“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
By now it should come as no surprise that we are big Frank Capra fans here at “The Ten Percent,” and while his It’s A Wonderful Life rightly comes immediately to mind around the holidays, today we’re going to take a look at another Capra Christmas classic: Meet John Doe (1941). The film is seventy-three years old, but if you’ve never seen it – beware of spoilers after the break!
The story begins as, under the opening credits, a montage rolls of farm workers, miners, factory workers, women in textile mills and at switchboards, crowds of working people thronging city streets and mass gatherings, and ending on an extended take of a maternity ward full of equally chubby babies in rows of identical cribs, their healthy cries the first non-musical sound of the film. Before the first line of dialogue, Capra is introducing us to his ultimate protagonist: the people, all the John Does of America living, working, and going about the business of being human beings, right up to making more of the same. Altogether, it’s a positive sequence of a prosperous, hardworking, and somehow essentially American people. However, Meet John Doe quickly becomes a much darker, edgier film. The first diegetic sequence shows a worker with a power-chisel eradicating the concrete-cast legend of The Bulletin newspaper, complete with the paper’s motto “A free press means a free people.” The camera moves in close as the hammering steel knocks off the letters of “free press” one by one, and the entire edifice is soon replaced by a plasticized, impermanent, slick-looking board reading “The New Bulletin: A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined age.” Inside, the paper’s staff is being fired wholesale by the tough new editor put in place by the new owner.
Faced with her own termination, and told that the paper needs “fireworks,” spunky girl reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbra Stanwyck) uses her last column to fabricate a letter from a long-unemployed man calling himself “John Doe” in which he promises to commit suicide at midnight on Christmas Eve in order to protest everything that is wrong with modern society. Printed, the letter causes an uproar and outpouring of sympathy, some of it from people with the power and position to influence the movers and shakers of the city. The governor sees it as the opening political attack by the paper’s owner, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), and brings in his own tame newspaper to call the letter a fake. One thing leads to another, and instead of a retraction, the letter stays, Mitchell gets her job back, and the long scam is on, resulting in the hiring of “Long John” Willoughby (Gary Cooper), an ex-minor league baseball player turned hobo, to play the part of John Doe in exchange for enough money to get surgery for his pitching arm. Here at the beginning, everyone in the film is working an angle except for Long John’s companion, the Colonel (Walter Brennan), who constantly warns about the dangers of the “heelots” who try and take away your freedom with the lure of money and material goods.
There is plenty to love in this movie, not least of which Capra’s idealistic brand of patriotic Christian socialism running throughout the film, promulgating the belief that ordinary people are generally a good bunch of folks, and that, if we can just tear down the walls and misunderstandings that come between us as neighbors and get together to help each other out, the good ol’ USA provides us with enough freedom of thought and action that we can accomplish anything – absolutely anything. Yet Capra’s vision here is complicated by his acknowledgement that the John Does of America often do not want to hear hard truths, are too easily manipulated by the media, and too willing to believe the lies of those who control it (and the historical irony here is thick as, less than a year after the release of Meet John Doe, Capra would begin work on his brilliant series of propaganda films Why We Fight which at times not only shaded the truth, but used every last ounce of manipulative movie magic to rewrite it in the service of the war effort). Meet John Doe is a very early exploration of the realities of making a media property as John Willoughby is subsumed by the entirely created persona of John Doe, and the movement he inspires is directed by the personification of its antithesis in newspaper-owner D.B. Norton.
We finally meet Norton about thirty minutes into the film, when he appears on horseback watching his private, black-uniformed, para-military guard perform elaborate motorcycle maneuvers. Norton is a fascist’s fascist, wealthy, influential, wrapping himself in the common good while all the while working towards a position where he can give the American people the “iron hand” they so desperately deserve. Capra is not coy about the nature of his protagonist. In his margin notes on the shooting script, he wrote that Norton should be seen reading Mein Kampf and possessing all sorts of military awards. Nor does he soften the reality of fascism, for Norton is extremely powerful, and his game is the game that all of the politicians and newspapers and powerbrokers are playing – only his vision is bigger. Indeed, Norton’s machine was apparently so powerful in Capra’s mind that there were three conceptual endings to the film, only one of which – the most hopeful – was ever released. The others, one in which Willoughby actually does commit suicide, but solves nothing; the other where he doesn’t, but the people turn away from the neighborly vision of cooperation he has inspired, showcase Capra’s grave doubts of the ability of his beloved John Does to wise up before it is too late.
The film hinges on three distinct crises of conscience and character to drive the plot. Ann and Long John’s are rather expected. Beneath their all-too American drive for the quick buck, the audience sees form the beginning that they’re basically decent people who become inspired by the truths upon which the Jon Doe campaign is built. However, the most surprising, and most moving, turn comes from the hard-boiled newspaper editor Henry Connell (James Gleason). In a drunken monologue, Connell reveals to Willoughby that he is
A sucker for this country. I’m a sucker for the “Star Spangled Banner,” and I’m a sucker for this country. I like what we got here. I like it! A guy can say what he wants and do what he wants without havin’ a bayonet shoved through his belly, and that’s all right! …And we don’t want anybody comin’ around changin’ it do we? No sir! And when they do I get mad, I get boilin’ mad. And right now John, I’m sizzlin.’ I get mad for a lot of other guys besides myself. I get mad for a guy named Washington, and a guy named Jefferson, and Lincoln! Lighthouses, John. Lighthouses in a foggy world.
It is arguably the best performance in the entire film, and neatly distills Capra’s Platonic ideals about the United States. For Capra, and for the viewer caught up in his art, this is the great hope, the saving grace: that the best in us, as individuals, as a people, as a nation, the famous “better angels of our nature,” will triumph in the end, and that, so long as we pay attention and plot our course carefully, those wonderful lighthouses will guide us through the night, every time. In the film, this occurs not just for Willoughby, Mitchell, and Connell, but for the real John Does they inspire across the country. This backbone of Capra’s American vision is what makes it all work, even when the modern viewer is noting the lack of people of color in any roles except as domestics or custodial positions, even when one of his films’ becomes a bit too sure of American exceptionalism. The idea that good people, dedicated to the idea of a free country, can overcome any obstacle, even their own blindness, prejudice, and bigotry, if they allow themselves to be guided by the radical social ideals of the Beatitudes and the radical political ideals of the United States itself, is powerful stuff indeed. A fairy tale? Maybe. Hell, probably. But nobody tells it like Frank Capra, and nobody sells it like Gary Cooper.
Ultimately, this is why Meet John Doe is part of the Ten Percent of things that last: sometimes we need to believe that we can create our own Christmas miracles out of nothing more than the Golden Rule, and – even if only for two hours at a stretch – Capra makes us believe. So go check out Meet John Doe, and then maybe take your neighbors some holiday cookies and get to know them a bit. Who knows? Together, you just might help keep those lighthouses lit.
Last, but far from least, dale and I would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and peace to all people of good will.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.