Jun 2, 2014

SIFF 2014: A Rough Start, But Worth The Wait--Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Starring: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Douglass Dumbrille, Lionel Stander

I have to admit I had my qualms about going to see a movie on one of the most beautiful days of the year. Not that I wouldn't normally do that on a nice day, but this past Saturday was truly a perfect, the kind that people in Seattle wait for all year. I couldn't miss out on Gary Cooper on the big screen though, so off I went.

Once the credits started rolling, I got that excited, "look how freaking huge the screen is!" feeling that I get every time I see a movie. Even during a festival like this one, where I often watch multiple films a day, I still feel that way whenever that first image appears on the screen. In this case, the bliss would be interrupted.

I was admiring the clarity of the digital presentation, thinking that it couldn't replace 35mm, but that I did like it, when ironically a very digital-related problem came up. About ten minutes into the film, the sound fell out of sync with the visuals, so that a few scenes played out over a series of images from further into the film. For several minutes the audience sat in confusion, then a few stormed out, only to come back in right away, because yes, they were working on it.

Once the SIFF team got a handle on the situation, a staff member came in to give the audience an update. Apparently the syncing problem wasn't due to the projection, but the copy of the film that had been sent. They said they couldn't re-sync with digital as they could with 35mm. So there wasn't much they could do.

SIFF offered vouchers for disappointed audience members who wished to leave, but I was really enjoying the images, even with the wacky sound issues, so I stuck around. So did half the audience, which unfortunately wasn't much on a day as beautiful as that one. We were rewarded for our patience when the movie somehow fell back in sync a few minutes later.

I'm sharing all this because it made me realize how little I know about how digital films work in a theater. I don't even know what a digital projector looks like, which is interesting, because we all know what a film projector looks like. The experience made me curious to learn more about about this format that has overtaken 35mm.

Once things were rolling smoothly again, and they did for the rest of the film, it was not difficult to become lost in the movie. Capra films almost always affect me the same way: I start out laughing, then I begin thinking it's corny, until I realize I'm crying, or all tensed up because I'm worried about the hero, and then I start laughing again, usually while crying. It's all very messy. Mr. Deeds made me feel all those things. It's really the perfect Capra film in that respect.

As Mr. Deeds, the small town man who has a fortune he doesn't want thrust upon him, Gary Cooper is all long giraffe eyelashes and boyish mannerisms. As written, it seems like a simple role, but Cooper reinforces that this is a man with simple values, but that is not the same as being simple. He wants to be kind, but he has no tolerance for cruelty and the way he coils up to defend himself is always a bit unnerving. It is so different from his unguarded self that he almost seems like a different person. It's a difficult balancing act, but he manages it gracefully. The transitions in mood feel plausible.

The rest of the cast offers brilliant support: Jean Arthur with her passionate frustration, George Bancroft as a tough, but also sensitive editor and character actors like Ruth Donnelly who don't seem capable of a false move. And Lionel Stander's gravelly voice always makes everything feel more modern. I remember embracing these actors as a whole when I first saw this movie several years ago.

This time, I was riveted by Cooper. A lot of it was that I felt renewed appreciation for his skill as an actor. I always forget how good he could be, how much he could communicate in his quiet way.

I think I also fixated on Cooper this time around because of how well he voiced his character's confusion about the cruelty around him, and how he couldn't understand how people could get "pleasure out of hurting each other." I've thought about this a lot since Kim Novak and Liza Minnelli were the target of such insensitive bullying during and following the 2014 Academy Awards. The mockery does sometimes feel like a casual sport. We forget we are talking about people with the same feelings as us because they seem so far from our own reality.

I know it can get boring to say that a film resonates as much today as it did when first released, but with its condemnation of cruelty, reliance on rumor and needlessly mocking public figures, I think Mr. Deeds means more now that it did in 1936.

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