During the Great Depression, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), the co-owner of a tallow works, part-time greeting card poet, and tuba-playing inhabitant of the (fictional) hamlet of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, inherits 20 million dollars from his late uncle, Martin Semple. Semple's scheming attorney, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), locates Deeds and takes him to New York City. Cedar gives his cynical troubleshooter, ex-newspaperman Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander), the task of keeping reporters away from Deeds. Cobb is outfoxed, however, by star reporter Louise "Babe" Bennett (Jean Arthur), who appeals to Deeds' romantic fantasy of rescuing a damsel in distress by masquerading as a poor worker named Mary Dawson. She pretends to faint from exhaustion after "walking all day to find a job" and worms her way into his confidence. Bennett proceeds to write a series of enormously popular articles mocking Longfellow's hick ways and odd behavior, giving him the nickname "Cinderella Man".
Cedar tries to get Deeds' power of attorney in order to keep his own financial misdeeds secret. Deeds, however, proves to be a shrewd judge of character, easily fending off Cedar and other greedy opportunists. He wins Cobb's wholehearted respect and eventually Babe's love. She quits her job in shame, but before she can tell Deeds the truth about herself, Cobb finds it out and tells Deeds. Deeds is left heartbroken, and, in disgust, he decides to return to Mandrake Falls.
After he has packed and is about to leave, a dispossessed farmer (John Wray) stomps into his mansion and threatens him with a gun. He expresses his scorn for the seemingly heartless, ultra-rich man, who will not lift a finger to help the multitudes of desperate poor. After the intruder comes to his senses, Deeds realizes what he can do with his troublesome fortune. He decides to provide fully equipped 10-acre farms free to thousands of homeless families if they will work the land for three years.
Alarmed at the prospect of losing control of the fortune, Cedar joins forces with Deeds' only other relative (and the man's grasping, domineering wife) in seeking to have Deeds declared mentally incompetent. Along with Babe's betrayal, this finally breaks Deeds' spirit, and he sinks into a deep depression. A sanity hearing is scheduled to determine who should control the Deeds fortune.
During the hearing. Cedar calls an expert who diagnoses manic depression based on Babe's articles and Deeds' current behavior; he gets Deeds' Mandrake Falls tenants, eccentric elderly sisters Jane and Amy Faulkner (Margaret Seddon and Margaret McWade), to testify that Deeds is "pixilated". Deeds is too depressed to defend himself and the situation looks bleak when Babe finally speaks up passionately on his behalf, castigating herself for what she did to him. When he realizes that she truly loves him, he begins speaking, systematically punching holes in Cedar's case—when he asks the Faulkners who else is pixilated, they reply, "Why everyone, but us"—before actually punching Cedar in the face. In the end the judge declares him to be "the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom."
Originally, Frank Capra intended to make Lost Horizon after Broadway Bill (1934), but lead actor Ronald Colman couldn't get out of his other filming commitments. So Capra began adapting Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The two main cast members, Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds and Jean Arthur as Louise "Babe" Bennett/Mary Dawson, were cast as production began. Capra's "first, last and only choice" for the pivotal role of the eccentric Longfellow Deeds was Gary Cooper. Due to his other film commitments, production was delayed six months before Cooper was available, incurring costs of $100,000 for the delay in filming.
Arthur was not the first choice for the role, but Carole Lombard, the original female lead, quit the film just three days before principal photography, in favor of a starring role in My Man Godfrey. The first scenes shot on the Fox Studios' New England street lot were in place before Capra found his replacement heroine in a rush screening. The opening sequences had to be reshot when Capra decided against the broad comedy approach that had originally been written.
Despite his penchant for coming in "under budget", Capra spent an additional five shooting days in multiple takes, testing angles and "new" perspectives, treating the production as a type of workshop exercise. Due to the increased shooting schedule, the film came in at $38,936 more than the Columbia budget for a total of $806,774. Throughout the pre-production and the early principal photography, the project still retained Kelland's original title, Opera Hat, although Capra tried out some other titles including A Gentleman Goes to Town and Cinderella Man before settling on a name that was the winning entry in a contest held by the Columbia Pictures publicity department.
The film was generally treated as likable fare by critics and audiences alike. Noted reviewer Graham Greene was effusive that this was Capra's finest film to date, describing Capra's treatment as "a kinship with his audience, a sense of common life, a morality..." Variety noted "a sometimes too thin structure [that] the players and director Frank Capra have contrived to convert (...) into fairly sturdy substance."
This was the first Capra film to be released separately to exhibitors and not "bundled" with other Columbia features. On paper, it was his biggest hit, easily surpassing It Happened One Night.
It was the 7th most popular film at the British box office in 1935-36.
Capra won his second Academy Award for Directing in 1936 for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, while Cooper received the first of his five nominations for Best Actor. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Riskin), and Best Sound Recording (John P. Livadary).
At the end of the year, the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review named "Mr. Deeds" the "Best Picture of 1936."
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:1998: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – Nominated
2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #70
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Judge May: "But, in the opinion of the court, you are not only sane but you're the sanest man that ever walked into this courtroom." – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – #83
2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
A radio adaptation of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was originally broadcast on February 1, 1937 on Lux Radio Theater. In that broadcast, Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur and Lionel Stander reprised their roles from the 1936 film.
A planned sequel, titled Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, eventually became Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Although the latter's screenplay was actually based on an unpublished story, The Gentleman from Montana, the film was, indeed, meant to be a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, with Gary Cooper reprising his role as Longfellow Deeds. Because Cooper was unavailable, Capra then "... saw it immediately as a vehicle for Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur", and Stewart was borrowed from MGM.
A short-lived ABC television series of the same name ran from 1969 to 1970, starring Monte Markham as Longfellow Deeds.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was loosely remade as Mr. Deeds in 2002, starring Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder.
The Bengali movie Raja-Saja (1960) starring Uttam Kumar, Sabitri Chatterjee, and Tarun Kumar, and directed by Bikash Roy was a Bengali adaptation of this film.
The 1994 comedy The Hudsucker Proxy had several plot elements borrowed from this film.
A Japanese manga adaption of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was made in 2010 by Ogata Hiromi called Bara no Souzokunin.
In 2013, digital restoration of the film to its original state was completed by Sony Colorworks. The digital images were digitally restored frame-by-frame at Prasad Corporation, to remove dirt, tears, scratches and other substances marring the surface.
The bucolic Vermont town of Mandrake Falls, home of Longfellow Deeds, is now considered an archetype of small town America with Kelland creating a type of "cracker-barrel" view of rural values contrasted with that of sophisticated "city folk". The word pixilated, previously limited to New England (and attested there since 1848), "had a nationwide vogue in 1936" thanks to its prominent use in the film, although its use in the screenplay may not be an accurate interpretation.
The word 'doodle', in its modern specific sense of drawing on paper rather than in its older more general sense of 'fooling around', may also owe its origin - or at least its entry into common usage - to the final courtroom scene in this film. The Longfellow Deeds character, addressing the judge, introduces the word 'doodler' - which the judge has not heard before - as being "a word we made up back home to describe someone who makes foolish designs on paper while they're thinking." The clear inference is that no one outside his fictional home town of Mandrake Falls could be expected to know the word.
The lyrics to the 1977 Rush song "Cinderella Man" on the A Farewell to Kings album are based on the story of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
In the movie Baby Boom, a babysitter refers to her hometown of Mandrake Falls.