In 1941, Frank Capra directed what I believe to be his second best movie, “Meet John Doe” only bested by “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Frank Capra was a genius at combining a great script, serious themes, spiritual beliefs and wonderful actors to produce movies with value greater than the sum of its parts.
Watching this year’s political campaigns with characters such as Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder, I can’t help but be reminded of “Meet John Doe” and the more I think about it, the more I believe we need filmmakers like Frank Capra again. Capra’s movies often dealt with the plight of the common man and the resilience of the human spirit. Capra lived through the Great Depression and while he often shows the pain felt by regular people during this time, he also never gives up on the ability of the common man to overcome situations that he or she can’t understand or control.
I guess “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) was the first movie I ever saw directed by Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart’s performance in that film changed my life. I have identified with the character of George Bailey all of my life. Seemingly, George is unable to control what occurs in his life and ultimately this lack of control leads to the defining moment when George meets Clarence the Angel. Clarence shows George what the world would be like without his presence and George realizes that even though he might not be able to see it, he has affected the world and other people’s lives immensely. In the end George and Clarence save each other and in the end George is reminded that “the man who has friends is the richest man in town.” From time to time, I hear people talk about how “sappy” or “innocent” Capra films are, and yet his movies continue to live on in the consciousness of millions of Americans who enjoy the sappiness AND the deeper themes which are always there if you look for them.
Released in 1941, “Meet John Doe” examines many of the same themes and watching both films in chronological order you can see Capra’s growth as a director. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” Capra pays more attention to the cinematography and the sets are bigger. “Meet John Doe” is grittier and less sappy, though the ending is no less emotional.
Warning! Spoilers follow:
After being fired, Barbara Stanwyck‘s character Ann Mitchell writes a “fake” news story about a letter she claims to have received from “John Doe” complaining about all of the ills of the world and threatening to commit suicide in protest. After the news story causes a sensation, she is re-hired by the newspaper but she has to produce a real “John Doe.” Enter Gary Cooper as John Willoughby, former baseball player now living as a hobo. Willoughby’s friend and companion/advisor is fellow tramp, The Colonel, played perfectly by Walter Brennan. As Mitchell writes story after story quoting John Doe/Willoughby, the public is taken with the idea of caring for their neighbor and doing unto others and John Doe Clubs spring up all over the country. The owner of the newspaper, D. B. Norton played by Edward Arnold, where Mitchell works recognizes this as the opportunity of a lifetime and manuevers to turn the John Doe Clubs into a political organization to help elect his personally chosen presidential candidate.
James Gleason plays the hard-bitten editor of the newspaper, Henry Connell, who thinks he has seen it all and gets an real education in how slimy politics can be and learns that Norton is perverting the John Doe Clubs for his own use. John Willoughby discovers that he is a pawn in a much bigger game, and initially blames Mitchell. Michell realizes that while she continued to lie about John Doe for selfish reasons, she has fallen in love with Willoughby and she is almost destroyed when she learns the truth from Connell. Willoughby attempts to confront Norton and to exert his own influence over the John Doe Clubs at their first ever convention. Willoughby is completely defeated, almost arrested and the power of D.B. Norton is shown to be overwhelming.
The Colonel and John Willoughby escape and vanish returning to the life of tramps, but Willoughby determines that the only way to make it right is to actually go through with the suicide by jumping off the town hall on Christmas Eve. But you’ll have to watch the film to get the ending.
Capra enjoyed mixing humor and drama in his films and “Meet John Doe” is no exception. Gary Cooper is a great straight-man for Walter Brennan and Brennan gets some of the best lines in the movie. In fact, one of my favorite parts is the “Heelot speech” where The Colonel explains the economy in a very unique and honest way. You can check out his performance in the clip below:
I could write pages about the parallels to this election season. I could write about the power and abuse of power by the media, but I won’t, just watch the film. I could write about the importance and power of the common man, but I won’t, just watch the film. I could write about how easy it is for good, honest people to be convinced something is true when it is not, but I won’t, just watch the film. I could write about the spiritual references and Christian influences in this movie, but I won’t, just watch the film. I could write about importance of neighbors looking out for each other, but I won’t, just watch the film. I could write about the numerous prophetic statements and events in this film, but I won’t, just watch the movie.
Just watch the movie! (It’s about 2 hours long):