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“Meet John Doe,” Then and Now

I had never seen much of Frank Capra movies. Maybe parts of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and then perhaps seeing all of it once. I had thought that Capra made overly sentimental movies, idealistic but somewhat preachy. I may well have been wrong about this, and after all, he is legendary. A friend of mine who is in the film business, is very high on “Sullivan’s Travels,” and I have meant to see it.

The other day, “Meet John Doe” was on. I started about twenty minutes in, just to take a look, and I found myself anxious to see how it would turn out, with the forces of decency and evil arrayed against each other. Most of you have probably seen the film, so I won’t relate the plot in all details; and I had to read about the first part that I had missed.

The movie came out in 1941, with America having gone through a horrible economic Depression, with so many people out of work, and barely subsisting. And of course, to some extent a result of that, Europe and even America saw the rise of fascists, Communists, totalitarians of all types. Yet still, the rich, the so-called “captains of industry,” the robber barons who were sure that their success at the game of acquiring wealth, meant that they were superior people destined to rule everyone else, were in power in this country, and intended to maintain it.

I had written about the film “Mank,” which as a subplot, revealed something that had not been verified until recently when the writer who had done a book about the California gubernatorial campaign of 1934, was able to see the archives at MGM Studios, which revealed that the people who ran Hollywood, and who hated the socialist Upton Sinclair, were able to defeat him by making up ads which featured unemployed actors, pretending that they were Sinclair supporters. A Black person; a man who put on a Russian accent and said he liked Sinclair because his politics are like those of Stalin; these phony ads effectively smeared Sinclair, who was leading in the race, and caused him to lose to a Republican, Frank Merriam, who was a typical pawn of the wealthy ruling class.

I wonder if Robert Riskin, who wrote the screenplay for “Meet John Doe,” had this history in mind, even if he was not privy to all of it, when he wrote his script. “Meet John Doe” shows us a struggling newspaper, with a determined young reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck in one of her most appealing roles, who is about to lose her job. Her editor wants her to do one more article. In anger, she comes up with the idea of inventing a letter supposedly written by a depressed man who is about to jump off a building, because he is so disillusioned by what is happening in this country.

The letter gets a large response, and Stanwyck’s editor wants her to write more of them, and she will keep her job and get paid more if she can. So she invents the character of “John Doe,” and writes letters and even speeches for him. They have to find someone to be him, so they look around and find a barely subsisting man who used to be a minor league pitcher, but hurt his arm, cannot afford surgery. so is more or less a bum. They offer him enough money for the surgery, and he agrees to go along. He is played by Gary Cooper, who I had always thought was a rather wooden actor, but whom I am liking more, particularly when I saw one of those TCM featurettes where his daughter talked about what a very decent and idealistic man he was.

This story of “John Doe” takes hold in the popular mind, and Cooper overcomes his reticence, to start making speeches, written by Stanwyck, about how the only way to save this society is if people start to learn about their neighbors, try to understand them, make friends with them. Then “all the John Doe’s” will form a powerful force which can change things for the better.

The movement grows, towns start their own “John Doe Clubs.Then we learn that D.B Norton, the evil publisher of Stanwyck’s newspaper, intends to co-opt all of it, and turn it into a vehicle for him to become a quasi-dictator. He wants Cooper to do a speech where he throws all his supporters, who talk about forming a new political party, behind him, to run for President.

There is a truly unsettling series of scenes; the first where Norton and his “fat cat” friends, shown as corrupt and loathsome people, talk about how this John Doe movement has gotten out of hand; that the people need to be ruled by an iron hand, which is them. The contempt they have for the average people, the greed and unscrupulousness, must have shocked some viewers who first saw this movie, and you probably could not make something like that now, outside of an “indie” film.

So the convention of all these “John Doe Club” supporters takes place, and Cooper has no intention of supporting this evil publisher, and tries to talk about what his own views are all about. But one of the plutocrats has a microphone, and says that Cooper was not going to commit suicide, it was all a publicity stunt, which he was paid for. Which Cooper admits, and tries to explain, but they cut off his microphone. Then one of them starts booing, and this starts the crowd to be swayed, and ‘they start booing, and throwing things; and the police come in, and everything is ruined.

Cooper, distraught, is now actually going to jump off the building named in the first story that Stanwyck had written. The plutocrats show up, and either with a twinge of guilt, or more likely, tying up loose ends, they tell him that it will do his movement no good; the police have been told to immediately remove all of his traces of identification, and he will be buried in a Potter’s Field. He is going to jump, anyway, but Stanwyck, who has been ill, realizes what he is going to do, and rushes out to find him. She has fallen in love with him, because of his decency and idealism, and tells him that, and also that no matter what happens, they can do good things together. She says that “the first John Doe” died for the sake of humanity, and this must not happen again now.

Then she collapses in a faint, people help her out to an ambulance; people in the crowd tell Cooper that they still want to have their John Doe clubs, that the movement is not over. Henry, the editor, turns to Norton, and says, “The people. Try to lick that!”

Well, it is a moving film, very well done. There is idealism, but there is also cynicism about how “the malefactors of great wealth” (as FDR courageously called them) are determined to keep power, and will use any means to do it. Just like in the governor’s race in 1934. And somewhat paraphrasing the words of novelist Sinclair Lewis, who wrote that, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, and carrying a cross.”

Actually, some of the very rich in America supported the totalitarians in that era, as they do now. They figure out how to use everything for a profit. Now Rupert Murdoch decides that Trump is not useful to him any more, and he wants DeSantis. The same wine with a shiny new label. I won’t go into Bernie Sanders here, but unwittingly or not, he got Trump elected; many of his followers decided that they hated Hillary so much, that letting Trump loose on the country was not as bad, though they all rage against the bought-and-sold Supreme Court now. Sanders got a lot of money from somewhere, and it wasn’t just millions of people sending him $27, as he claimed. And who funded Jill Stein? The very rich have always had contempt for the rest of the populace, and are always ready to invent or co-opt a new candidate or slogan, to serve their ends.

This is to some extent all in “Meet John Doe.” The screenwriter Robert Riskin deserves much of the credit, but Frank Capra set up the scenes and brought out the characters’ performances. For that we should be very appreciative. I will watch more of his movies.Things written back then can have great resonance now.