Wednesday, December 18, 2013


(May 1941, U.S.)

With Christmas just around the corner, Frank Capra's MEET JOHN DOE may be about as close to a holiday film as I'll get to discuss during this time of year, and that's only because the final moment of the film takes places on a snowy Christmas Eve. The film itself can be described as a nothing short of a massive snowball effect in that what typically starts out as something simple and innocent becomes something much larger than itself in the end.

The story begins with a massive layoff at a large newspaper during a time that may be presumed as the Great Depression. Ann Mitchell (played by Barbara Stanwyck), having just been laid off herself, is forced to write one final column by her former employers. Infuriated, she writes a fictional letter supposedly by a fictional unemployed average American man, a "John Doe", who threatens suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of society's greats ills and injustices. When the letter causes a huge sensation and the paper's competition suspects fraud and starts to investigate, the newspaper editor rehires Ann who comes up with a scheme of hiding the fictional nature of "John Doe" while exploiting the sensation caused by the fake letter to boost the newspaper's sales. After reviewing a number of down-and-out derelicts who show up at the paper claiming to have penned the original suicide letter, Ann and her editor hire John Willoughby (played by Gary Cooper), a former baseball player and tramp who is in need of money to repair his injured arm, to supposedly play John Doe. A series of articles penned in in Doe's name begin circulating, elaborating on the original letter's ideas of society's disregard of people in need.

(Are you people getting all this??)

And so, what starts out as a stunt to increase newspaper circulation soon becomes a social movement in which the little guy, the average "Joe" is suddenly not so small on the grand scale of society and strongly begins to matter in this harsh world; a theme that Frank Capra has touched upon repeatedly in films like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) and even IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). The "John Doe" philosophy spreads across the country, developing into a broad grassroots movement whose simple slogan is to, "Be a better neighbor". Far from being an altruistic philanthropist, however, the man who ultimately controls the newspaper and much of the city, D.B. Norton (played by Edward Arnold) plans to channel the support for Doe into support for his own national political ambitions. As a culmination of this plan, Norton has instructed Ann to write a speech for John in which he announces the foundation of a new political party that endorses D.B. Norton as its presidential candidate. Well, you can probably guess that's not going to fly in the name of all that is good and righteous with the "John Doe" movement and John himself. Now a strong believer in his own social deliveries (or bullshit, depending on how you look at it!), John attempts to strike back at those who would do harm to the good of the cause, but ultimately comes up defeated. So now, it looks as though the false front of a Christmas Eve suicide may actually come true as John reaches the end of his rope atop the roof of the newspaper building.

Hold on, though! This is a Frank Capra film! People don't commit suicide at the end of a Frank Capra film! People rarely even die! Yes, faster than you can say, "The good shall prevail!", the good...well...prevail, and big time! In the end, in that great Capra style, the powerful good of the people come together and display the mighty force that triumphs over the politically corrupt! And of course, the two people that are supposed to fall in love at the end do fall in love at the end, on a beautiful snowy night of Christmas Eve. Oh, that is SO Frank Capra...and we wouldn't have it any other way!

When I watched this film recently, I couldn't help but wonder what Capra would have thought of the "Take Back Wall Street" movement that took place in many parts of the United States during our most recent recession. He would have been proud and moved, no doubt. He probably would have also thought, "Hey, I made that movie already!" He would have been right. In real life, though, the power of the "little people" doesn't always win.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Ann Mitchell (pleading with John not to commit suicide): "Please don't give up! We'll start all over again. Just you and I. It isn't too late. The John Doe movement isn't dead yet. You see, John, it isn't dead or they wouldn't be here. It's alive in them. They kept it alive by being afraid. That's why they came up here. Oh, darling...we can start clean now! Just you and I. It'll grow John, and it'll grow big because it'll be honest this time. Oh, John, if it's worth dying for, it's worth living for! Oh please, wanna be honest, don't ya? Well, you don't have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he's kept that ideal alive for nearly two thousand years. It was He who kept it alive in them. And He'll go on keeping it alive for ever and always - for every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born. That's why those bells are ringing, John. They're calling to us, not to give up but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching. Oh, don't you see darling? This is no time to give up! You and I, John, we...oh, no, no, John! If you die, I want to die too! Oh, oh, I love you!"

You know, for someone who's practically a die hard cynic, I must admit that speech is rather moving!

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