One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie.
It is the dramatic crux of Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941): John Doe (Gary Cooper), a populist cultural icon preaching neighborliness and community, has just found out that hundreds of thousands of fans are going to be manipulated by his corporate financiers to advance their pro-business interests. He rushes to the stadium where the John Doe society is having it’s first national meeting, intending to confess that he’s a fraud and stop the deception. Doe is seconds away from grabbing the microphone when he’s stopped by a preacher who announces that before Doe can speak there will be a moment of silent prayer. Excruciatingly, the film grinds to a halt, and the camera cranes away from the stage, eerily gliding over the heads of hundreds of solemn, rain-lashed Doe supporters as we await their rude awakening. Capra is not known for his sense of spiritualism. If anything, his style is more often considered prosaic and simple-minded for its tendency towards didacticism and corniness. Yet this haunting shot, filled with expressionistic blacks and a quiet, graceful contemplativeness, speaks to the quasi-religious nature of Capra’s fascination with the little guy. A lifelong conservative who made a name for himself with films advocating New Deal-era liberal politics, Frank Capra’s relationship to the hordes of needy common-folk often found in his films is nothing short of complicated. While his heroes are typically folksy salt-of-the earth types they never seem to identify with or even relax around the scores of ordinary Americans whom they’re typically trying to save. For in Capra’s universe these crowds usually come without a life-like sense of personality or individuality, instead appearing as mere sources of pity and gratitude. Yet this inability to fully humanize them does not belie an attitude of disrespect or a dismissal. On the contrary, the director, at his most sentimental, believes strongly in the power and ability of people as a group to actualize themselves, as do most of his characters. Whether this inspires or terrifies Capra is a more difficult question, and, as we feel in this shot at the end of John Doe, the answer is rather ambivalent. These scores of Doe-devotees are the ultimate poor-suckers, about to be shaken from their long con, yet as the camera quietly tracks across the ominous rows of umbrellas, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of awe towards their collective spirit and belief. Capra, a progressive proselytizer whose closeted conservativism led to a life-long case of imposter syndrome, must have wondered, just like John Doe does, what all these enthusiastic audiences saw in him. But it is in this very anxiety itself, this mixture of sublime wonder and apprehensive fear felt by the individual in the face of the crowd, that Capra was able to transcend his shoddy, disingenuous politicking and achieve a beautiful emotional sincerity that validates his work immemorially.