Modern Times, Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, industrial society, comedy, classic films, silent films">
By Carter B. Horsley
America likes to think of itself as the land
of opportunity where rugged individualism can stand out and the
country that proves that democracy can work.
More than any other film director, Frank Capra
did not shy away from political drama and found solace in the
belief of the inherent goodness of the American people. His best
films were confidently optimistic but also ruthless in their portrayal
of skullduggery. He managed to give poignant, memorable and inspirinational
political messages with a deceptive dose of humor. He waged war
for the common man but his campaigns were extremely sophisticated.
The film's various themes of political leadership,
deception, manipulation, and journalistic integrity still resonate
greatly and the fiscal and healthcare crisis of 2010 cry out for
Capra's genius to cut through the chicanery and mendacity of American
greed and his steering American values back to their true and
wonderful courses. As American newspapers are swimming in red
ink, we need Capra to indict them for tabloid abuse.
This 1941 film is Capra at the height of his
game. His three other blatantly political works were "Mr.
Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), "You Can't Take It With
You" (1938) and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
The movie is based on a story by Richard Connell
called "A Reputation" that was published in 1922 in
the Century Magazine and according to Tim Dicks in his lengthy
and good review at filmsite.org
"the film was intended to combat pro-Nazi Fascist forces
present in America." "The dangers of a complacent nation
(with hunger amidst a land of plenty) being manipulated and taken
over by neo-Fascist forces and Hitler's Third Reich...are countered
in the film by the actions of the ordinary 'little man.'"
"Suffering humiliation and near failure,"
Mr. Dirks noted," John Doe decides to prove his sincerity
by leaping from the top of City Hall, but is persuaded otherwise
by the real John Does of the world. (The greatest difficulty with
the film was that five alternative endings were shot (or created
in the editing room) and it was undecided how the film would conclusively
end. The conclusion that seemed most inevitable and unavoidable
was John Doe's sacrificial suicide on Christmas Eve (a deeply-religious
act) but that downbeat ending was rejected by preview audiences.)"
Cary Cooper plays the title role of Long John
Willoughby as a classic country bumpkin, a yokel, a daffy bloke
who is an out-of-work baseball pitcher with a bad arm. He answers
a newspaper ad placed by Barbara Stanwyck, a reporter for the
local newspaper who wrote a fraudulent column about a "John
Doe" who is so downtrodden he plans to throw himself off
the top of City Hall at Christmas. Stanwyck's character, Ann Mitchell,
had written the column out of spite because she had just been
fired by editor Henry Connell, played by James Gleason, who has
been charged by the publisher D. B. Norton, played by Edward Arnold,
to jazz up the paper.
Long John shows up for the newspaper interview with his pal and
sidekick, Colonel, played by Walter Brennan. Long John agrees
to play along with the fraud because he and the Colonel are hungry,
but the Colonel is concerned Long John will become what he calls
a "heelot," someone with a bank account.
The Colonel delivers the following diatribe
"When they got ya, you've go no more chance
than a road rabbit....You Walking along, not a nickel in your
jeans, you're free as the wind. Nobody bother's you. Hundreds
of people pass you buy in every line of business. Shoes, hats,
automobibles, radios, furniture, everything and they're all nice
loveable people. They let you along....Then you get hold of some
dough and what happens? All those nice, sweet, lovable people
become heelots. A lotta heels! They begin creepin' up on ya. tryin'
to sell ya something. They get long claws and they get a strangehold
on ya and ya squirm and ya duck and ya holler and ya try to push
'em away, but you haven't got a chance. They've got ya. The first
thing you know, you own things - a car, for instance. Now your
whold life is messed up with a lot more stuff. They've got you.
The number plats and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification
cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic
tickets and motorcycle cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fine
- and a million and one other things! And what happens? You're
not the free and happy guy you used to be. You've gotta have money
to pay for thos things. So you go after what the other fella's
got And they you are - you're a heelot yourself."
That may well be the greatest political speech
in the history of films, unfortunately one that did not stir a
lot of rallying cries in America.
Ann writes a radio speech for "John Doe"
based on a words from her father's diary and it inspires the creation
of "John Doe" clubs around the country that the publisher
sees as an great opportunity to advance his ambitions to become
President of the United States.
In September 19, 2003 review of the fim at
Amazon.com. Robert Morris of Dallas, Texas, wrote that "the
film appeared at a time when the United States continued to emerge
from the Great Depression amidst fears of what soon became World
"Many people distrusted government and
capitalism; some felt betrayed by them. Directed by Frank Capra,
this film addresses the concerns of the so-called 'common' man,
a stereotype whom we now call 'John Doe. How ironic that the film's
hero and heroine, advocates of truth and justice, are frauds....The
bogus letter creates so much interest that Mitchell is kept on
to continue writing her column which now focuses entirely on John
Doe. Fearful that the hoax will be revealed, the newspaper auditions
several men and finally hires 'Long John' Willoughby...to claim
he is John Doe. Once hired, Willoughby soon becomes totally caught
up in the role he plays. His eloquence (expressing what Mitchell
has given him to say) and apparent sincerity inspire what becomes
the National John Doe Movement, with local chapters throughout
the United States. What Willoughby doesn't know and Mitchell does
not fully realize is that D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), publisher
of the newspaper, is funding the Movement (e.g. buying radio time
for John Doe to promote his "Golden Rule" philosophy)
to build a wide and deep base of popular support for his own (Norton's)
Presidential campaign. Norton views with contempt precisely the
same people who are attracted to John Doe, unknowingly serving
as the political equivalent of a Trojan horse. Despite all the
positive values which Capra so passionately affirms, this is a
dark film. Its celebration of The Golden Rule is muted by the
fact that, although the principles and objectives of the Movement
are admirable, John Doe is a fraud. Also, although Mitchell and
others reaffirm their faith in John Doe during the final scene
on Christmas Eve atop city hall, there is no reason to think that
the Movement can continue. In an earlier scene, Norton's "troops"
quickly shut down a Movement rally. I will never forget Doe struggling
to be heard, speaking into a microphone after its plug (and his)
had been pulled by Norton's quasi fascists. People such as Norton
with almost unlimited resources allow such movements only if they
pose no threat and/or can be exploited somehow to their own advantage.
Only actors with the skills and temperament of
a Cooper and Stanwyck could possibly make the final scene credible,
at least temporarily. Of course, we will never know what happened
thereafter but Capra has made his point: The world would be a
much better place if everyone practiced the Golden Rule. As the
example of John Doe suggests, if it is worth dying for, then it
is certainly worth living for."
The film begins with the silly antics of Cooper
and Brennan and the capricious fraud perpetrated by Stanwyck but
quickly snowballs into a major conspiracy of national proportions.
It seems that D. B. Norton's tawdry cynicism will prevail, too
confident to be derailed by merely a sincere disavowal by a kwown
fraudster, Long John Willoughby. Ann Mitchell realizes she has
participated in a fraud and wants to repent and save Long John,
who simple-minded decency she has come to admire and love.
All of this melodrama could easily dissolve
into drivel but is raised to high levels of drama by the great
acting of Cooper, Stanwyck, Brennan, and Arnold and the deft touches
of director Capra.
Could such hypocrisy success in the best of
all worlds, the United States. Well, examine later history: the
Cold War, the Korean War, The Vietman War, the Iraqi War, Senator
Joe McCarthy, Eisenhower's Military-Industrial Complex, the CIA's
backing of many tyrannical dictators, "Network," the
fiscal crisis of 2008-2010 with subprime mortgage lendings, Wall
Street bonuses, and the like.
It's not a pretty picture. It's a damning portrait.
Americans aren't perfect. They can be just as evil as anyone and
drown up the few genuine, authentic voices of honor, duty, responsibility
Thank someone for Capra's humanity and humor.
Yes, it could happen here. Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"
and Stallone's "Rocky" understand about insurmountable
odds and the non-terrible noble drive that makes some people genuine
In the final, edited scene, Long John stumbles
into the down escalator with Ann, having foresaken his perhaps
futile attempt at a redemptive suicide as his supporters are happy
their leader may lead them again and as D. B. Norton's well-dressed
capitalists recoup to avoid the limelight of the present scandal
but also certainly to hatch other rapacious nasty schemes to defraud
and deceive a stupid, but democratic public that sometimes, usually
rarely, gets it act together to throw the bums and their tea-bags
Cary Cooper's aw-shucks acting shows no inkling
of intelligence and outrage, but Stanwyck's reporter is just dandy;
she is one sexy and very smart and very irresistable broad. Cooper
will probably go in search of The Colonel for a good game of catch,
but Stanwyck, well, don't mess with a woman in love.
In his review, Mr. Dirks reports that Stanwyck's
role was "originally considered by actresses Ann Sheridan
and Olivida de Havilland." Sheridan, of course, was the "Oomph"
Girl and might have been able to handle the role, but Havilland
just never could have created the original phoney column that
started the John Doe campaign. Capra's cast is terrific!