Jean Arthur was Frank Capra’s secret weapon. Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart had all the bravado moves, but Arthur was the key to convincing the audience that these wholesome, ordinary men of truth and soul were not only not worth mocking by the cruelly cynical and cold modern world, they were the key to shedding off the facade of sophistication and rediscovering the soul of what is right and true. Which, if you’re not paying attention, can sound hokey and embarrassingly sentimental, but if the sophisticated and cool Arthur can not only be won over by these honest rubes, but made to fall desperately in love with them, there must be something there worth another look.
Arthur as Babe Bennet makes her first appearance here as not only one of the boys, but as the hippest and most streetwise of the bunch. Her chirpy voice and killer looks aside, you can immediately tell she is the sharpest and least dupable reporter in town. Like a modern female cowboy, she plays games with a rope as her Publisher desperately offers her a months vacation for the lowdown on the newest rich man in town, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper).
Deeds’ playboy uncle, who he’d never met, careens off an Italian freeway and leaves him his fortune of 20 million dollars and a bevy of sycophants and hanger-ons. Longfellow’s reaction? “20 million dollars is a lot of money isn’t it … I wonder why he left me all that money? I don’t need it” as the greedy New York lawyers who are a half million dollars away from being honest choke on their hats with disbelief. Deeds has never been out of Mandrake Falls, Vermont and is not a little bit perturbed that he has to now. Deeds is a square simple egg who writes sentimental greeting card poetry and plays to the tuba to help himself concentrate. He’s back country unsophisticated, and has a hidden dream of rescuing a damsel in distress, but he’s no fool and sizes up the New York frauds in about a second flat.
When he gets to New York he demands to see the financial books, cuts off the opera for not pulling their weight, locks his bodyguards into a closet, and punches out a group a discourteous and laughing literati. Bennet, however, blind sides him by pretending to be an impoverished soul in trouble. Hearing the pleas of an impoverished farmer, Deeds decides to give away his fortune to the needy. An act so selfless that his Uncle’s New York lawyers insist that he be evaluated for mental fitness. This is complicated by New York’s fascination with his chasing after fire engines, quick temper, and a drunken escapade that culminated in his feeding donuts to a Policeman’s horse. When Deeds finds out that the girl he has fallen in love with is the same reporter, who has dubbed him Athe Cinderella man” and made him the laughing stock of the town, he withdraws into himself and refuses to defend himself.
Deed’s mental fitness hearing brings things to a poignant head as a desperately in love Bennet begs the gentle giant for forgiveness, and is eventually rewarded with a legal performance by Cooper equal to even the best Clarence Darrow, Johnnie Cochran, or Ben Matlock ever had to offer. It’s tough enough to film a credible morality play without being laughed out of town. It’s altogether mind boggling to do so and provide a grade A romantic comedy to boot.