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Thursday, January 7, 2016
Frank Capra | Meet John Doe
eve vs. the manicheans
by Douglas Messerli
Robert Riskin (screenplay, based on a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, Sr.), Frank Capra (director) Meet John Doe / 1941
More than almost any other filmmaker in Hollywood, Frank Capra made films that were centered on issues of faith and belief—not necessarily “religious” belief (although he certainly didn’t preclude that as a concern) but on a belief in American values and the common goodness of the country’s everyday citizens. Particularly in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet John Doe Capra focuses on battles between the believers—generally everyday Americans—and the cynics—politicians, the wealthy, and culturally elite. I might have chosen any of these films and others to discuss this central sentimentally-conceived tenant behind much of his film-making, but certainly the most fascinating and problematic of these works is his 1941 box-office success, Meet John Doe.
This film differs from the others, in part, because the central hero’s love interest, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is in league with the devil, and for much of the film, it appears, despite her very ordinary living conditions, is on the side of the cynics, a situation that creates all sorts quandaries for both Robert Riskin’s plot and Capra’s themes, to say nothing how it demands Stanwyck to portray a character who is often at war with herself.
If nothing else, the middle position in which the character, Mitchell, discovers herself develops a new dimension in Capra’s thinking that ultimately challenges his otherwise quite simplistic, formulaic, and, yes, “Capracorn” vision of good and evil, since it requires that both sides negotiate with the figure in this new middle ground.
Only Willoughby’s mouth-organ playing-buddy, The Colonel (Walter Brennan), who sees a “heelot” in nearly everyone he meets, smells a skunk, and attempts to get his handsome baseball-playing friend back as his sole companion—which inserts a darker sort of sub-theme into this film that is missing from nearly all of Capra’s other fables. And Mitchell’s open attempts to “clean-up” and civilize her man are continually at war his The Colonel’s attempts to keep him rough and unshaven in the wilds. If she wins, it’s only by a foul ball.
At the same time, in Meet John Doe the two opposing forces—the believers and the cynics—are portrayed in more extreme terms than in any of Capra’s other films. In Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and It’s a Wonderful Life the cynics primarily seek out money—although certainly Jim Taylor (again played by Edward Arnold) wanted more than “just” money in buying Senator Paine’s (Claude Rains) vote. But this time around, the Edward Arnold character, Norton, is presented more like a would-be Hitler, even quoting Nazi theory, a man determined to alter the very constitution of the US if he achieves his goals.
The ordinary believers in this film are portrayed less like ordinary yokels than as European peasants, dressed up in long dresses and colorful costumes who are warned by the Millsville Mayor (Gene Lockhart) “to walk slow” like they do when they come to pay their taxes. The members of what become the John Doe clubs seem not only to be ordinary, but members of some forgotten slave class of American workers who are so stupid that they might turn on a stranger (and actually do) if he glanced at them in the wrong way. They are both mean and subservient in a manner that could hardly be imagined in George Bailey’s (of It’s a Wonderful Life) Bedford Falls.
Mitchell is herself a contradictory character, both a hard-boiled cynic (a character Stanwyck played in many movies) and a true believer. If she is a liar, she still grows to believe in her own lies, based on her father’s diary that her angelic mother (Spring Byington) passes on to her. In other words, she’s grown up with good values, but has clearly had to abandon many of her moral principles in order to support her mother, herself, and others. Yet that doesn’t quite explain why, even after she discovers Norton evil plans to use the John Doe clubs to get elected, she continues to accept his gifts (a mink coat and a diamond bracelet) and meets with some of the most evil-minded men in Capra’s large catalogue of selfish monsters. Yes, she demurs, but very slightly, and only after Willoughby—wised up by the hard-headed editor, Connell, to what’s really going on—confronts the coven with what he now knows.
Capra, one must admit, is a genius at demonstrating just how the evil get their way: Norton, quick-printing a special newspaper edition proclaiming Joe as a fraud, cutting the sound to Joe’s microphone, and addressing the rain-soaked yokels himself to proclaim his lack of knowledge storms over the dreams of the gathered thousands, leaving Joe/Willoughby no voice or alternatives, since he has been forced to reject Mitchell and The Colonel has long since slinked off into his beloved wilderness.
Wracked with guilt, our heroine, Mitchell must suffer a kind of temporary hell, as she comes down with a fever and takes to bed.
In any ordinary Capra film, now would be the time for the chastened hero to perceive not only the error of his ways but to find redemption and new possibilities for belief in the arms of his wife or would-be lover. But this time around Capra and his writer have seemingly boxed themselves in. The imaginary John Doe and threatened to symbolize the injustices of the world with his own suicide, and through Mitchell’s machinations, she has now entrapped a real person within her suicidal fantasies.
John Doe, the plot insists, must go—must jump off the ledge of city hall if for no other reason than to redeem his fellow men who have failed to maintain their faith. Despite her “fever,” Mitchell, as if rising from the dead, rushes out to save her man, just as the film’s evil-doers gather to stop Joe from going through his pledge. In other words, Mitchell once again, unintentionally this time, allies herself with the men of selfish intent. The plot, accordingly, demands Joe’s death, if for other reason than to complete the Christian myth the director and writer have woven into their tale.
Early preview audiences didn’t like it one little bit. And Capra and Riskin were forced to revise their ending, ridiculously calling for Stanwyck to reiterate the Christian message while trying to dissuade her lover from completing his own sacrifice, while the would-be masterminds of human destiny look on in dour delight. Like any fictional woman facing a situation she cannot resolve, Mitchell swoons, forcing Joe to take her into his arms. By doing so, however, he fails to resolve the very issues which the movie’s mythology has forced us to face. As the “couple” walk away into love, any faith in the future has to come from the good wishes of those in the audience instead of anything we have witnessed on the screen.
Meet John Doe, in other words, is Capra’s very best and very worst film simultaneously. It reveals all of his concerns, his epic determination to lead his audiences through deep doubts into a world of absolute faith in anything and everything American; but it also demonstrates just how hokey and unbelievable those values (interestingly enough, represented primarily by male figures) really are. We are neither a society of monsters ready to pounce on individual freedom in order to get what we want, nor a society of local-yokels dressed up like peasants who, if we had our way, might dance away our days in the total bliss of simple living. Like Mitchell, we are more often a confused folk, trying to balance our moral values with the realities of daily survival, weaving our highest ideals into the tapestry threaded with our level-headed doubt and quick wits. Good and evil, quite obviously, are not as clear and simple as Capra would have liked them to have been.
Los Angeles, January 7, 2016