Two of my favorite films of all time are 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, and 1976’s Network. In this age of 24 hour news networks, both pictures seem crushingly relevant to modern day concerns regarding the corruptive relationship between politics and mass media. (I accidentally wrote “mess media” before I corrected myself. Maybe I should have left the mistake in!) Yet when the time span between the two is considered, it appears that America has been suffering from these ills much longer than many want to admit. From this, it would appear that the halcyon days of integrity and honestly are an imagined smoke screen, or coping mechanism, for those among us (and I admit that I’m often guilty of this) searching for a point in time before “it all went wrong.”
Since neither film falls within the time construct I am studying here, let us instead look at what some may call a prequel, or even a first installment in this trinity of American political cinema: Frank Capra’s 1941 film, Meet John Doe. For those who are familiar with Capra’s work, the predominant themes of big government and the common man will come as no surprise. What is startling, however, are the foreshadowed strains of soulless ambition at the expense of the common good (shades of Network’s Diana Christensen), and manipulation masquerading as entertainment, like that of A Face in the Crowd’s Lonesome Rhodes. In this film, the all consuming, ever present threat of something bigger than the body politic, some “man behind the curtain” who pulls the strings and adheres to an agenda not of our making, looms above what the average person’s sightline is privy to.
Meet John Doe is billed, curiously, as a comedy/drama. But the laughs are far and few between, and those that exist germinate from a caustic sarcasm more than anything genuinely side-splitting. Surely, for box office purposes, the safe bet is to always market a film “down”, and yet the success of Meet John Doe belies the sleight of hand used to lure audiences into the theatre. Generally speaking, viewers are far more sophisticated than the PR machine gives them credit for. Thus, the irony of how this film is presented in relation to what it really is, should not be lost on us as we undertake an analysis of its content.
After a hostile takeover of her newspaper, journalist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) finds herself pushed to the back of the unemployment line. As a parting shot, she prints an anonymous letter, condemning the callous disregard of the government and expressing her disappointment in a world unconcerned with the welfare of its fellow neighbor. Signing off as “John Doe,” she informs her readers that in protest of the wretched state of humanity, John will be jumping to his death from the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve.
Ann’s stunt ignites a firestorm, with the public demanding that “John Doe” be given a job at once. Politicians are ringing their hands. The New Bulletin is in a quandary. So Ann steps in and proposes that the paper use the idea of John Doe to boost readership. Under her shrewd guidance, a suitable stooge is hired in the form of “Long John” Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a rootless ex-baseball player in need of funds to fix his injured pitching arm.
Through Willoughby, Mitchell is able to craft a figurehead for the vox populi, penning op/ed pieces that lend an outlet to the readers’ own anxieties and fears about the world. With John Doe’s star rising, the ruse becomes harder for Willoughby to bear. He wants the money for his operation, but soon realizes that he has no chance at a career revival once the John Doe charade is unmasked.
His best friend, a hobo nicknamed “The Colonel” (Walter Brennan), is wary of what fame and financial good fortune will bring to Willoughby.
“Let me tell you Long John, when you become a guy with a bank account, they gut ya!”
The Colonel employs every conceivable means to get his friend to walk away from the scheme and stick to their original plan to visit the Columbia River country. However, as he soon realizes, Willoughby’s growing affection for Ann keeps him rooted to the operation.
Meanwhile, the furor over John Doe has not escaped the notice of D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), the new owner of the paper. Under the guise of sympathetic patronage, he arranges to send Willoughby on a speaking tour and ends up financing several thousand “John Doe” clubs around the country. The clubs, which adhere to principals Ann has outlined in her “John Doe” column, are meant to facilitate the re-employment of local citizens ravaged by the Depression. Members are advised to help their neighbor as they would help themselves. As a rule, no politicians are allowed to join, making the clubs a truly grassroots effort.
Here, Capra’s small-government ideals are readily evident. In a montage stitched together with screen wipes, time-lapse images, and rousing Americana leitmotifs (courtesy of Dmitri Tiomkin, whose scores are always typical of the period, but often zeitgeisty and banal), the message that people are pulling themselves up out of poverty’s cold clutches is secondary to the fact that they’re doing it without the help of the government. Getting off relief seems to be the main objective, and the idea that anyone would even stoop to excepting welfare, is frowned upon in Capra’s world. It is clearly outlined that the film believes genteel starvation is a better alternative to accepting help from the government, as evidenced by the stories Bert, a sodajerk who organizes the first John Doe club, tells to Willoughby: An elderly couple who live in a big house, are forced to sell off their furniture piece by piece for survival’s sake. A neighborhood man, previously considered to be a no-account, sifts through garbage and trash, rather than accept charity and ruin his self respect.
Of course, all this people-powered problem solving has the nation’s political parties in a tizzy. How can they garner the affection of the voters, if the voters have dispensed with their (dis)ability to be useful?
One person who is unworried about that particular problem is Norton. In what viewers have suspected all along from Capra’s lingering close ups and Arnold’s intense, methodical portrayal, D.B. Norton’s philanthropy is a mere ruse. His acquisition of The New Bulletin was long intended to bolster future political aspirations, and with the ascendancy of the John Doe clubs, he now has a fully formed voting base from which he can launch his presidential campaign. Norton envisions this assault as a silent takeover, easily managed through the disbursement of Ann Mitchell’s carefully monitored screeds, and codified through one final salvo: a public endorsement from John Doe himself.
What clearly separates Meet John Doe from any pretention to comedy is in its treatment of the villain. In a comedy, the villain can be either a cartoonish caricature, whose “badness” is so absurd as to be laughable (see Hans Gruber of Die Hard fame), or else, like the Grinch who stole Christmas, he can do bad things, exhibit bad behavior, but still possess an aura of decency, however belated it may exposed. By contrast, D.B. Norton is a thoroughly debased man. Never is this fact more obvious than when one compares Arnold’s performance here, with his performances in Easy Living (it always comes back to that one, doesn’t it?) or You Can’t Take It With You. In those roles, Arnold may bluster and bellow, he may be a terrible skinflint, an unrelenting taskmaster, a horrifying snob, however we can laugh at such truculent displays because we know that at the core lies a decent man who cares for his family. There is nothing laughable about D.B. Norton because he is deadly serious in his aims, and frighteningly unemotional in his pursuit of them. This is a man who is not moved by anything; not even the fruits of his own greed are able to force a genuine expression of pleasure from him.
Exaggerated height // Fast zoom to closeup // Sinister profile. (This is actually a very intricate shot that’s hard to show in screencaps. Capra starts from behind Norton in a doorframe, Norton turns, and the camera immediately zooms onto his face. Watch for it next time you see this film!)
Then, there’s Ann, who is something of a hybrid villain. The film for her is a journey, unlike Norton, for whom it is a mechanism, and so it is fitting that she evolve accordingly. At first, tough as nails and unabashed in her pursuit of money, she eventually comes to believe in the things she is being forced to write. The change happens gradually. Initially, we are given inklings that her ambition stems from more than some simple sin; she has a mother and two sisters to support. Her mother gives away money faster than Ann came make it, and it seems her deceased father was very much of the same vein. As a doctor beloved by the community for his pro bono work, Ann’s father is the real man behind John Doe. When Ann runs out of ideas right before Willoughby is to give a big radio speech, Mrs. Mitchell (Spring Byington, who played Mrs. Sycamore in Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You) helpfully supplies her late husband’s diaries for inspiration.
The combination of her father’s altruistic passion with Willoughby’s naturally unpretentious delivery of the message, is what ultimately transforms Ann. She is able to turn a blind eye to what she knows in her heart is true about Norton, because she believes she is still helping people. Furthering her avoidance of the real issue at hand, is Norton’s continued financial incentives and her own pride at how well her work is beginning to be received.
The push-pull struggle inside of Ann renders her part Diana, part Marcia Jeffries (from A Face in the Crowd), and for much of the film, Ann’s vacillation between innate goodness and baser instinct, affords her character the luxury of sarcasm.
This duality in her nature can only be resolved by one thing of course: love. Her love for Willoughby becomes apparent just at the moment when she loses him.
Willoughby is informed of Norton’s nefarious plans by a drunkenly patriotic Connell (James Gleason), the New Bulletin’s editor:
I’m a sucker for the Star Spangled Banner, and I’m a sucker for this country. I like what we got here. A guy can say what he wants and do what he wants without having a bayonet shoved through his belly, and that’s alright. We don’t want anybody coming around changing it, do we? When they do, I get mad. Boiling mad. Right now, John, I’m sizzling. I get mad for a lot of other guys besides myself. I get mad for a guy named Washington, and a guy named Jefferson, and Lincoln. Lighthouses, John. Lighthouses in a foggy world.
However he is incredulous until he reads Ann’s final speech in which she has directed him to endorse Norton for president. This betrayal sends him into a tailspin, and he decides that the only way to preserve the integrity of the clubs is to come clean about his own role in the charade.
When confronted with Willoughby’s readiness to sacrifice himself to exposure, rather than allow Norton to corrupt the true intent of the clubs, Ann finally comes to her senses. However, it appears to be too late. Willoughby washes his hands of her and flees, Christ-like, to the arena where representatives from John Doe clubs around the country have gathered to hear him speak in the blistering winter cold.
As he makes his way to the podium, Norton has Ann arrested in order to keep her from corroborating Willoughby’s story. Alone, he begins his declaration, only to be undermined by Norton’s paid stooges, who then incite a riot against the once revered folk hero. In the face of this Roman-esque spectacle, the elements howl, rain lashes, and violence washes over any rational impulse that might have prevailed.
Spirited away by the Colonel, Willoughby resumes his rootless life and sinks further into depression. Parallel to his decline is Ann’s, in the form of physical illness. On Christmas Eve, the very night she once prophesied that John Doe would commit suicide by jumping from the roof of City Hall, Ann has a premonition that Willoughby will in fact sacrifice his life in order to breath new life into the John Doe clubs. Trembling with fever, she races out into the snowy night, aided by the Colonel and Connell.
Incidentally, Norton also has his suspicions about Willoughby. In a contrasting scene, he stands before a Christmas tree, watching carolers outside his estate’s frost-bitten windows. He too makes his way to City Hall with a cadre of underlings. Not because he has had a change of heart, or been shamed with anything so human as remorse, but because he fears that if Willoughby dies, he will be exposed to the public for what he really is.
The minutes tick away, and no sight of Long John can be found until the final moments, when he steps from the shadow and mails a letter. He has been hiding in the building all day, lest anyone try to prevent the sacrifice he knows he must make. Standing before the building’s ledge, he pins a second letter to his jacket, and just before he is to jump, Ann bursts onto the roof. Not far behind are Norton and his band of cohorts.
In a rather dialogue heavy scene, each party airs their conflicting reasons for why Willoughby should not jump. He does not seem swayed by either argument, even as Ann clings to him in desperation and professes her love.
We can start clean now. Just you and I. It’ll grow John, and it’ll grow big because it’ll be honest this time. Oh, John, if it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for. Oh please, John… You wanna be honest, don’t ya? Well, you don’t have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that ideal alive for nearly 2,000 years. It was He who kept it alive in them. And He’ll go on keeping it alive for ever and always – for every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born. That’s why those bells are ringing, John. They’re calling to us, not to give up but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching. Oh, don’t you see darling? This is no time to give up. You and I, John, we… Oh, no, no, John. If you die, I want to die too. Oh, oh, I love you!
Yet, it is not until a third group belatedly enters, a group made up of former John Doe members, that Willoughby is given reason to pause.
We need you, Mr Doe. There were a lot of us who didn’t believe what that man said. . .please, please come with us, Mr Doe.
In Capra’s world, love may be a catalyst, but it is duty that remains the bottom line. Therefore, it is entirely fitting that it should be “the people” who bring Willoughby to his senses, and not Ann. And as if this were the sign he had waited for, Willoughby carefully takes Ann into his arms and carries her past Norton’s shadow, with his disciples in tow.
The Christ complex given to Willoughby’s character is slightly over the top, and exceedingly obvious in the worst sort of way, yet Capra and Cooper are able to bring it off by giving the final scene a quiet dignity devoid of hysteria. Ann, as the one unhinged element in the scene, can be excused by fever, or love, or perhaps a combination of both, because the visual of Willoughby, silent and strong, carrying her away from the insanity is an immensely satisfying one.
Capra’s filmmaking is sometimes a study in contrasts. There are some very angular elements to his work here, notably in how he relates power dynamics between characters, and also in his depiction of their inner emotional states. Mostly this is in regards to Ann and D.B., who struggle throughout the film to maintain the upper hand. It’s not uncommon to see Norton shot from below in order to give his figure an exaggerated feeling of height. Similarly, Ann’s person is afforded a multitude of varying angles, depending on her position at any given moment in the plot. A wonderful example of this occurs when she is negotiating the particulars of her circulation stunt, and of course, the raise she should be given. As she bargains with Connell, her visual status changes over the course of the conversation.
Moreover, there are no less than 3 montages in this film, and while their inclusion may have been partly to alleviate time concerns (the running time clocks in at 2 hours 3 minutes), they are all actually quite lengthy as far as montages go. Furthermore, the quick cuts of these pastiches are seen elsewhere in the picture, such as during the riot scenes and during Ann’s feverish composing, giving much of the mise-en -cene a driving, edgy feel.
And yet, there are other moments where Capra hardly moves the camera at all. Take, for instance, Bert the sodajerk’s speech. He allows Bert to deliver his soliloquy aided solely by a few shot-reverse-shots for nearly 5 minutes. There’s almost a play-like feel to these moments where Capra is content to let us watch a character speak, as if he himself has drifted off behind the lens and become too immersed in the content to do anything but listen.
Similarly, the softness of scenes like the ending and the instance where Willoughby tries to tell Ann that he loves her, stand in counterpoint to the sharpness of many of the other elements in Meet John Doe. Yet, these dissimilar parts are reconciled as a whole, unlike what we saw previously in Midnight, thanks to the clarity of the script and the quality of the acting. The entire ensemble is superbly cast, with Stanwyck and Cooper taking the obvious accolades for their polar opposite, yet complimentary roles.
Like most Capra films, there are countless referendums on taxes, insurance, I.D. cards (presumably a reference to Social Security cards), welfare, and many other government apparatuses. Screenwriter Robert Riskin, who adapted the story for film, worked with Capra several times, notably on You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and It Happened One Night, so we can assume that he knew exactly the type of expository speeches his director wanted.
This film was made shortly before America entered the war, and in light of Carpra’s noted enthusiasm for Mussolini, it is interesting to see the obvious analogy between fascism and D.B. Norton’s own dictum. When Norton speaks of desiring a New World Order of discipline and structure, it’s hard not to scratch your head and wonder why a man so devoted to populism and the prevention of government expansion could ever be a fan of someone espousing a totalitarian national ideology. I bring this up not to spark a raging debate over Capra’s personal politics, but because these are such well known facts, that to not mention them would be avoiding the proverbial elephant in the room.
But if you take Capra out of Meet John Doe, what you’re left is a warning. Similar to both Network and A Face in the Crowd, we are cautioned about the irresponsibility of the media, and the ease with which the fourth estate, so vital to a nation’s health, can be corrupted. To remain a public service, it must endeavor to operate independently from government and personal aspiration, yet the very fact that it exists to inform on such matters renders it constantly vulnerable to outside manipulation.
However, what separates this film from the later two, is that it also contains a powerful message about the basic goodness of people. If given the chance, they are more than capable of separating fact from fiction, and functioning parallel to any government construct that may not necessarily have their best interests at heart. Particular to American political ideology, is the idea that as a representative republic, the populace will always hold the upper hand and should lead by example, ahead of the government.
If we are to view A Face in the Crowd and Network as incarnations of Meet John Doe, it follows that while thematic elements remain the same, each film becomes progressively more dire in its warnings, and stingier on its assertion of good will. Willoughby’s metamorphosis into Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes channels a much more intense spotlight on celebrity and cult, while Peter Finch’s Howard Beale is not merely an unwitting tool of unscrupulous forces, but also ravaged by complete mental insanity. Likewise, while the character of Ann Mitchell retains the epic vulnerability of Patricia Neal’s Marcia Jeffries, she is saved the hubris of having to confront the monster she not only created, but excused through loved, and become unable to control. Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is an Ann stripped of shame, intractable, and unable to evolve. Yes, Ann is described as a “gold grabbing dame [who] would double cross her own mother for a handful of Chinese yen,” but as Meet John Doe shows us, she is capable of being so much more.
Still, in all doses and permutations, this ongoing conversation about the interplay between media and politics is one that will probably always be relevant to our culture. It is a necessary exercise to periodically go back and review what has been said before on the subject, because in a present-day context, there’s yet another takeaway from Meet John Doe: if you don’t know where you’ve been, you’ll never know where you’re going.
Personal note: I’d like to thank my good friend, Dave Cassidy, for suggesting this film. If you feel like messin’ up your hair, I highly recommend tuning into his radio show, Soul Shenanigans on Thursdays 3-5 pm EST/8-10 pm GMT, radio23.org. Or, you can always check out the podcasts on itunes.
*All political discourse in this essay is meant as an interpretation of Frank Capra’s work, which for the purpose at hand, I am categorizing as the output of an auteur, and does NOT in any way represent my own personal political views.