Monday, January 2, 2012

Meet John Doe Revisited

I haven't quite let go of my Christmas mood, nor have I quite finished with Meet John Doe.

The traditional run of Christmas movies is quite awful. One is required to grant one's consent to miracles of the holy or the commercial variety - of a baby in a Judean "manger" (the word in Greek means "food trough") or of a bizarre old man in red who is supposed to sneak into people's homes while they are sleeping. Since I do not believe in either, I am left with the few holiday films that are celebrations of the pagan aspects of Christmas - a feast in the depths of winter, a celebration of life and light when both are at their nadir.

The various versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the latest of which is in 3-D, have never quite done Dickens the justice he deserves. This is probably because Scrooge's change of heart, while beautifully told, is ultimately unconvincing. But because Christmas is meaningless without traditions to uphold or, for want of traditions, a lovely memory of them, many otherwise erstwhile filmmakers have resorted to making a Christmas movie, or just a movie that touches on some aspect of the holiday, like Meet John Doe.

It is not a perennial favorite. It was, in fact, a failure on its initial release, but it is a fascinating failure. Frank Capra, the film's director, had graduated from being a successful gag man for Hal Roach to making several films in the Great Depression 1930s that had a strong social message, like The Miracle Woman, American Madness, and Lady for a Day. He made what is probably the best "screwball comedy", It Happened One Night, before making a kind of New Deal trilogy of social-conscience films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe.

The plot of John Doe is tantalizing. A woman is fired from her job as a columnist for a city newspaper, and told to submit her last column. She submits a letter she made up, from a man calling himself John Doe. In the letter he complains about the state of the world and says that in protest he is going to jump off the city hall roof at midnight on Christmas Eve. The letter provokes countless responses of sympathy and support for the man who wrote it. The newspaper brings the woman in to get the original letter. When she tells them she made it all up, they realize that they can simply find someone and pay him to say he wrote the letter.

Judging from the arguments that his films put forward, one could make the mistake of thinking that Capra was a New Deal Democrat, a believer in Roosevelt's radical social reforms that were aimed at rescuing America from the Great Depression. But Capra's politics were actually quite reactionary. The liberal heroes of his films were the creation of Capra's scriptwriters, the best of whom was Robert Riskin.

This disparity between Capra's films and his own political convictions perhaps explains why he was so good at creating convincing villains. The enemies of Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe are ruthless and powerful men, wealthy and corrupt, as well as almost totally cynical. Pitted against such adversaries, the liberal pieties of Deeds, Smith, and Doe seem naïve and weak. Despite their passion and their popularity, Capra was enough of a realist to allow his villains to pose a serious threat to his heroes. So serious, in fact, that Capra had a difficult time resolving the resulting conflicts. Mr. Deeds is sewn up too neatly, with the hero keeping his inherited fortune, but Mr. Smith is resolved with a quite unbelievable change of heart by the powerful Senator Paine having what looks like a nervous breakdown.

With John Doe, Capra shot the film without an ending, believing that a satisfactory one would materialize by the time his shooting schedule got around to it. When he realized that an ending was not forthcoming, he had to test alternate endings with preview audiences. Capra must have known that having established the John Doe/Christ analogy, there should be only one conclusion to his drama - the suicide of John Doe. He actually shot such an ending, with Gary Cooper jumping from a balcony at city hall at midnight on Christmas Eve, his lifeless body in the snow, and Walter Brennan taking him in his arms in a kind of impious Pietà.

The ending that Capra settled on feels tacked on - which it was. Audiences wouldn't accept John Willoughby simply killing himself, however logical it would've been as a conclusion to the drama, and certainly consistent with the Christian parallels. So Capra got Barbara Stanwyck out of her sickbed and a handful of John Doe diehard followers to show up at the nick of time to stop him from jumping. Why didn't many more John Doe supporters show up at city hall on Christmas Eve - for the spirit of the cause if not for John Willoughby? It makes sense that D.B. Norton would be there, just in case, to dispose of all traces of the body, seeing to it that John Doe couldn't be resurrected.

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