Tuesday, June 7, 2011

FI: Meet John Doe

Meet John Doe
US, 1941
Directed by Frank Capra

If you're familiar with Frank Capra's canon, you'll recognize many of the elements at play in Meet John Doe. Like many of Capra's films, Doe is a message picture. It issues a challenge to the status quo, attempting a shot across the bow of the moneyed elite, the corrupt journalism they buy, and the government they prop up. It is a tribute to the "common man," but not in a collectivist, socialist way. Rather, it's an appeal to the Depression-era American spirit of helping everyone out and giving everyone a fair chance to succeed on their own merits. I'm not saying it achieves these ambitions—it's second-tier Capra, by no means on a par with his best films—but there's enjoyment enough in watching it try.

Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is a journalist who, after learning she's just been laid off by the paper's new, sensationalistic publisher (Edward Arnold), delivers a column about a certain John Doe: an unemployed, dissatisfied drifter who wishes to protest by jumping off the roof of city hall on Christmas Eve. Of course, it's a hoax, but the column is so popular that the paper decides to hire an "average American" to act as John Doe. They settle on "Long John" Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a former bush league ballplayer and current hobo. They convince Willoughby that they'll pay him enough money to fix his injured arm, allowing him to return to baseball, as long as he plays along. But when his speeches inspire an earnest, grassroots movement, the powers-that-be seek new ways to exploit "John Doe's" popularity to further their own agenda.

The film does tend towards being a bit preachy, with a few explicit references to Jesus thrown in for good measure, and Capra's small-town politics and heavy-handed style do tend to rankle some viewers. Still, the film is entertaining (if overlong), and features good performances by Cooper, Stanwyck, and the always-lovable Walter Brennan—as an ocarina-playing hobo called The Colonel!—in support. If you're interested in the American psyche in the brief, late-Depression/pre–Pearl Harbor era, Meet John Doe gives you one serviceable approach to that zeitgeist.

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