Friday, August 18, 2017

Meet “Meet John Doe”

Today, while questions of political leadership are dominating our national conversation, Frank Capra’s  1941 Meet John Doe has an unexpected resonance. Though the details of this Robert Riskin comedy-drama are eccentric and even bizarre, the story has some relevant things to say about ethics in the world of mass media.  

Meet John Doe starts out with the takeover of a popular urban newspaper by a tycoon (Edward Arnold) looking to score political points. His goal for his paper is the sort of slash-and-burn journalism practiced today by Rupert Murdoch and sons. Journalistic standards be damned: what had been The Bulletin is now to become “The New Bulletin – A Streamlined Paper for a Streamlined Era.” 
On the chopping block are most of the newsroom’s staff, including feisty Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck). Furious at being canned and then expected to cough up a final column, she invents a heart-tugging letter from one John Doe, a jobless man who plans to jump to his death from the City Hall tower on Christmas Eve in a protest against society’s failings. Yes—fake news at its finest.

The outcry from the public leads Ann and her editor to search out a John Doe stand-in, someone who can be manipulated into keeping readers interested. Many out-of-work men apply, claiming to have written the letter. But the nod goes to Gary Cooper’s John Willoughby, a former baseball player with a wounded wing,  He admits the letter is not his, though he badly needs a job. Ultimately his brawny good looks and his aw-shucks manner make him an appealing John Doe substitute. This is yet another of Cooper’s great man-of-the-people performances, perhaps his finest. (He was to win a Best Actor Oscar for another 1941 common-man role, that of the heroic Sergeant York.)

Now that a fake John Doe is on the team, Ann feeds him talking-points about how people need to be more neighborly to one another. Too honest a guy to accept the subterfuge for long, he goes on the lam with harmonica-playing buddy Walter Brennan, intending to leave John Doe far behind. A stop at a rural diner, though, persuades him that his John Doe persona is needed by the American public. In fact, everyday folks all over the US of A are spontaneously founding John Doe Clubs as a way of increasing neighborliness in local communities. Despite it all, he’s a hero.

This is when, of course, the nefarious newspaper publisher comes in. Determined to take advantage of John Doe’s hold on the heart of the common man, he launches a huge rally at which Cooper’s character is expected to endorse him and his brand-new political party. His ultimate goal: the White House. But his hope of populism-run-amok is foiled when Willoughby again refuses to be a party to the deception. The publisher retaliates by spreading the word that John Doe is a fake. Which leads to a thoroughly-humiliated Cooper deciding to jump off the tower for real. As his suicide becomes imminent, various forces align to save his life. Care to guess if there’s a happy ending?

Frank Capra has always been revered for his warm depictions of American life. In this mid-career work (one of two films he directed for Warner Bros. after leaving his home at Columbia Pictures), he showed his skill with actors, including those in supporting roles. It’s strange, though, to see a Hollywood film so obsessed with the notion of suicide. And Capra’s iconic faith in common folk at times seems misplaced. Still, in this day and age, seeing people stand up to bullies is a major treat.

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