Saturday, December 24, 2011
Meet John Doe
"Below is a letter which reached my desk this morning. It's a commentary on what we laughingly call a civilized world. 'Dear Miss Mitchell: Four years ago I was fired out of my job. Since then I haven't been able to get another one. At first I was sore at the state administration because it's on account of the slimy politics here we have all this unemployment. But in looking around, it seems the whole world's going to pot, so in protest I'm going to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof!' Signed, A disgusted American citizen, John Doe.'
Editor's note: If you ask this column, the wrong people are jumping off roofs."
It was 1941. Europe was locked in the second year of the most terrible war in history, while most Americans were thinking that they might just sit this one out. FDR was serving his third term as president. And Frank Capra, son of Sicilian immigrants, set out to make a movie that had no suitable ending.
A seventy year old movie that flopped when it was first released, that tried to warn Americans of a hidden menace: a group of powerful businessmen clandestinely manipulate a grassroots populist movement whose expanding membership has the potential to sweep a candidate of their choosing into the White House.
If this story sounds familiar, it might have something to do with a perceptible change in the moral atmosphere of America that resembles the one in 1941. Fascism was a reality in American politics, and popular figures like Charles Lindbergh argued for isolationism. Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America directly examines the consequences for America of Lindbergh becoming president in 1940. Lindbergh persuades Americans to stay out of a war in Europe, and the consequences - for Europe and for the world - are dire.
Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, which I wrote about at length a few years ago, is probably the most recognizable Christmas movie in America, even if it only touches on Christmas in its final scene. What still strikes me about that fulsome movie is how Frank Capra could've gone through the Second World War just so he could retreat into a fantasy America when the war was over. His nightmare vision of Pottersville, with its disillusion, its bars, strip clubs, and prostitution, was much closer to the real America than hokey old Grovers Corners.
The final scene of Meet John Doe takes place on Christmas Eve. It was one of several scenes that Capra shot and tested with preview audiences. In one of the discarded scenes, the hero actually jumps to his death, and the Colonel (Walter Brennan) is last scene holding the dead man in his arms in a kind of impious Pietà. That ending worked, dramatically at least, but audiences weren't at all ready in 1941 for Gary Cooper committing suicide.
Earlier in film, Cooper gave a speech that is riddled with hokey sentiments, but is still powerful in its simple appeal to human decency.
Meet John Doe, despite its unevenness, is my favorite Christmas movie because it reminds us of what the holiday is supposed to be about. It is also, at the end of a year of populist movements, of peaceful and belligerent protests, a movie molotov cocktail aimed at Wall Street and all the D.B. Norton's of the world who want to take control of a democracy out of the hands of its people.
Here is the best contemporary review of the film by Otis Ferguson. I wonder what Ferguson would make of the fact that there is now a musical of Capra's movie?
Democracy at the Box Office
The New Republic, March 24, 1941
Though Frank Capra is still right in the formula he has been holding to for five years now, Meet John Doe is at least a promise that he may be coming back to pictures. It is almost a point-for-point replica of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but some of the old felicity is there again and there are actually comedy sequences in it. I am not holding out too much hope, for today there is nothing Americans so like to be told from the screen as that they are Americans. So why should anybody with a formula and a credit line like skywriting bother with making a swell simple movie as his "production for 1941"?
The John Doe of the story is Capra's familiar and favorite American type, the easy shambling young man, shrewd and confused, rugged, a lovable innocent but don't tread on him - the uncommon common man, in short, with a heart of gold and a limestone fist, and integrity in long fibers. Eyewash, of course, but there is something in it, for a national hero is some sort of national index after all, and it is not so much how miserably short we fall of being an ideal as what ideal we choose to dream of. Anyhow, this young man, a bush-league baseball player with a glass arm, is caught up in a freak stunt for tabloid circulation-building which turns out to be dynamite both ways. As J. Doe, he is supposed to be a social reformer with a deadline for a suicide of protest; as a national news personality, he becomes so arresting and eloquent in his plea for love and understanding - the Sermon on the Mount with a drawl - that miracles are passed and John Doe clubs are formed, and it is presently worth someone's while to own him as political property. It started as fraud but eventually led to the young man's believing his own spiel and wrecking the sinister plans when he found out their antidemocratic aim. Love was a part of it, of course, and there are various clever wrinkles; but the outline is enough.
The fascination of gossip and the awe of prestige make it impossible that the question of what makes a picture should ever have a chance against the question of who. But while the names of Robert Riskin and Frank Capra are behind the production and writing and direction of John Doe, I think we can see even behind the names to what is under our noses. The message is that since it is all the little men who truly make the big world, they should live together and hang together, doing away with hate and suspicion and bad-neighborliness. Fine. Ringing. Of course there are present among us oppression and injustice and scorn for all unsung heroes whose names are Moe Million. Too bad; an outrage; something should be done. So the lift of the story comes in the doing, in the rallying to a new simple faith, as people and as Americans, through homely things but as a mighty army under the flag. In this story the powers of darkness are able to check the advance, but the victory in defeat is that there will be advance again.
I have no doubt the authors of such theses believe in them, just as it is easy for a songwriter to believe that God should bless America after he has glanced over the recent sheet-music sales. But sifted in with any such half-thought-out hoorah must be the true motivating conviction that the box office is out there and will be terrific. And that is where the thing begins to crack like Parson Weems's Liberty Bell, for in art there is a certain terrible exaction upon those who would carry their show by arousing people to believe, and it is that any such show must be made out of belief, in good faith and pure earnest, in the whole of belief itself. This rhetoric and mortising of sure-fire device of a success today is its sure betrayal by tomorrow - the flag in a game of charades, the mock prayer at a picnic.
As a picture, it does well the things which have proved highlights before: the tender concern over the little fellers with great faith; the underdog finally getting on his hind legs to tell them off; the regeneration of even a hard-boiled newspaper gal; the final blow-off scene with the nation as audience. But it talks too much to no purpose and in the same spot. The musical score is both arch and heavy (the most undeveloped department in all Hollywood anyway). And one of the saddest things is to find Capra so preoccupied with getting over a message of holy-hokum that he lets in half a dozen of the worst montage transitions - mumming faces, headlines, wheels and whorls - that have been seen in a major effort since the trick first turned stale.
Whether this much of hollowness and prefabrication will spoil the picture for you, I wouldn't know. There are things in it to see. The business of promoting a thesis has distracted Frank Capra's attention from much that he was superb at doing, and he still skips over many of the little fitted pieces which make a story inevitable. But now and then he lingers and you can see the hand of the loving workman bringing out the fine grain - as in the direction of the little crowd around the local mayor when Joe Doe is apprehended, with its naturalness and light spontaneous humor; as in the edge of satire in the management of the radio broadcast; as in the bringing out of homely humorous quirks in John Doe himself; and as always in the timing of a line, its cause and effect, so that it comes out with just force and clarity among the shifting images. But Capra and Riskin now seem content to let good actors fill out a stock part and stop at that, so Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, Gene Lockhart, J. Farrell McDonald, and several others have nothing more incisive to do than they would in any B picture. Barbara Stanwyck has always needed managing, and apparently got it here, though her idea of a passion is still that it is something to tear to firecrackers. But one man the director did give a chance to and smooth the way for, and that is James Gleason, who made more of this chance than there was in the lines and their meaning. The one scene which came through all these stream- lined Fourth of July exercises with true sincerity and eloquence was Gleason's drunken talk in the bar, the one that starts, "I like you, you're gentle. Take me, I've always been hard. Hard. Don't like hard people, you hear?" It was just talk, with business, but he made it his, and it will remain one of the magnificent scenes in pictures.
That leaves only the star, who is so much an American John Doe type you could never say whether he was cast in a part or vice versa - Gary Cooper. It is he who has the human dignity which this two hours of talk is talking about, and talking about; and it seems impossible for him to be quite foolish even in the midst of foolishness. His is the kind of stage presence which needs no special lighting or camera magic; he makes an entrance by opening a door, and immediately you know that someone is in the room. Meet John Doe has its humor, inspiration, and interest in uneven degrees; but whether you find it good, fair, or merely endurable depends more on Cooper than on what we know as sound moviemaking.