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Meet John Doe
Directed by Frank Capra with Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, James Gleason, Gene Lockhart, black and white, 122 minutes, 1941

DVD cover

DVD cover

A Daffy Bloke vs. the Heelots

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" (1939).

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 agaist "heelots":

"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 War Two."

"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 and kindness.

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 heroes.

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 out!

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!

This film is ranked 48th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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