By Velvet Belle Tree
Frank CapraÕs Meet John Doe (1941) is supposed to be an American Classic which showed that Capra is a Serious Filmmaker. I recently saw it on PBS and IÕd like to cast a dissenting vote.
When reading a serious book or watching a serious movie, one expects to encounter serious ideas. Instead Capra gives us a distillation of the lowest common denominator of American culture.
The story takes place during the Depression. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is about to be fired from her job as newspaper columnist. So, for her last column, she fakes a letter from a man who says that heÕs been out of work for years and to protest the injustices of the world, he will commit suicide Christmas Eve. The letter is signed ÒJohn Doe.Ó The column gets a huge reaction with people demanding that John Doe be given a job. Many bums show up at the newspaper office claiming to be John Doe. Ann picks John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to pretend to be John Doe. Willoughby is a washed up, over the hill minor league pitcher who agrees to take the job if theyÕll get his injured arm fixed. His main qualification is that he cleans up real good.
Ann writes a speech for John to give. Her very sweet mother (Spring Byington) tells her to read her late fatherÕs diary for inspiration. When John gives the speech, we expect to hear something deep, something profound. Instead, we hear the usual platitudes about loving your neighbor.
After the speech, John and his friend, The Colonel, take off to resume the vagabond life. But heÕs recognized in a diner. While there, we see a car go by with a banner reading ÒJohn Doe Club.Ó We then hear from the people who formed the club. The spokesman is the local soda jerk. He tells how they spoke to various neighbors who they thought were standoffish and even mean. But golly gee, when you got to know them they were really swell. They were just hard of hearing, or really poor. And all of the people in the club got together and helped these swell people and ainÕt it just great! (In reality, I have two neighbors. On one side, the family is really lovely. On the other side, the woman is so nasty that in 2000 the census taker had been treated so badly that she refused to return.) So John Willoughby returns to the role of John Doe.
Now John Doe clubs are formed nationwide and he gives speeches all over the country — speeches that Ann writes and that he says that he never reads before hand because ÒitÕs more fun that way.Ó The clubs are backed by D.B. Norton who owns the newspaper and whom Ann now works directly for. Norton aims to use the clubs to form a third party and set up a fascist government.
And of course, Ann and John have fallen in love. But who has Ann really fallen in love with? Not the real John Willoughby, who has no character to fall in love with. Not that heÕs a bad person, heÕs just blank, no character at all. SheÕs fallen in love with John Doe, her creation. (Gender reversal Pygmalion?) And we donÕt have a case of Willoughby becoming Doe; he doesnÕt show any real belief in what he says, just reading the speeches heÕs given, contributing nothing to them. HeÕs just like a puppet, going through pre-determined paces.
But things seem to change when John finds out about NortonÕs political machinations. This happens in a maudlin scene where the hard-boiled, tough-as-nails newspaper editor (James Gleason) blubbers about how much he loves America and what terrible things Norton is going to do. When John confronts Norton, Norton threatens to expose the fact that John is a fake.
A convention of John Doe clubs is in session. It looks very much like a political convention with signs for the various states. The radio announcer tells how people have come from all over by car and bus and train and on foot(?), sent with money from their respective clubs. And what a joyous gathering it is! Well, why wouldnÕt it be joyous? People, some of whom have probably never gone very far from home, have traveled across the country using other peopleÕs money and now theyÕre meeting people and singing songs and having fun. Norton gets a special edition of the paper out denouncing John. The people turn against him. He tries to talk, saying that the clubs must go on, but he is shouted down. And then he disappears.
Now itÕs Christmas Eve. Ann is sick, but she hauls herself out of bed to go to the roof of the building where he said heÕd jump to his death. HeÕs there and in a scene that could define melodramatic overkill she pleads with him not to jump. ÒIf itÕs worth dying for, itÕs worth living for.Ó And then: ÒYou donÕt have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once.Ó ItÕs Christmas Eve, so you know who that someone was. She convinces him, collapses and he carries her off in his arms.
Do you see any new ideas here? Do you see anything but pablum and platitudes? Just be nice to everyone and everyone will be nice and all the worldÕs problems will be solved.