The Narrative of the Lovable Simpleton: The Capra Years

A group of less than honorable people choose a lovable male simpleton to serve a selfish purpose. When he simpleton disappoints them, the group turns on him.

This plot permeates many American films for decades. In each of these films, a lovable simpleton gets chosen for a special purpose. This purpose will test his idealism. By the end of the story, the hero has held onto his innocence and won the heart of his love interest. Within the narrative, how the simpleton chooses to behave is completely justified, while everybody who dares question or challenge his world view is portrayed as harmful, wrong, or unhappy. Only by agreeing to the salt of the earth ideals of the simpleton, will the other characters achieve true happiness.

It should be noted that this article is not to shame anybody who likes these movies, but to examine how a melodramatic plot favors a simple character.

The Character

In all of these films, a certain number of narrative threads happen surrounding the lovable simpleton:

  1. A Correct Masculine Protagonist: A Christ-like figure, the simpleton rarely has to grow or learn anything. Instead, his journey revolves around other people learning to accept him. He will often begin the story as complacent or happy. Oftentimes, his practical behavior proves right and flies in the face of the antagonists. Also, he is a traditionally masculine character that women find attractive.
  2. A Corrupt Antagonist: The Antagonist will often try to corrupt the antagonist in some way. This character often gives the Simpleton a gift of some sort that calls them to action. They receive this gift based on showmanship rather than hard work. The Simpleton does not necessarily want the gift, but takes it. Later in the story, the inherent goodness of the simpleton will work against the corruption of the antagonist.
  3. Dissatisfied Female Characters: Unless she is a matriarchal figure, almost every female character is presented as an unhappy character who needs to grow. In the love story of the films, a woman will leave behind her old life or dream to move in with the protagonist. The narrative discounts any female character that does not serve the simpleton’s story as infantile, frivolous, annoying, and/or destructive.
  4. Distrust of Unmasculine Males: Most of these narratives present men who do not show traditionally masculine qualities as harmful, annoying, and snobbish. The narrative often justifies the simpleton grabbing or assaulting these characters.
  5. Solution: Oftentimes, the simpleton will not succeed based on their actions, but based on a secondary character stepping in to save the day. Therefore, the simpleton succeeds because somebody loves him.

Almost all the simpletons serve these story functions, but perhaps not in the same way.

The Frank Capra Films

In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, director Frank Capra made three films about lovable simpletons getting chosen by corrupt people to serve their selfish needs: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941).

Overview

Capra’s filmmaking follows a lot of the classic studio trends. The films tend to be shot in a fairly theatrical way that favors lots of dialogue. Instead of showing many scenes, characters will describe them. Capra reseves real locations for the idealism of small town America the film presents rather than the corrupt version he abhors.

In each one of these films, a different group of people choose the titular simpleton after somebody has died. Halfway through the movie, these characters would often discover the selfishness and corruption of their choosers. Now, the choosers decide to destroy the simpleton in order to get what they want.

The films often share many cast members as well as plots points. Under Capra’s direction, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington began as a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, so those films perhaps share even more similarities than Meet John Doe does.

‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’

Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) gets chosen to inherit his uncle’s fortune. Deeds finds himself unhappy with the fortune until he decides to give it away.

‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) gets appointed to the U.S. Senate after the senator from his home state dies. When Smith learns of the other Senators’ corruption, the senators all turn on him.

‘Meet John Doe’

After getting laid off, ambitious Newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) makes up a story about a man planning to kill himself by jumping off the roof on Christmas Eve. This causes an uproar. Under Ann’s suggestion, the Newspaper decides to run more stories after the story proves successful and cast a man to play “John Doe.” They hire Baseball star turned tramp John Willoughby (Gary Cooper).

A Correct Masculine Protagonist

All three of the innocent protagonist’s journeys have them holding onto idealistic views against a corrupt system. The simpleton inspires the lovable “regular people” of the story until they discover that corrupt politicians or organizations are using them. In Capra’s version of the story, one of the worst things a simpleton can do is disappoint a group of boys.

All of the Capra films introduce the protagonist after talking about him for a while. Thy then make a point that the foolish character is useful to them in some way.

‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town has a character who is given a gift he does not really care about. Throughout the story, Mr. Deeds is portrayed as lovable eccentric nobody. The film presents his values and ideals as common sense while presenting most everybody in New York’s ideals as foolish.

Deeds finds the way millionaires spend money foolish and wants to give the money to people he finds worthy of it. When a homeless farmer tries to shoot him, Mr. Deeds realizes his plight and finds a new calling: giving the entire estate away to those who actually need it.

‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington focuses on a rube learning that the system he believed in being more corrupt than he thought.

Jefferson Smith begins as the naïve leader of the boy rangers before getting tapped for senator. In that job, he publishes a newsletter and speaks about the manner great historical American heroes. In fact, it is the sons of Governor Hopper (Guy Kibbee) who suggest Smith for the job.

Smith loves the mythos and patriotism of the office, but does not quite understand the bureaucracy, rules, or potential corruption of such a position. The film has lovable Simpleton learn that his mentor is a deeply flawed person. Mr. Smith wants to create a boy ranger camp, but discovers that it is on the land that a political boss plans to build a dam on to profit himself.

The character of Smith exists in a simplistic world without party or policy. Smith’s only goal seems to be to build a boy’s camp. In the podcast Unspooled, former speechwriter and staffer Jon Lovett says that one of things the film does that politicians and citizens should not do is mistake awe, wonderment, and naiveté for principle. In Lovett’s words, playing the actual game actually requires some compromise and some understanding of how politics actually works rather than how a simplistic narrative wants it to work.

‘Meet John Doe’

Meet John Doe’s John Willoughby falls for the idea, only to discover that the idea has been tainted by outside forces. Willoughby begins the film as a lovable hobo who gets luxuries he never had before by agreeing to play the part. His dream is to play baseball and please lots of children. At the beginning, Ann Mitchell and the paper choose Willoughby because he represents the average decent out of work man.

Meet John Doe presents the simpleton as the average decent out of work American. In Meet John Doe, John Willoughby gets advice from several people. His speeches from Ann’s deceased father. The Colonel (Walter Brennan) serves as John Willoughby’s mentor. The Colonel does not like the deal at all as he thinks “the helots” will get to him. A longtime hobo, the Colonel does not want to be tied down to society.

Corrupt Antagonist

Each story begins with somebody dying and an organization having to find somebody to replace them. The audience never sees the dead person as that part of the story never really matters too much. The lead antagonist is the person overseeing the organization.  In Capra’s worlds, the antagonist is somebody trying to corrupt a pure institution for their own rotten purposes.

‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’

Mr. Deeds has attorney John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille) as the villain. His uncle’s attorney, Cedar loves giving the money to Deeds because he is “naïve as a child.” Cedar also does not believe that Deeds will discover what he and the other attorneys have been doing to his uncle’s books. He becomes angry when Deeds decides to give away his uncle’s estate to the poor.

‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) wants to build a dam to profit for himself. However, Mr. Smith proposes a boy ranger ranch that conflicts with Taylor’s plans to build a dam. When Mr. Smith gets news of this corruption and refuses to give up his principles, Taylor and his men plant a forged document saying that Smith planned to build the boy scout ranch on his land and planned to profit from it.

Throughout the story, everybody knows that Taylor is a crooked character. The people of his state dismiss his candidate in favor of their own. When Smith comes under scrutiny, Taylor decides to suppress any evidence in favor of him. These actions include running down children distributing Smith’s newspaper.

‘Meet John Doe’

Meet John Doe’s antagonist is D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold again), who buys the News Bulletin and corrupts it. However, Norton does not call him to action. That comes from Ann Mitchell, who only wrote the story to hold onto her story with the paper. While Norton’s actions cause the story to happen, he does not engineer the plan. Originally, the idea is an original that has nothing to do with Norton. Some people think that Norton has created the character for nefarious purposes. Ann Mitchell decides to sell Doe to Norton, who decides to corrupt John Doe to his purposes after hearing his speech about the little guy. He decides to have John Doe present Norton as a friend to “all the John Does.” When John Doe decides not to go along with it, Norton exposes him as a fake.

Dissatisfied Female Characters

In Capra’s world, the love interest is a cynical member of the corrupt system that the simpleton joins. The relationship is often in some ways more parental than romantic. In the films starring Gary Cooper, the film often portrays her childish and in need of guidance from a parental figure of some kind. This figure turns out to be the Simpleton. Mr. Smith portrays her as a maternal figure who roots for the hero. The Capra films have the woman often having to choose between marrying the simpleton and a more unsatisfying partner.

Besides the love interest, Capra most often populates these films with two types of women. On one side, there is the salt of the earth wife and mother. On the other side is the high society women who often laugh and gawk at the simpleton rather than help him.

‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’

Mr. Deeds focuses on Mr. Deeds relationship with reporter Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur), who goes undercover as “Mary Dawson” to scope him out. A hard-bitten Newspaper woman, she agrees to do it for a month’s vacation with pay. Babe writes scandalous stories about Mr. Deeds’ absurd adventures. Over the course of the story, she will come around to Deeds and it conflicts with her conscience. Eventually, she decides to quit her job for Deeds.

In Mr. Deeds, Babe has two parental figures: her editor MacWade (George Bancroft) and her roommate Mabel Dawson (Ruth Donnelly). These characters both serve to guide Babe throughout the story.  At one point, she also says that Deeds is a lot like her father as part of her cover story.

‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

When Mr. Smith becomes a senator, he finds love with his secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur again), who most people call by her last name. Unlike Smith, Saunders has become accustomed to the corrupt ways of Washington. She has thought about quitting, but knows she is in it for the money. Reporter Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell) has a standing proposal, which she has never quite accepted. However, Smith makes her about something again and she coaches him through his eventual fight in congress.

Throughout the story, Saunders’ role changes as she conveys it to Moore. First, she acts as his babysitter, describing him as a patriotic infant. Then, she becomes a reluctant mother of sorts. She describes feeling like a mother sending a child off to school. Finally, she falls for him. This change happens gradually and culminates in the final hearing.

‘Meet John Doe’

Over the course of Meet John Doe, John Willoughby falls in love with columnist Ann Mitchell. Ann wrote the provocative column about the made-up John Doe. The film presents Ann’s job as obligatory to her current situation, rather than something she has always needed to do. She openly admits she is just doing it for money to support her overly charitable mother (Spring Byington) and little sisters.  Her mother tells her to have John Doe say “something simple and real with hope in it.” She then gives Ann her father’s diary. The character of John Doe becomes her father through John Willoughby. The speech becomes about the little guys (“the John Does of the world”). Ann says she has fallen in love with the John Doe she has written.

Over the course of the story, Ann begins to regret her nefarious ways. The film presents Ann as a woman to be tamed. John Willoughby has a dream where he’s her father and he’s spanking her so she will not marry the villain’s nephew Ted Sheldon (Rod La Rocque). The film sees her as somebody who has not quite grown up. At the end of the story, she comes to him to make sure he does not jump off city hall.

Distrust of Unmasculine Men

At the end of all the Capra stories, the salt of the earth heroes win out against the horrible system. However, all of the heroes have a tenuous relationship with intellectuals, which Capra depicts as corrupt. The intellectuals often work as reporters, psychiatrists, bureaucrats, and lawyers. In Capra’s films, the hero punches out the sniveling uptight elitists who oppose him.

‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’

Throughout the movie, upperclass characters are portrayed as absurd and “funny.” Almost all of them are portrayed as less than masculine by the film. The film also justifies anything that Deeds does to them by the fact that they were mean or contemptuous of Longfellow Deeds.

Mr. Deeds’ response to any man who insults him is to punch them in the face. He grabs a lawyer (Charles Lane) who wants money and throws him into a wall. After a group of writers invites him over as part of a cruel joke, he punches two of them out after his love interest Babe says that she does not mind if he punches people out. Towards the end of the second act, Babe has to tell Deeds she has hidden her identity. She says, “he’ll probably kick me down the stairs.” When it comes to hearing insults, criticism, or bad news, Deeds does not seem to have any actual tools to argument or communication.

At the end of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, attorney John Cedar tries to have him committed and brings back all the people Deeds wronged over the course of the movie. Longfellow Deeds saves the day and foils the supposed experts based on a narrative of “common sense.” He also punches out Cedar in the middle of a jury room without experiencing consequences.

‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, most all of the press, and Washington society are portrayed as indifferent, annoyed, or at best amused by Smith as a lovable rube. He does not have quite as many outbursts as Longfellow Deeds. A big part of story involves Smith having to learn to express himself and follow the rules.

Mr. Smith punches out multiple reporters after they write an unflattering story about him. One of them, Nosey (Charles Lane again), refers to Smith as ‘Tarzan.’ The press wrestles him to a seat before telling what his actual position is. This convinces Smith to find a purpose within congress.

‘Meet John Doe’

Meet John Doe’s first image is of a construction worker drilling off the sign of the newspaper. The story focuses on the corruption of the press and an idea. Although the film does have more salt of the earth people, it does feature a few unamsculine and bureaucratic characters that the film tends to present as either foolish or menacing.

Meet John Doe has John Willoughby punching out the nephew of Norton after he grabs him and calls him “ungrateful.” Like most of the other films, the nephew is portrayed as inferior to the handsome Deeds. It is not quite as pronounced as the other films, but it does exist.

Solutions

Each of these films present a solution to the Simpleton right when he is at his lowest point. Oftentimes, the solution will come from another character experiencing an arc. In both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, the lead character has to appeal to a judge of some sort who is amused by his antics. Meet John Doe on the other has the protagonist’s love interest and others trying to persuade him not to jump off the town hall roof.

‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’

Mr. Deeds has the estate trying to commit Longfellow Deeds to an insane asylum for trying to give away all the money. At the trial, the despondent Mr. Deeds decides not to defend himself until his love interest Babe comes forward and argues for the hurt Deeds along with her editor and ex-newspaperman Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander).

After that, Deeds steps in to defend himself, much to the delight of everybody in the courtroom. However, a lot of his arguments fit into the Tu Quoque fallacy (appeal to hypocrisy), in which Deeds “destroys” his accusers by accusing of hypocrisy (to paraphrase: “I might have been drunk, but so was Cedar’s son”). The audience roars with laughter as everybody is painted as absurd by Deeds. While entertaining, such arguments do not really address the initial argument. They just paint somebody as a hypocrite rather than rebuffing their initial argument. However, the film treats this as common sense and wisdom. At the end of all this, the court deems him not only sane, but the “sanest man to ever walk into this courtroom.”

‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

Throughout the story of Mr. Smith, Jefferson Smith has had a father figure in Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Paine was friends with Smith’s father, a newspaperman who was killed by a corrupt organization he attempted to expose. Smith’s father always said that “lost causes were the only causes worth fighting for.”

In the climax, Jefferson Smith filibusters to prove his innocence, refusing to yield until he can finally be heard out. Smith finally collapses of exhaustion after hours of filibustering. Before he does, he appeals to Paine about “lost causes.” Paine’s conscious gets to him. After trying to shoot himself in the hall, Paine comes back in the room and demands that he be expelled instead of the honest Smith.

‘Meet John Doe’

Meet John Doe has John Willoughby actually going to throw himself off city hall before Ann Mitchell and the John Doe society stops him. Ann tells him he does not have to make that sacrifice as somebody else already made it 2000 years ago. The John Doe society also says that they planned that back up without the corrupted message. He picks Ann up and leaves the roof.

Conclusion

Capra’s version of the story focused on an individual giving up a gift for the greater good, exposing the corruption within the system. However, in order to keep the simpleton likeable and pure, the film tends to present the character in a certain way.

A great example of this comes in a scene from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. After going on a drunken bender with a poet named Morrow (Walter Catlett), Deeds wakes up to learn of all his crazy and illegal antics the previous night. Instead of admitting to his behavior, Deeds tells his butler to keep Morrow away from him. This exemplifies a common theme: if the hero does behave in a questionable or bad manner, the narrative frames the story so it was not his fault. He was either duped or provoked. Similarly, if the simpleton has communication problems, they are only with the antagonists or negatively drawn characters in the story. This becomes a common thread throughout the other iterations of the story.

Part 2 here and Part 3 here.