Flickchart Road Trip: Vermont
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
Having driven north on I-95 for so long that I’ve plum forgotten to keep apprising you of my route, I’m now finally changing direction. As the second half of the trip officially gets underway, it’s time to head back west again, and the first (new) stop is Vermont, which I’m reaching after traversing New Hampshire a second time. (The only state Maine borders is New Hampshire, which means I have to drive through both coming and going.) To get to Burlington, VT from Portland, however, I have to retrace my steps and go significantly south first. This certainly recalls the classic apocryphal quote attributed to Mainers, which speaks volumes about both Maine residents and Maine geography: “You can’t get there from here.” (You have to imagine it being said with a thick Maine accent.) So I went back down through Maine’s southern border into New Hampshire, where I caught route 101 west, then I-93 north, and finally I-89 most of the way into Burlington.
Vermont is the New England state I know least well, so of course this is where I’d end up for the 4th of July. I’d easily figure out what to do in the winter time — skiing, tapping maple trees to get syrup — but in summer? There’s not even an ocean nearby.
There is a lake, however — Lake Champlain, to be exact. Over this lake they have a fireworks show to celebrate Independence Day, though I’m glad I started looking into it a few days in advance, because they hold the show the night before the 4th. I have to say, this is not a bad idea. The thing that sometimes depresses a person about fireworks on the 4th is that in the back of your mind, you always know you have to return to work the next day. Not the case when it’s the 3rd. Just wish I had a work to return to two days later, in order to appreciate it. Then again, I’m kind of glad I don’t.
The fireworks show? You know what fireworks look like. It was pretty much like that.
If I gave the impression there’s not a lot to do in Vermont, that’s certainly not true — but that does appear to be the opinion of filmmakers. I struggled to find five films set here that I’d seen (ultimately I found six), and three of those five plus my feature film all spend a lot more time somewhere else than they do in Vermont. Them’s the breaks. As for that featured film, sorry Adam Sandler fans, I watched the original: Frank Capra‘s 1936 classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which is ranked #557 globally. The question was, would I like it … or go to town on it?
What it’s about
When millionaire Martin Semple dies in a car crash in Italy, his $20 million fortune finds its way into the surprised hands of the lone heir in his will: his nephew Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a tuba-playing greeting card poet from Mandrake Falls,Vermont, who barely knew Semple. Taken to New York by the shady law firm that’s going to oversee his new fortune (and is seeking to get power of attorney from him), Deeds begins making headlines for a variety of quirky behaviors that show just how much he’s a small-town boy swept up in the big city. Assigned to write stories about Deeds, whom she dubs “Cinderella Man,” reporter Louis “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) disguises herself as a poor worker named Mary in order to get close to Deeds and appeal to his sense of chivalry. She gets too close, however, and soon begins to fall for the trusting Deeds and regret the way she’s betraying him and keeping her real identity hidden. As Deeds tries to use his fortune to benefit mankind, he may slowly be getting used to a life of luxury — and another distant relative may be plotting to use his many eccentric episodes (such as feeding a horse a bag of donuts) against him to prove that he’s not mentally competent to manage the money.
How it uses the state
The movie only spends about ten minutes in Vermont right at the beginning, as once Longfellow Deeds is located in his hometown and whisked away to New York, he doesn’t make a return visit on screen. However, Mandrake Falls is evoked throughout as a symbol of small-town American life, simple and pure, but also provincial and naive (depending on who’s evoking it, I guess). Vermont on the whole can be seen as the anti-New York, the place responsible for breeding a young man who ends up being such an outsider that his sanity is called into question.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Vermont movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Mr. Deeds Goes to Town will battle:
1) Dark Victory (1939, Edmund Goulding). My Flickchart: #1139/3552. Global: #2234. The year 1939 is often considered one of the greatest in Hollywood history, as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and this film were among those that lost the best picture Oscar to Gone With the Wind. The story involves a Long Island socialite played by Bette Davis, who struggles with the new diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor that will blind her and then kill her within a year … unless her doctor/love interest (George Brent) can remove it and save her. The film does a really interesting job examining Davis’ Judith Traherne as she lashes out and grapples with her mortality. More than anything it may be notable for its famous co-stars, which include both Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Reagan in smaller roles. The latter part of the story takes place in Brattleboro, Vermont, where Judith moves in an attempt to live out her remaining days happily, if she’s unable to emerge victorious in that fight for her life.
2) What Lies Beneath (2000, Robert Zemeckis). My Flickchart: #1978/3552. Global: #4791. Did you know that What Lies Beneath was the movie Robert Zemeckis made in the middle of shooting Cast Away, while waiting for Tom Hanks to lose weight? Well, now you do. That might explain some of the oddness of this psychological thriller/horror/ghost story, but the structurally unconventional script (by Clark Gregg and Sarah Kernochan) certainly shares the blame. Still, the film’s weirdness is actually one of its strengths; it gives us Harrison Ford as we’ve never seen him, a discomfiting storyline (two, actually) and a strong haunted protagonist turn from Michelle Pfeiffer. A high tolerance for red herrings, though, gives a viewer a much better chance of enjoying the movie. Most of the action takes place in and around the large Vermont home of the two main characters.
3) Super Troopers (2002, Jay Chandrasekhar). My Flickchart: #2031/3552. Global: #1312. In a Flickchart duel between Super Troopers and What Lies Beneath, Super Troopers would win. Since I have presumably never had this duel, the second feature from the Broken Lizard comedy troupe finds itself some 50 spots back and has to settle for my #3 Vermont slot. In a way that’s fair, because this comedy about Vermont state troopers behaving badly is definitely hit and miss. Its hits, however, are hilarious, such as one trooper daring another to say the word “Meow” exactly ten times in the course of conversing with the next motorist he pulls over. (He nearly forgets the last one, but ultimately delivers.) It generally finds the perfect blend of sweetness and naughtiness, and Broken Lizard is still trying to figure out how to make another movie this funny.
4) Shopgirl (2005, Anand Tucker). My Flickchart: #2522/3552. Global: #3433. Shopgirl has exactly two modes, both on display in the photo above: gloomy and gloomier. What’s supposed to play as a sophisticated romantic showpiece for the elegant Claire Danes is instead swallowed by Steve Martin‘s soporofic, depressive narration. Adapting his own novella for the screen, Martin seems to be going for his own Lost in Translation here, but everything about this movie is so subdued that he’s mistaken lugubrious for melancholy, and the whole thing comes across as incredibly self-indulgent. Danes is a transplanted Vermonter working at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, selling those elegant gloves that run down to the elbow, and she’s being pursued by both an age-appropriate suitor (Jason Schwartzmann) and the older Martin. Her character, Mirabelle, makes a brief return to Vermont to seek solace after one of the film’s many romantic speed bumps.
5) Baby Boom (1987, Charles Shyer). My Flickchart: #3283/3552. Global: #4568. Imagine my surprise when a cute concept involving a likable star (Diane Keaton), which received the additional validation of getting adapted into a television series, and also seemed like a nice little bit of pop women’s lib, ended up disappointing me to the point of making me angry. Baby Boom may have played reasonably well at the time of its release, but when I saw it within the last seven or eight years, I was left agape by its broad comic humor and generally ridiculous conceits. Example: At one point, two MBAs, Keaton and her career-driven love interest (Harold Ramis), can think of nothing better to feed the young child they inherit than linguine. Keaton’s purchase of a ramshackle home in Vermont is the movie’s very Hollywood attempt to repudiate the big city in favor of small-town life, but this too leads to more scenes that insult Keaton’s intelligence — and ours.
First duel: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town vs. Super Troopers. Longfellow Deeds is way outside these troopers’ jurisdiction. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town wins.
Second duel: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town vs. What Lies Beneath. Zemeckis’ film lies beneath Mr. Deeds on any list — way beneath. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town wins.
Third duel: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town vs. Dark Victory. There’s no victory here, dark or otherwise, for Bette Davis and company. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town wins.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town finishes first out of the six movies.
Some movies just give you the sense that you’re in the presence of greatness. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which won its director an Oscar, is one such movie.
At first I wasn’t so sure. The film has a hasty beginning that sets up the story in broad, almost clumsy strokes, as though trying to stuff five minutes of exposition into the first 30 seconds. I thought this was a particularly unusual (and unsustainable) pace, given that the movie runs nearly two hours. True enough, things actually slow down once Deeds reaches New York, which seems like a bit of an irony given how much faster life is where he’s going than where he’s been. While that results in the action leaving our dear state of Vermont pretty quickly, it does allow for plenty of time to develop the relationship between Deeds and his unwitting love interest, Babe, who is given the crucial amount of screen time to fall for the charming rube from out of town. Cooper plays that role wonderfully, and the actor himself seems to relax as the film moves forward, starting off a bit stiff before taking a lead from his character and becoming much more loosey goosey. In a key scene near the end, someone describes Deeds as “pixelated,” which doesn’t mean what you and I might think it means (it has nothing to do with poor digital playback). It’s more that his behavior is “touched by pixies,” which means it demonstrates a refreshing joie de vivre that damns consequences and always presents itself at face value.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town can be considered the archetypal Frank Capra film in many ways, since it’s populist entertainment with its roots in small-town life, and an idealized hero who goes against the grain of a society that isn’t quite pure enough for him. You could say it literally lays the groundwork for a movie like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington three years later, as both films share the same format for their titles and the same narrative structure of an outsider going to a city that he tries to save from its own corruption. What’s more, Mandrake Falls, Vermont — even seen only briefly — seems very much like a precursor to Bedford Falls, New York, in Capra’s 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
What surprised me wonderfully is how unsentimental this film ultimately is. Just because one of the dominant themes of Capra’s work is hope, that doesn’t mean this theme appears through big speeches we would describe today as “cheesy.” In fact, the ending of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town does turn on a crucial speech by Cooper’s Deeds, but it’s not a speech designed to tug at our heart strings or even fill us with a surge of catharsis. More than anything, this speech is a comic set piece, a carefully constructed reversal of a number of arguments that have initially been deployed against Deeds. If anything, it’s a bit subversive. That’s the ultimate statement about what Capra was able to achieve in films with happy endings that appealed to a wide audience of viewers, and eventually became timeless.
After doing a large flying leap over hundreds of miles of New York, I’ll be hitting Pennsylvania. Here I plan to watch the movie I informally consider to be the most embarrassing I’ve never seen: Rocky. Yes, I’ve never seen Rocky — or Rocky II, for that matter, even though I’ve seen all the movies that came after that, up to and including 2006‘s Rocky Balboa. Let’s take things one Rocky at a time.