Saturday, December 14, 2013
MEET JOHN DOE
Having just read Victoria Wilson's new biography of Barbara Stanwyck, and this being the holiday season, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at Frank Capra's other Christmas movie, MEET JOHN DOE.
MEET JOHN DOE was Frank Capra's first film as an independent producer-director after he left Columbia Studios, his work home for more than ten years. Capra obviously wanted to show what he could do "by himself", so to speak, so he and partner-screenwriter Robert Riskin set out to make the ultimate Frank Capra movie. If you watch MEET JOHN DOE, and if you are familiar with Capra's other films, you'll notice right away that just about every scene in the picture is a variation of something that Capra had already filmed. Every element that one recognizes as "Capraesque" is included in MEET JOHN DOE--a naive, well-meaning leading man; a materialistic, hard-working, but also compassionate and soft-hearted leading lady; a rich, powerful, and arrogant villain; and of course a number of supporting characters who represent Capra's beloved "little people" and who usually wind up stealing the picture.
The movie begins with a big-city newspaper, The Bulletin, being bought out by a huge media conglomerate owned by D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold). The newspaper's motto, which includes the words "free people" and "free press", is literally jackhammered off the side of a building (not exactly a subtle touch from Capra). Most of the staff of the Bulletin is let go, including columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck). Ann decides to write her last column about a letter she supposedly received from a man who calls himself "John Doe". This John Doe claims that he will jump off the roof of City Hall on the night of Christmas Eve in protest against the state of modern society.
The column becomes a sensation, and Ann convinces the Bulletin's editor (James Gleason) to hire someone to fill the role of "John Doe". A drifter and ex-minor league ballplayer, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is hired--Ann is attracted to him straight off--and the Doe story gets even bigger. To stave off accusations that John Doe is a fake, Ann is personally hired by D. B. Norton to write a national radio speech for him. The speech is a huge hit, and soon John Doe Fan Clubs are springing up all over America. Ann and John go on a nation-wide tour (with Ann still writing everything John says), backed by Norton. The media baron decides to hold a John Doe convention, for the purpose of having Doe "nominate" Norton as a third-party candidate for President.
The basic plot of MEET JOHN DOE is a great one--John Doe, in a way, is a reality-show star. Just think about this--what if one of the Duck Dynasty people starting talking about politics? You could very easily make up a "John Doe" today, and he'd probably be as popular as Gary Cooper's in the first part of the film. And how about D. B. Norton? A hard-charging, powerful, wealthy businessman who wants to start his own political party and be President? Sound familiar?
MEET JOHN DOE is another one of those "old movies" that is just as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1941. Unfortunately it has one major problem, which we shall get to.
When Long John finds out about Norton's plans for the John Doe Convention, he confronts Norton and his fat-cat associates. Long John tells Norton he will tell the delegates that they are being used. Norton fights back by going to the convention, revealing that Long John is a fake, and having his own personal police force, the "D. B Norton Troopers" (black-clad guys who resemble the SS) cutting off the public address system when Long John tries to speak.
The attendees at the convention (all members of various John Doe Fan Clubs) turn on their hero, and Long John is disgraced. Soon it is Christmas Eve....and it is here where the movie falls short of being great.
There's really only one way MEET JOHN DOE should end...with Long John jumping off the top of City Hall. That's the only way he can prove he isn't a fake, the only way he can get back at Norton. The entire movie is really based around whether a man is going to commit suicide. Despite all the homespun Capra attributes, that's what it boils down to.
Capra and Riskin wrote themselves into a corner. They set up a situation where their leading man has to die by his own hand to prove his convictions. That's very unusual for a 1940s movie...heck, it's unusual for any movie. Capra and Riskin realized that they had a great situation....they just didn't know how to end it. They didn't want to show Gary Cooper killing himself....audiences back then wouldn't have liked it, and I'm sure the Production Code would have had something to say about it.
Typically in a Capra film the hero is brought to the lowest point of despair, and then, through his own individual actions, fights back and wins the day. In MEET JOHN DOE, Long John tries to fight back by speaking at the convention....but this time this Capra hero is heckled and cut off. MEET JOHN DOE is a Frank Capra movie where the leading man loses.
There are all sorts of stories about how Capra filmed three, four, or five different endings to MEET JOHN DOE. According to Joseph McBride's biography of Frank Capra, most of these endings were really just various editing choices. The ending that exists now has Long John going up to the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve, intending to jump. He's met there but just about every other major cast member of the film, who beg him not to do it. When a sickened Ann collaspes in his arms, telling Long John she loves him, he decides not to go through with it. As he walks past the assembled group, cradling Ann in his arms, the Bulletin editor tells Norton, "There you are, Norton...the people. Try and lick that!" It's a nice line, but it rings somewhat hollow, considering it was "the people" who put Long John on a pedestal and tore him off of it.
The actual ending of MEET JOHN DOE doesn't really work. I'm not saying that suicide is a good thing, or that it's a solution to any problem; I'm merely saying that everything in the movie leads up to it. Long John may be alive, but he will still be considered a fake to most people. His romance with Ann doesn't seem promising; he's a washed-up minor league pitcher who's more than likely never held a real job, and she's a professional woman who early on in the film has admitted that she wants money (her excuse is that she has to take care of her mother and sisters, but it soon becomes apparent it's much more than that--as the story progresses, and Ann gets more and more "bonuses" from Norton for her John Doe speechwriting, her wardrobe and hairstyles become more and more elaborate). It's doubtful that Long John and Ann would live happily ever after.
Long John is a sacrificial figure--a Christ-like figure (Christmas Eve, remember?). During the ending Ann even tells Long John that the first John Doe died for mankind nearly 2000 years ago. If Long John did jump, the movie would have been a lot more powerful.
Despite all that, MEET JOHN DOE still has plenty of highlights. There's the imaginary baseball game in Long John's hotel suite--a great piece of comic timing, and a reminder that Capra used to work on silent comedy two-reelers in the 1920s. The John Doe convention sequence is Capra at his best--it was filmed in a real stadium, Gilmore Field in Los Angeles (NOT Wrigley Field in Chicago, despite what many have written and said). The convention looks real (Capra was brilliant at large crowd scenes), and has an almost newsreel-type quality to it. It is also staged during a driving rain (Capra loved rain scenes).
As is typical in a Capra production, there's a ton of great character actors on display, including Regis Toomey, Spring Byington, Gene Lockhart, Irving Bacon, Sterling Holloway, and especially Walter Brennan as Long John's hobo friend, "The Colonel". Brennan's speech about the "heellots" is truly a memorable moment.
Gary Cooper was the only actor who could have played Long John. (You're saying James Stewart? Well...Stewart had too much nervous energy...his John Doe definitely would have jumped off the building.) When it came to "naive honest integrity", no one could touch Gary Cooper. Barbara Stanwyck is great as always....but the character of Ann Mitchell has some problems. For one thing, I think Ann isn't really in love with Long John...she's in love with her creation of John Doe (in the movie Ann admits this). It's another reason a romance between Ann & Long John would not have worked. Ann is in love with a story she has created, her idea of the perfect man. Long John is just playing that role.
MEET JOHN DOE is a very good film, but it is not a great one. The ending is the main reason why, but in this film Capra and his long-time screenwriter Robert Riskin preach a bit too much (nearly every major character in the story gets a to perform a long speech). What MEET JOHN DOE does say about the media, the American political system, and the manipulation of the average citizen still holds up today. Sometimes a misfire by a great film director can be more interesting than one of his best efforts. The best thing about MEET JOHN DOE is that it makes the viewer think....and that's a rare thing these days.