Reviews of Meet John Doe
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Frank Capra and his screenwriter of 10 years at Columbia, Robert Risken, left that major studio and went out on their own with ‘Meet John Doe’, a Riskin screenplay based on a 1922 short story called ‘A Reputation’. Riskin reset the narrative for it to become a salient warning against the rise of fascism, then sweeping a Europe mired in WWII, keeping in mind that both media magnate William Randolph Hearst and all American hero Charles Lindbergh had both praised Hitler’s Third Reich. Capra first wanted James Stewart as Doe, but eventually opted for his alternate ‘everyman’ actor in Gary Cooper, and after testing and casting Ann Sheridan in the lead female role he switched to his old flame Barbara Stanwyck when Sheridan fell into dispute with Warner Brothers who were bankrolling the project. Frank Capra Productions, the partnership company Riskin and Capra formed only produced this one film, the creative tension of a writer who had contributed so much to Capra’s success being relegated to the shadows of Capra’s now enormous fame and reputation proved too much for their relationship to stand.
Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is sacked from her job as a reporter at The Bulletin, as Capra portentously shows their stone carved motto ‘a free press means a free people’ being chiselled off the front of the building. A new broom sweeps through wanting more “fireworks” in their copy, and Ann gives her last column the fireworks required by penning a suicide protest letter in the name of John Doe, essentially protesting “Man’s inhumanity to man”. The letter causes a political storm which she turns to her advantage and she’s re-hired by her editor Connell (James Gleason), to exploit the problem she’s created. They audition several hobo’s to adopt the identity of the fictional Doe to cover the fact the letter is a fake, and John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) steps up to the plate. The newspaper publishes a series of ‘I Protest’ articles from John, ghost-written by Ann, and they become a sensation, at which point John runs away. A John Doe movement evolves spontaneously at a grass roots ‘tea party’ level which compels John to come back and support it as it’s figurehead. The owner of the Bulletin, D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) soon sees an opportunity to co-opt the John Doe movement to his own political end, but once John sees how he’s been duped and manipulated by Norton he decides the only thing to do is carry out the fictional John’s promise of committing suicide on Xmas eve.
Riskin and Capra struggle to walk a line between showing the naked ambition of an American fascist like Norton, “The American people need an iron hand”, as opposed to the everyman populism of John Doe, who espouses overt collectivist, or socialist solutions to the nation’s ills. Capra explored the inherent decency in the common man, but personally demonstrated time and again he had little identification with that group, having dragged himself up from their number and spent several years denying the depth of his early penury. Riskin gets the tone right, a remnant of the skill acquired through fashioning the everyman classics at Columbia like ‘Mr Smith’ and ‘Mr Deeds’, but also struggles with the consistency of a message that at once warns of demagogue-messiah’s and promotes one as the solution, of warning the people of being led by a person who’s leading them. The pair painted themselves into a corner as they had not agreed on an ending prior to production and they wrote or filmed as many as five different ones. Capra opted for the soft choice, John lives and is talked out of jumping, and Riskin favoured the choice that saw him end his life.
The piece is heavy with Christian symbolism and parallels to the Christ myth. John is the reluctant messiah, and soon finds he has disciples following him. The message of ‘love thy neighbour’ is woven throughout the story, and ultimately prior to his self sacrifice (crucifixion) John has a crisis of confidence and denies his destiny. Ann is ‘Judas’ for all intents and purposes as she’s sold him out for furs and diamonds instead of thirty pieces of silver. The trial is the central set piece of the John Doe Convention where Norton-Pilate manipulates the crowd into condemning John. For this allegory to carry through successfully it’s essential that John die, and his resurrection in this case would be the continuation of his message via his disciples, but Capra couldn’t commit to the parallel narrative all the way and the ending isn’t truly satisfying as a result. The core thing that the film points up is the gap between the rhetoric of the Christian message and the ability to live it out. The battle will always be between idealism and grim reality, where the cynical machinations of Norton make it harder for the truly remarkable human impulse of empathy to come to the fore and trump vested self interest.
That said Capra still created a film of force and heart. Riskin’s feel for the dilemma of ordinary people is the strength of the piece and Capra’s visual acuity is mature and sophisticated particularly in the convention sequence where 1500 extras and fluid camerawork, combined with relentless rain and a sea of umbrellas makes for a stunning and memorable result. John speaks of a people “hungry for something”, relating to them and empathising with them, “We’re the meek” he tells them, contrasted to Norton’s rich man-camel-needle scenario. Riskin does manage to convey the depths to which a Norton will stoop to manipulate people, and Connell delivers that telling insight in a speech where he gets drunk and explains to John that he’s a sucker for the Star Spangled Banner. Connell tells John the story of his experience in WWI, where he saw his own father die in battle, and the association with that degree of sacrifice and patriotism creates an emotional nexus between the song and it’s effect that strikes deep into Connell’s heart. That someone would exploit that feeling for their own political ends is shameful in his eyes, and this is what alerts John to the scale of Norton’s press Tsar ambition. A free press indeed.
Cooper is fine as the reluctant messiah, and almost manages to pull off the cop out ending, and the beautiful Stanwyck is dynamic and wonderful as Ann, who finds the wise words of her dead father are perfect for the post depression times the nation faced. Arnold is simply superb as Norton, cool and measured in his conviction, ’You’re the fake", he tells John, “At least we believe in what we’re doing”.
Ultimately the intricacies and the politics of balancing an essentially socialist message and an anti big business angle in an age in Hollywood where that was considered suspect by the Dies committee, the first incarnation of HUAC, proved to be problematic, and this interesting and intriguing film never found great critical favour. That Riskin and Capra were never investigated in the late ’40’s was remarkable in light of the decidedly ‘pink’ tinge of ‘Meet John Doe’. America still struggles with the idea of socialism in a way other western countries do not, the idea that Barack Obama could be labelled a socialist at any level is a gross misunderstanding of the term. For anyone interested in the political labyrinth of American political thought ‘Meet John Doe’ is a fascinating film, but the final words ’ There you are Norton, the people, try and lick that’, will ring a little hollow, as the Arnold’s of the world have gone from strength to strength in the seventy plus years since. Capra only made one more worthwhile film, as WWII interrupted any chance of a follow up to this, and after ’It’s A Wonderful Life’, he struggled to ever again prosecute his peculiar and singular vision of the American everyman.
First published here on Dec 7, 2011
The last day of December demands introspection, and I sense a now all-too-familiar pressure to choose the right words for this end note. The year on the calendar upsets my plans. These plans have now become ‘old plans’; plans that stopped my time a long ago. And to watch Frank Capra now means to freeze this time even further.
Capra’s world is the one of hope—often, the oldest hopes of man. There’s a childlike simplicity that characterizes these men. His women are strong-willed and independent. In this world the greatest villain is self-centeredness. Honesty and kindness come across as something worth striving for, and because you want to believe so. ‘Be nice.’ ‘Be good.’ That seems to be at the heart of his best-known films: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941), among others.
It’s a shocking discovery then: the voice in these films doesn’t belong to its director Frank Capra. This voice that we admire so much belongs to the writer of his films who could sympathize with the underdogs, who sailed the boats for Columbus but never got their due share of credit or recognition. Sadly, his partnership with the writer of his best films, Robert Riskin, can be described as the relationship that D.B. Norton had with John Doe in Meet John Doe.
Even the choice of the title of Frank Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above The Title, clearly propels his reckless attitude. The star director refused to visit the lowly writer who was slowly dying in a hospital. Throughout his life, Capra attempted to shroud the genius of the great scenarist. The truth is that Capra eschewed the funeral of a man whose creative vision and distinct voice was widely mistaken to be Capra’s own. Nothing could be more ironical for the man who reaffirms the Christian doctrine of forgiveness in his works.
Robert Riskin seems to have no problem with accepting the true nature of the director-writer relationship in the studio era. Riskin helped to set up the Screen Writers’ Guild and fought as a screenwriter for the screenwriters, and the fight still continues. Riskin needed Capra as much as Capra needed him, or any writer needs a director unless they are both one. The collaboration, between the man with an idea and the man with the means to sustain it, couldn’t be less lopsided:JOHN DOE
Do you mean to tell me you’d try to kill the John Doe movement if you can’t use it to get what you want?D.B. NORTON
You bet your bottom dollar we would!
Such a reading of Meet John Doe’s text then adds an autobiographical quality, on Riskin’s part, to this last collaboration. And it seems Meet John Doe is nothing short of a triumph of Riskin the individual over Capra the institution. Yet it cannot be denied that the brief marriage between Riskin’s idealism and Capra’s pragmatism was responsible for the birth of some of the finest classics in Hollywood.
In the beginning of the last year or was it the year before that, I left the oblivion of a film that I had co-written to return to the oblivion of advertising. The oblivion grows on you, no matter whether you’re a director-in-the-making or a director who’s made many films. Capra did his best films with Riskin, and Riskin did his with Capra. On the first viewing, a Capra film is a dialog film—hence a Riskin film. It’s all drama, and then when you keep playing back your favorite scenes over and again, you begin to notice the mise-en-scène. Capra clearly knew how to translate the text on to the silver screen, and all so well. Only if he were less ‘mean.’*
Postscript from In Capra’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin by Ion Scott:
Jo Swerling, a mutual friend and colleague of Riskin and Capra, and himself a wonderful Hollywood screenwriter, once paced around Riskin’s wheelchair while he was ill, complaining that Capra’s reluctance to visit his old friend was just not right. In the end, however, Riskin lost his temper with Swerling and revealed a deep-seated loyalty to his former partner by dismissing what seemed to be a reasonable claim with the comment, “You’re talking about my best friend.”