Meet John Doe? Why, yes, thanks, I will

August 16, 2009 at 2:03 am (Capra, Classics, Movies, PBS) (, , , , , )

I love Channel 13. Every Saturday the New York PBS station shows a couple of Britcoms – Keeping Up Appearances and As Time Goes By, without which it doesn’t ever feel like Saturday (I hate pledge drives) – and then airs a “classic” movie. Lately their definition of “classic” hasn’t melded with mine, but tonight they got back on track (as a birthday present I guess – thanks, 13!) with Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Frank Capra gets a bad rap. The presenter on 13, whose name I’ve never retained, even introduced me to a new phrase: Capra-corn. It took me a second to figure out the distinction from the sign of the zodiac, but I eventually twigged to it. He’s best known, I think, for It’s a Wonderful Life, which is usually pegged as sentimental and all the other adjectives sour nasty souls like to hang on optimistic and good-hearted films (i.e., e.g. “saccharine”), which is especially idiotic given that many of the movies were released just before and during WWII, when people needed a little joy. I’ll get into Wonderful Life another time.

Meet John Doe stars Barbara Stanwyck as Ann (no “e”) Mitchell, an intrepid young journalist whose job is cut when a new bigwig buys her paper. But she has to turn in her last column before she leaves forever, and so she sits and types furiously and hands over an article based on, apparently, a story that kicked around journalistic circles real and fictional for a long time: the story of how the writer received a letter from a John Doe stating that he’d lost his job due to dirty politics, and because of the state of politics and everything else in the country he was going to jump off the roof of City Hall at midnight Christmas Eve. And then she leaves.

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 is goin’ to pot. So in protest, I’m goin’ 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 the roofs.

And she is dragged back when the story causes a sensation, as the telephones of state agencies and the newspaper are deluged with calls – job offers, marriage proposals… Ann cheerfully tells her former editor Connell (played by James Gleason) that it was made up – what’s he going to do, fire her? – and then directs him in how to turn the growing popular concern over the fate of the fictional John Doe into a circulation bonanza: they find themselves a John Doe. Gary Cooper’s Long John Willoughby, a homeless former baseball player, is cast in the role, and off they go, over the protests of his friend and fellow traveler the Colonel. Weekly “I protest” articles purporting to come from John Doe begin to show up on the front page, and John Willoughby Doe is suddenly beseiged by fans.

The big boss, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) scents possibilities, and bankrolls a radio address that leads to wider recognition of John Doe’s manifesto: basically, love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, and get off your keister and do something (actually, a lot of what Obama talked about before the election…).

To most of you, your neighbor is a stranger, a guy with a barking dog and a fence around him. Now you can’t be a stranger to any guy who’s on your own team. So tear down that fence that separates you…You’ll tear down a lot of hate and prejudices…I know a lot of you are saying to yourself: ‘He’s asking for a miracle!’ …Well, you’re wrong. It’s no miracle!…I see it happen once every year at Christmas time…Why can’t that spirit last the whole year round? Gosh, if it ever did – we’d develop such a strength that no human force could stand against it.

John Doe Clubs start popping up – strongly encouraged by D.B. – in which people reach out to their neighbors, get to know each other, and figure out ways to help those in need of help without destroying their self-esteem. And the movement spreads … and Long John gradually overcomes his doubts about pulling a fast one on an unsuspecting public to completely buy into the message. Then, as the movement is about to climax with a huge convention of John Doe Club delegates – all bearing petitions begging John Doe not to jump off any roofs – D.B. directs Ann in what he wants in the convention speech to be delivered by John: his announcement of a third political party, the John Doe party, and his endorsement for the leader of that party and candidate for the next presidential election: shockingly, D.B. Norton. Ann recoils, but writes it – but Connell digs in his heels and lets John, who never read the speeches before giving them because he got more of a kick out of it that way – know about it beforehand. It’s a travesty – a betrayal of Washington, and Adams, and Jefferson, and Lincoln:

Lighthouses, John. Lighthouses in a foggy world.

And John doesn’t like it any more than Connell does. He heads straight to where Norton is meeting with his cronies, and also Ann, and lays down the law – and while he heads back to the convention to try to confess and straighten things out with the delegates, Norton sets Plan B into action: discredit John Doe, get him in jail if possible, and try to gain points as the man who unmasked the fraud. John ends up living under a bridge with the Colonel again, Ann ends up miserable, and Norton tries to regroup – until Christmas.

John having disappeared, a few people start to worry that he will try to repair the wreck he was caught up in by climbing to the top of City Hall at midnight Christmas Eve and, after all, jumping. Three groups arrive there to prevent it: Norton and his cronies and thugs, who don’t want a martyr; a trio from one of the first John Doe Clubs, who were his most loyal followers, and among the most bitterly disappointed but still loyal to the cause; and Ann, backed by Connell and the Colonel.

As is so often the case, I would have sworn I saw this years ago – but I can’t have. I had no idea how it would end. Neither, apparently, did Capra till the 11th hour; they had four possible endings written and filmed, and in the end went with a fifth. Which may be why the suspense was so heavy: they couldn’t telegraph the ending, for certain, and they had made it clear with the rest of the film that the viewer could absolutely not assume that John Doe/Willoughby would not, in the end, jump to his death.

In a way, this was a drastic departure from Capra’s previous films: Ann was honestly mercenary, and thought nothing about journalistic integrity if a bollicking great lie could earn her some serious money. She used her father’s diary to buttress the myth, and even after she balked at the culmination of Norton’s plans to rule the world, she kept on with it. And her mother’s the one who gave her the diary – aiding and abetting. John Willoughby is a bit morally ambiguous; he’s also game to act out a fraud if it means a few months of square meals, great lodgings, and in the end the mending of his arm so he can play baseball again. Also, as the presenter pointed out, it’s unusual to see the American public portrayed as gullible sheep by Capra; all of the virtues of “John Doe” are usually highly lauded in his films. There is a downbeat feel to it –

I know the world’s been shaved by a drunken barber – I don’t need to read it!

– and the Colonel’s “Heelots” gave me chills.

When they got ya, you’ve got no more chance than a road rabbit…You’re walkin’ along, not a nickel in your jeans, you’re free as the wind. Nobody bothers you. Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business. Shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, furniture, everything, and they’re all nice loveable people. They let you alone…Then you get ahold of some dough and what happens? All those nice, sweet, lovable people become heelots. A lotta heels! They begin creepin’ up on ya, tryin’ to sell ya something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya and ya squirm and ya duck and ya holler and ya try to push ’em away, but you haven’t got a chance. They’ve got ya. The first thing you know, you own things – a car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fines – and a million and one other things! And what happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You’ve gotta have money to pay for all those things. So you go after what the other fella’s got. And there you are – you’re a heelot yourself.

Yeah, actually.

But in essence it’s all very Capra. There are solid morals at the heart of the quagmire. Norton is a Nazi, plain and simple – or, rather, a Hitler. Unashamed, unredeemed and unredeemable villains aren’t uncommon in Capra – look at Mr. Potter. He’s a Politician, and will thus behave, and anything that doesn’t fit his ambitions goes.

Like dogs – if you can’t eat it you bury it!

He can’t win – he’ll never win in a Capra film. Even though it was a brilliant plan – and it might have worked if they had been able to hold something stronger over John. In the end it made me cry, and that’s the most Capra-esque attribute of all.

They’re just lonely and wanted someone to say to them “I know how you feel”. I’ve been lonely and hungry for something practically all my life.

I feel like death on a stick, so Gary Cooper’s fine, fine eyes and aw-shucks dimple and his lovely ability to play the sweet ol’ big lug, all the while being one of the most gorgeous human beings on the planet, will have to be noted without much depth (not that there’s much depth to be plumbed there). All I can really say to wrap up is … Past message board experience has taught me that reaching out to your neighbors and getting to know them better isn’t necessarily a good idea (and sometimes a really, really bad one). And… I know people are sheep and will follow in the most ridiculous directions – and, if led well, in the most wonderful directions. But people are also lazy, and all too willing to fall back into old patterns. I’m no exception. Obama inspired a lot of people a few months ago, and now I keep getting emails from what was once his campaign saying “write!” and “call!” and – always – “donate!!”… but the impetus is gone. I hope he reignites it.


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