Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon: “Meet John Doe”
This is my entry in the “Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon“, hosted by The Girl With The White Parasol, and running from July 16-22.
To a certain segment of movie fans, Frank Capra is forever known as a director of “Capra-corn.” The argument goes that while Capra may have started out the sound era making interesting films such as It Happened One Night, he soon degenerated into making “message” films that were more manipulative, preachy and sentimental than artful or entertaining. Pauline Kael once summed up this position in her capsule review of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when she wrote, “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can – but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.” It is true the movies Capra is most famous for – including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and above all, It’s a Wonderful Life – were as much about the message as being entertaining. But what Capra’s detractors tend to miss, I think, is not just the fact he always made his films entertaining and funny – Mr. Deeds’ courtroom testimony is as hilarious as it is heartfelt, as is Jefferson Smith’s filibuster, and who can forget George Bailey’s reaction to Mary wanting back her bathrobe? – he also always made the character’s victories hard-won, always acknowledged the darkness (you forget just how dark It’s a Wonderful Life is until you actually sit down and watch it), and never pretended whatever triumph the main character achieved was easy, unlike many of the films that tried to ape Capra’s style (I would also argue there’s a certain segment of movie fan that doesn’t want *any* sort of message or idea in a film, but that’s a much longer discussion). Meet John Doe (1941) may not be Capra’s best film – that honor, for me, goes to It’s a Wonderful Life, with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take it With You running close behind – but it’s a perfect example of how much more complicated Capra’s films were than his detractors would have you believe.
Meet John Doe found Capra at a crossroads in his career. His long association with Columbia Studios, and its profane head Harry Cohn, had come to an end with Mr. Smith, and this was his first film produced independently (though Warner Brothers ended up distributing it, as they would Capra’s next film, Arsenic and Old Lace). This would also be Capra’s final film with writer Robert Riskin, who had written or co-written nine of Capra’s previous films (except for Mr. Smith), but was itching to go out on his own. It also proved to be the final film he did with Edward Arnold. Finally, it proved to be the final film in his unofficial trilogy of a simple guy taking on a rich and corrupt man (and sometimes system). On the other hand, the film also represented a reunion between Capra and his leading actors. It was his first film in five years with Gary Cooper, and Capra and Riskin tailored it specifically for Cooper (Cooper in turn accepted the role without reading the script partly because he wanted to work with Capra again). And it was Capra’s first film in eight years with Barbara Stanwyck, whom he had made four films with before (Ladies of Leisure, The Miracle Woman, Forbidden and The Bitter Tea of General Yen), all films (except for Forbidden) detractors of “Capra-corn” thought were his real movies. As if all that wasn’t enough, it was the first film Capra had made in the sound era where he didn’t know the ending of the film before he started shooting it. I don’t know if all of those aspects informed Capra’s filmmaking, but the end result would seem to suggest it.
On the surface, Meet John Doe follows the outline not just of Capra’s earlier Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, but also Stanwyck’s other major movies of 1941 – Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve – which also cast her as a streetwise woman who suckers an innocent man and then ends up falling for him. Here, she’s Ann Mitchell, a reporter who, as the film opens, has just been canned (along with several others) by The New Bulletin (formerly just The Bulletin), the paper that employs her as a reporter, thanks to it being bought out by millionaire D.B. Norton (Arnold) and under new managing editor Henry Connell (James Gleason). Unlike the others who have been let go, however, Mitchell decides not to go without a fight; she writes a letter to the editor protesting society’s ills, and signs it “John Doe”, with the kicker “John Doe” will kill himself by jumping off the roof of city hall on Christmas Eve. This causes a minor firestorm, with people calling Connell and Mayor Lovett (Gene Lockhart) demanding John Doe be talked out of it and given a job, among other things (the Governor (Vaughn Glaser) and his aides see this as Norton’s work). Therefore, Connell is highly perturbed when Mitchell shows up in his office (she’s gone missing) and admits she herself wrote the letter and there is no “John Doe”. When Mitchell hears about the noise she’s responsible for, however, she convinces a highly reluctant Connell to milk the story for all its worth (along with giving her a raise, of course), and to hire someone to pretend to be John Doe (as it happens, several hobos who claim they wrote the letter show up at the newspaper office). The man she and Connell settle on is “Long” John Willoughby (Cooper), a washed-up minor league pitcher (he hurt his pitching arm).
Willoughby travels around with a man known only as the Colonel (Walter Brennan), who takes a dim view of the whole enterprise (he calls everyone else a “heelot – a lot of heels”). Willoughby himself starts to feel uneasy about what he’s gotten himself into as well; right before he’s set to give his first radio address (which Mitchell has written for him), he gets an offer from The Chronicle, a rival paper – they’ll pay to have his arm fixed right away if he admits the whole thing is a fake – but at the last minute, decides to do the speech. However, while the speech is a hit, Willoughby is so freaked out he and the Colonel run away. What they don’t count on – and Connell, Mitchell and Norton are surprised by this as well – is just how affected people are by “John Doe” and his message. “John Doe” clubs have formed all over the country, pledging to help their neighbors out and to treat him as a neighbor (Mitchell, Norton and Willoughby meet one such club, headed by Bert Hansen (Regis Toomey) and his wife (Ann Doran, who also appeared in Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You). To the Colonel’s disgust, Willoughby decides to go along, and even starts to believe in the John Doe message. What neither Willoughby nor Mitchell realize (at first) is Norton, as the Governor feared, has his own agenda for the “John Doe” movement.
As I said before, this is certainly familiar in outline to those who had seen Capra’s earlier simple-man-versus-the-corrupt-system films. But Capra and Riskin, working from a story co-written by Richard Connell (best known for writing the story The Most Dangerous Game is based on), make things more complicated than they might seem. For starters, there’s a Pygmalion element to the story; “John Doe” is Mitchell’s creation, Willoughby is her discovery, she molds one into the other, and just as in that original myth, she falls in love with her creation. So while Mitchell may be out for money and the publicity she can get (as well as helping out her mother (Spring Byington)), she also believes in the message she’s writing, so unlike the characters she plays in Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, her attitude towards the hero is complicated right from the start. Secondly, Capra and Riskin are working on a much bigger scale than they did in their previous movies, as well as tapping into what at the time was the very real fear of homegrown fascism, specifically fifth columnists (more on that in a minute). Finally, in both Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, the titular heroes are momentarily brought down by their enemies through a charge against them that is either exaggerated (Longfellow Deeds’ drunken escapades and his eccentricities, such as playing the tuba to help him think, are used against him to make him seem crazy and unfit for his inheritance) or just a flat-out lie (Jefferson Smith is accused of owning the land he wants his boys camp built on so he can make a profit off of it, when in fact Jim Taylor is the one who owns the land and is trying to profit off another bill). When Norton decides he needs to slap Willoughby down, on the other hand, he doesn’t need to lie, he can simply say Willoughby was being paid to play John Doe, and he had no intention of jumping off the building on Christmas Eve, all of which is true.
In a way, Meet John Doe is somewhat of a precursor to Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s great 1957 film A Face in the Crowd. The latter film is also about a seeming simpleton who becomes a national hero, but the difference is, of course, Dusty Rhodes is eager to sell out and turns into a monster himself, while Willoughby instead becomes a better person through playing “John Doe” (also, while Marcia Jeffries, who discovered Rhodes, realizes she has to destroy him at the end, while Mitchell must stand by helplessly while Norton destroys Willoughby). This added layer makes Kazan’s film more complex, but Capra got there first in showing how media can be so easily manipulated. And yet, while this doesn’t have as many funny moments as many of Capra’s previous films, there are some choice ones. Most of them come from Brennan as the misanthropic Colonel, who’s thrown in to take the edge off (especially funny is when Willoughby’s bodyguards start believing the Colonel about “heelots”). There’s a great running gag early in the film about the sign painter unable to finish painting Connell’s name and title on the door of his office. And that’s not even mentioning when Connell, trying to cash in on “John Doe” any way he can, forcing Willoughby to take pictures with a midget act. Finally, there’s the scene where Mitchell is trying to get Willoughby angry for a photo, so she tells him she’s the umpire who called a perfect strike he just threw a ball.
Of course, Capra had the help of his actors. Being at a new studio, he didn’t get to use as many of his usual stock company as before (though there were a few, like Pierre Frechette as one of Norton’s cronies, and a few who went on to appear in more Capra films, such as Gleason, who’s very funny here), but he had his principal actors. In his autobiography, Capra said Arnold was anathema to most directors because he always blew his lines, but if you could put up with it, he was a powerhouse, and that’s true here. What’s interesting is while Arnold was usually someone who played big, he actually underplays most of the time, so even though he was associated with playing nefarious characters, especially with Capra (in You Can’t Take it With You – though he reforms there – and Mr. Smith), you can’t really guess his intentions right away. You also might think John Willoughby is merely a copy of Longfellow Deeds, but he’s not – Willoughby is more streetwise and cynical than Deeds, though he does share a small town prejudice and an appreciation of things he’s never had before – and Cooper is able to distinguish between the two. One of his best moments is when he’s telling Mitchell about a dream he had about her; it’s a long speech, and yet Cooper never falters throughout.
And then there’s Stanwyck. Amazingly, she wasn’t the first choice of Warner Brothers; Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland were both offered the part first, but they both turned it down. All due respect to both actresses, but neither of them could have pulled it off the way Stanwyck does here. Take the scene where she first pitches the idea to Connell; you get the feeling she just thought up the idea on the spot, and when she shifts gears in the scene to try an extort a raise from Connell, she handles that part with aplomb. And it may seem like her character is two different people, the way she’s idealistic in one scene and cynically out for herself, Stanwyck makes it believable that it’s all the same, complicated person. The scene where Cooper is telling her about that dream is a good example; she realizes he’s fallen in love with her, and given she’s started to feel guilty about the fact she’s been using him (this is before she even finds out what Norton is up to), she plays a perfect combination of pretending to be amused while feeling conflicted at the same time. This isn’t my favorite performance of hers that year (that would probably be The Lady Eve), but it’s a terrific one.
Now let’s take a look at that ending. In his autobiography, Capra claimed he knew he and Riskin had written themselves into a corner, and the ending he chose (one of five) was the best of a bad lot. Having been disgraced, Willoughby disappears from view, and almost everyone has forgotten about him, except for Mitchell, Norton, and Mrs. Hansen, all of whom think Willoughby might actually go through with committing suicide on Christmas Eve (to keep Ann happy, Connell and the Colonel are keeping watch). Turns out he is, in the hopes that his death will start the “John Doe” movement all over again, as he tells Norton and his cronies. That’s when Mitchell and the others converge on the rooftop, and she pleads with him not to jump, telling him they can still start the John Doe movement up again even with him alive. This might seem corny and manipulative, but Stanwyck manages to pull off a speech that could have been histrionic in any other hands, and more importantly, the ideas of the movement – love thy neighbor – are ideas Capra and Riskin throughout the movie convince us are important to hold onto (or as Connell puts it at the end, “There you are, Norton; the people! Try and lick that!”). So far from being a cop-out, as was charged in some quarters, I think it helps make Meet John Doe as good as it ultimately is.