaking voice for itself with which it can express itself in a social community that lives up to its dreams of imaginative freedom and mobility. That was the dream of America and it is the daring dream of these films. Longfellow Deeds is a character who manages in the courtroom scene to find an actual social voice and form of performance in which he can fully and completely express his imaginative originality, independence, and extravagance. But the majority of the characters that follow Deeds will not be so lucky. Capra will find himself distrusting Deeds' perhaps too easy success and instead almost inadvertently substituting the figure of Bennett in his place–a figure with all the imagination and passion in the world but no way socially to express it, a figure forced to be content with stunned melodramatic gasps, glances, silences, and gestures in an artistic and social world where all happier more public forms of linguistic power and social expression prove inadequate. Jefferson Smith, John Doe, and George Bailey, in all of their expressive hysteria and anguish and pain and inability socially to speak their most vital dreams and desires, will follow in the footsteps of Bennett and not Deeds.
© Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.
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