15 January 2011

"This is no time to give up...." The Wonderfully Mixed Messages of Meet John Doe

Like many of Frank Capra's films, Meet John Doe (1941) is more complex than it initially seems. While in typical Capraesque form it ends on an optimistic note, you can have a spirited argument over whether its overall message is cynical or hopeful.

Meet John Doe is about what starts out as a newspaper's accidental gimmick to raise circulation and turns into a political movement that is co-opted by a crypto-fascist businessman.

Gary Cooper's everyman handsomeness was never more essential to a character than in his role here as John Doe (nee Willoughby). Barbara Stanwyck is Ann Mitchell, the plucky reporter who grows from a me-first cynic to a believer in love and the essential goodness of man. To say it's one of the better performance of her illustrious career is quite true and high praise indeed.

As with many Capra films, there is a large and talented supporting cast that proves critical to the story. Edward Arnold, as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), fills the role of evil personified. His D.B. Norton is much less bombastic than Smith's James Taylor; he is a restrained man with dignified gray hair who is forever cleaning his spectacles. Plus, unlike Taylor, Norton's stage is not merely a state. His aspirations are for the presidency and he has the connections to pull it off. No one before or since can top Arnold as a portrayer of the wealthy, respectable tycoon with a coal black heart.

James Gleason as the newspaper editor Harry Connell steals every scene he's in. Particularly towards the end of the film when in a drunken stupor he reveals to the naive Doe that he's a pawn in a much bigger game. He prefaces the revelation with a story about serving with his father in the Great War and seeing him killed and with a heartfelt testimony for his love of the country. It is a stunning scene. Gleason is rightfully best known for playing put-upon characters smirking and giving angry glares, but this scene alone reveals the depth of talent as an actor.

Thus Meet John Doe is a well-crafted film with a sterling cast, sizable dollops of humor, wonderful insight into social and political conditions both of its time and in all times. Indeed the grassroots political movement of the John Doe clubs bears some resemblance to today's Tea Party movement in the US. While the Tea Party emphasis is on anti government positions, the Does espouse a love thy neighbor theme.

But is the glass that is the film half empty or half full? As with Mr. Smith we may choose to focus on its contention that a lone wealthy business magnate can manipulate a media empire, politicians and even the police. What a sad reality we are left with as Norton first uses the John Doe clubs for his own political ambitions and failing at that smashes them to smithereens. The Depression is at work too, leaving many in desperate straights and others who are just scarping by susceptible to manufactured political movements (again, shades of the Fox News manipulated Tea Party and its curious cry to "take America back").

But the glass is positively brimming in other respects as the John Doers form their clubs merely for the purpose of getting to know one another better and in turn give each other a helping hand -- why, people even end up going off relief! There seems to be a common goodness to all of us that can be cultivated for the betterment of all mankind. And it would seem that at the end love has conquered all and believers remain despite Norton's best efforts.

Ahh but there's the rub. There is a wonderful ambiguity to the ending of Meet John Doe. Just what the devil happens next? What was in the letter Doe said mailed? Forget whether he and Mitchell will live happily ever after, will Norton be exposed for the rat he is? Will the John Doe clubs re-emerge?  What lessons will society take from the sudden rise and fall of the clubs?

While I esteem Mr. Smith slightly more as a film (I love them both) there's little left to the imagination once the credit roles. Doe has us wondering and that makes its essential message more subject to interpretation. This is a good thing. It is more debatable and more difficult for one ideology to claim. For surprisingly, Meet John Doe, while a story of its time, has application to today's America. The aforementioned grassroots movement being one example and the over reaching power of the super rich being another. The film makes no direct comment on government except to show elected officials sitting securely in the pockets of the Norton's of the world. Sadly easy to imagine today.

There is a real rancor to political discourse in the U.S. these days that has been much in the news given the recent shootings in Arizona. The vitriol tends to harden positions and make the notion of finding common ground seem sadly far fetched. Indeed recent right wing rhetoric suggests that compromise is unacceptable. One prominent conservative voice said that there should be no compromise "with evil." Evidently he believes that to see different solutions to the same problems is not an example of varying philosophies but that there is only one true course and anyone opposing this past must be defeated. Rather reminds me of Norton in Meet John Doe who claims that the people need a firm hand. He'd not welcome compromise either.

But as Mitchell tells Doe, "this is no time to give up." No time ever is.

Meet John Doe speculates about a movement that is nothing more than a widespread attempt at encouraging people to get along. Nothing about keeping immigrants out or gays unmarried or guns plentiful, let's just all get along. Of course, maybe Doe's friend The Colonel (Walter Brennan) has it right when he says of the notion of neighbors tearing down the fences that separate them: "Tear down fences... why, if you tore one picket off your neighbor's fence, he'd sue you!"

The colonel is as pessimistic about mankind as Doe is open-minded. His is an important voice to add to the mix. Without him Meet John Doe is too simple a tale of good intentions versus bad men. But this is never as simple a film as it seems. It fools us by being so bloody entertaining. However, if we really pay attention to it, we can find ourselves pondering a lot of questions.

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