to mind a scene from a Frank Capra movie: a good man stricken with
despair stands at a great height pondering suicide; the snow falls
softly all around; it’s Christmas Eve.
No, not It’s a Wonderful Life.
I mean the other Capra movie involving the contemplation of suicide on Christmas Eve: the unsung 1941 classic Meet John Doe, that lesser-known of Capra’s odes to Everyman.
Meet John Doe
is a story of careers lost, ambitions thwarted, and love unrequited.
Well, not quite. In today’s parlance, it’s complicated. Feisty reporter
Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) has been fired from her gig at the
newspaper. When told she owes her boss one last column, she bangs off an
angry letter to the editor, “a protest against man’s inhumanity to man
and the state of the world.” The last line is a threat to jump off City
Hall at midnight on Christmas Eve. And she signs it “John Doe,” an
imaginary character who channels her resentment at being let go by her
new boss, Mr. Cannell (James Gleason).
That last column generates
so much interest in the readers that Cannell decides to put an ad out
for ne’re-do-wells who’d like to make some money posing for photos as an
angry John Doe. They want a human tabula rasa, a willing candidate for an extreme media makeover.
an amusing audition montage, who ambles in but a rugged, half-starved
bush league pitcher named Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper at his
understated best). Lanky Long John has fallen on hard times and is now
accompanied by his rail-riding pal, the Colonel (Walter Brennan), a
confirmed hobo and anti-establishment sage. The Colonel smells
corruption everywhere and he spends the rest of the movie trying to pull
his boxcar buddy away from the “heelots.” Screenwriter Robert Riskin
put together one of filmdom’s great comedy speeches, which is worth
quoting at some length:
those nice, sweet, lovable people become heelots. A lotta heels. They
begin creeping up on youtrying to sell you something. They've got long
claws and they get a stranglehold on youand you squirmand duck and
hollerand you try to push 'em awaybut you haven't got a chancethey've
got you! First thing you know, you own things. A car, for instance. Now
your whole life is messed up with more stufflicense feesand number
platesand gas and oiland taxes and insuranceand identification
cardsand lettersand billsand flat tiresand dentsand traffic tickets
and motorcycle cops and court roomsand lawyersand fines, and a
million and one other things. And what happens? You're not the free and
happy guy you used to be. You gotta have money to pay for all those
thingsso you go after what the other feller's got. And there you
areyou're a heelot yourself!
Despite the warning Long John agrees
to go along, having been promised that the injured arm that killed his
big league ambitions would be repaired. Slowly accepting his new John
Doe identity, he indeed becomes a heelot.
Angus McPhail, a friend
of Alfred Hitchcock, is credited with coining the term “MacGuffin” to
mean any object, person or objective that drives a story’s plot. It
could be uranium in wine bottles (Notorious), the way home (ET), or the ark of the covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark). It doesn’t really matter. But for Long John Willoughby, his MacGuffin is his true identity.
Meet John Doe
is an extended exploration of the structures of identity. Not only
about who John Willoughby is, but what America is, what kind of
politicians should govern her, and why. Willoughby had already
implicitly agreed to be defined by the Long John moniker by the baseball
fans who anointed him with it. As John ruefully admits to Ann, the fans
only represented bodies in the bleachers who were there to watch him
pitch. His identity was a high-functioning right arm, a small part of
his whole. Take that away and you’ve taken away his Self, as he comes to
see late in the story.
Also arriving late is the antagonist. He is D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), an evil Daddy Warbucks-type publisher (sans
the tender heart underneath) who has bought the newspaper that
(re)hired Ann Mitchell. He embodies Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic:
he knows price of everything and the value of nothing.
Doe/Miller columns generate a massive amount of interest and as
circulation rates skyrocket, three complications ensue. First, John
Willoughby begins to fall in love with Ann, the brains behind his
newfound fame. Second, Ann herself falls for the hero of her makingthe
John Doe of her speeches, chiefly because they instantiate her late
beloved father. Finally, Norton sees in the spread of a national network
of John Doe Clubs (which arise to nurture and spread Doe’s simple
message of the Golden Rule, apple pie, and loving thy neighbor) a chance
to form a third political party, withguess who?D.B. Norton as the
natural candidate for president of the United States.
discovery that he’s allowed himself to be molded into a useful idiot in a
ruthless politico’s scheme triggers a deep interior crisis. Again, this
crisis is fundamentally about identity. He has sold and resold himself
and he knows it. And with the prospect of love betrayedby the woman
whose speeches he has earnestly spouted Cyrano de Bergerac-stylehe
decides to leap off the very City Hall and at the exact time promised in
Ann’s first column. Irony.
Crowds play a vital role in Capra’s
films. He frequently explored the ways in which institutions and
organizations impinge upon and shape the destinies of individuals and
families. Crowds function almost as a single character, with collective
moods, inflections, and shifting biases. It’s the throng of bank
customers in American Madness (1932), the neighborhood in You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and the Senate in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939).
In Meet John Doe,
D.B. Norton represents the manipulation of crowds for political, and
patently narcissistic, ends. Norton’s tactics, indeed, include courting
and paying off of “labor,” and Riskin includes a reference in the same
scene to Norton’s “ruling with an iron hand” a la Stalin (a
Russian handle meaning “man of steel” adopted by Josef Vissarionovich
Djugashvili in his 30s). I argue that the convention scene that brings
Willoughby to the slippery edge of despair uncannily anticipates the
tactics taught in the Saul Alinksy manual Rules For Radicals. Which is why critics who identify D.B. Norton’s politics with fascism or right-wing ideology are, like Bogart in Casablanca, misinformed.
stands in the story at one end of a personal and political spectrum
with his cynicism, greed, and embodiment of a corrupt political system.
At the other end stands the Colonel, with his own brand of anti-greed
cynicism and an anarchical rejection of all monetary and political
systems. They are two sides of the same coin, with “Doe” and Mitchell
living on the coin’s edge.
The final scenes atop City Hall are a
tribute to cinematographer George Barnes, who bathes the final tense
moments in unearthly light: a moody cityscape gently covered at midnight
by outsized snowflakes falling with infinite softness. The last ten
minutes depict the melancholia that can sometimes suffuse the Christmas
Here a repentant Ann, weak with fever, delivers an
impassioned speech to the resolutely suicidal John that invokes Jesus
Christ. “John, look at me,” she insists. “You want to be honest, don't
you? Well, you don't have to die to keep the John Doe idea alive!
Someone already died for that once! The first John Doe. And He's kept
that idea alive for nearly two thousand years.” This bit of dialogue is
almost certainly the uncredited work of screenwriter Miles Connolly,
sometime collaborator and close friend of Frank and Lu Capra’s.
so explicit a Christian reference imaginable in the Hollywood of today?
In the golden age of American cinema, filmmakers were attuned to the
worldviews and beliefs of their audiences. So a Jewish Riskin, a lapsed
Catholic Capra, and a fervently (“violently” is Capra’s adjective in his
1971 autobiography The Name Above the Title) Catholic Connolly
together could adapt an earlier treatment by Richard Connell and Robert
Presnell, and, along the way, snagged the film's only Academy Award nomination (for Best Original Story). Creative ecumenism at its best.
Meet John Doe
places you under its spell for a long patch afterward. The Capraesque
theme of the power of the common man overcoming absurdly bad odds is
there, but this time in much darker hues than the other films in the
As mentioned, comparisons to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) are inevitable. While Meet John Doe is
not the same kind of direct homage to the tinsel-bedecked hope of
Christmas, its premise yet centers upon the victory of life over death
and builds to a Christmassy climax of its own.