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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.


8 Responses

  1. “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) is a Preston Sturges film, not a Frank Capra film. In fact, Sturges made “Sullivan’s Travels” in part because he was tired of Capra’s ‘preachy’ films.

    There is no evidence (and scholars have searched for it) that Sinclair Lewis ever wrote or said, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, and carrying a cross.” However, in 1936, writer James Waterman Wise (son of Rabbi Stephen Wise) did say if fascism comes to America, it will probably be “wrapped in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.”

    Interesting, William, that you decry the politically motivated phony smears against socialist Upton Sinclair in the 1930’s and yet you proceed to employ the same tactics against Bernie Sanders, whom you hate, with no evidence whatsoever to back them up but your claim that his money must have come from “somewhere” (what a classic dog whistle that is). Maybe you got your “information” about Sanders from the same friend in the film business who doesn’t know who made “Sullivan’s Travels”.

  2. Tap dancing time:

    • Well, sorry about the misattribution of “Sullivan’s Travels.” The quote often attributed to Sinclair Lewis may or may not have been written or said by him; it is a very good perception, no matter who said it.

      My essay was not about Sanders, so I don’t want to go into that in depth in these comments, but I did write that comment, although I debated whether to leave it in, because I think that Sanders was greatly, though certainly not solely, responsible for Trump being elected, and virtually destroying the country in all aspects. We may never recover from Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, when Hillary would have appointed three excellent Justices, who would have protected abortion and so much else. Anyone should have realized that it was the election to decide the Court for forty years, but Sanders either could not, or more likely, did not care.

      Sanders said when entering the race that he just wanted to talk about issues, and not engage in personal attacks, and then he proceeded to endlessly attack Hillary for such trivial things as her making a speech at Goldman Sachs. And even after Super Tuesday, where he was trounced, and it was obvious that he had no mathematical chance of being nominated, he stayed in the race for months, attacking Hillary. His supporters threw dollar bills at her.

      Someone in his campaign hacked Hillary’s campaign information, with donors on it. He ostensibly fired the person who did it His supporters went to the convention, and booed and jeered every mention of Hillary, until they were moved to the rafters the next day. In the national election campaign, he refused to give his donor list to Hillary’s campaign. His purported events for Hillary consisted of him saying, “You know that Secretary Clinton and I have disagreements on issues, but Trump would be terrible;” and then he would spend an hour or more doing his own stump speech.

      I believe that Russia was helping him, and the American Far Right was. Thus my earlier point. I can’t prove it, but he was outraising Hillary some months, and donations of $27 would not do it. His campaign manager was a former partner of Paul Manafort. Sanders had no legitimate reason to run, and one can certainly prove that the amount of Sanders voters who refused to vote for Hillary in the national election, cost her the presidency, and may have cost the country forever. So I despise him for his egomaniacal self-indulgence, at the very least, as I do Ralph Nader for his, which got Roberts and Alito on the Court, and the crash of 2007. “Take your place on the great mandala,” sang Peter Paul and Mary. They took theirs.

      • There are many Corporate Democrats I despise for their continuing efforts over the last decades to destroy the legacy programs of the New Deal and the Great Society, leaving millions poor, hungry, homeless and without healthcare. The GREED of these Corporate Democrats knows no bounds. Sanders has never been one of them.

        Why don’t you write about the millions of Americans, many of whom are women and children, who are this month losing their Medicaid, CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and SNAP (food stamp) benefits because the Democratic controlled lame duck Congress voted in December, 2022 to end those benefits and Biden signed it into law?

        Whenever you write about Biden or Corporate Democrats in Congress, you seem to be parroting DNC talking points. Aren’t we those people who hated the DNC back in 2008 and protested them in various (some not so pretty) ways? Why are the DNC Democrats any different now?

        Which side do you think “John Doe” would be on? The side of the Corporate Democrats, cheering as the poor suffer even more while they and their Fat Cat donors make out like bandits? I don’t think so. I would suggest rewatching the movie if you can’t figure it out.

        • My answer is that it is not the 1930’s, when the Democrats had their greatest President ever, and they dominated Congress, and by the time of the movie, the Supreme Court. They don’t now, and have not for at least twenty years. In the ’30’s, there were all sorts of small-town liberal papers owned by decent individuals. There are almost all corporate papers now. There were no all news stations, actually no television, now owned by the Far Right.

          I know that there are those who think that if only Democrats had run more to the Left, they would have been where they were under FDR. I respect that position, but I don’t think it is accurate, though the only candidates we tried that out with, were McGovern and Dukakis. I liked Bill Clinton a lot, but certainly some on what we would call the Democratic Left did not. They did not like Gore at all, nor Kerry, nor Hillary. I think that all of them, Gore less so, were reasonable moderate-to-liberal Democrats. If you want to see how a Warren or Merkley or somehow an AOC would do as head of the national ticket, we could try, but my opinion is that we would be swamped, lose Congress, statehouses, everything, and we would have a fascist state.

          My opinion is that someone like Biden, never my favorite, but a decent person who cares about the poor and middle class, is the best that we could reasonably get right now. Warren got about 8% of the Democratic primary vote. You might say that it is worth losing in a noble fight, but did we enjoy Bushes and Trump? The cost of losing is not a Willkie or Eisenhower. It is Trump or DeSantis, and the Supreme Court staying forever where it is now. So while I wish that there were more great programs to help the poor and middle class, Biden and the Democrats in the last House did a good deal to help. Four years of Republican rule is probably the end of the democracy, so we beat on bravely, boats against the current, trying to keep the country afloat.

          My parents loved Adlai Stevenson, but the voters wanted Eisenhower, and then the Democrats chose JFK, who really was not a liberal, nor was RFK, Lawrence O’Donnell’s idol.LBJ was, domestically, but he made a terrible mistake staying in Vietnam, and then we got destroyed in the McGovern race; then nominated Carter twice, who was domestically a conservative. The Democrat who would win a poll as most popular, was Obama, who wasn’t a liberal, either, as this blog has been pointing our for a almost two decades. So where is the perceptiveness and will and base to get a “true liberal” majority to run the country? I would have taken a Biden presidency and a Pelosi House, if only we could have won the Senate, and if only losing all those presidential races had not allowed Far Right Opus Dei social darwinists to completely control the Supreme Court. I very much wanted a Hillary Clinton Presidency, but most of the internet Left hated her.

        • Beata: The GREED of these Corporate Democrats knows no bounds. Sanders has never been one of them.

          EXACTLY, there are followers of the Proffit Gekko on BOTH SIDES, and it’s those on the left who are the more hypocritical in my opinion.

          William: I very much wanted a Hillary Clinton Presidency, but most of the internet Left hated her

          I think just most who comment here wanted a Hillary Clinton Presidency, but quashing that was the worst Democratic president of my lifetime. Obama fed most of the Hillary poison to the media and they ate it up because they are male dominated and misogynistic. There are plenty on the left who would have been happy with a Hillary presidency that we never saw and the problem was not the internet left it was Obama and his team.

  3. I really wanted to reply to this, but I can’t think of anything to say that Beata and jmac didn’t say first (and better than I could). I am, however, really, really tired of the hippie-punching, William.

    • I mostly liked hippies, Propertius. I don’t like Sanders, who probably was never a hippie. He did join a commune, but reportedly was asked to leave because he would sit around arguing with people rather than doing any work. This is not a joke, it has been written about, but I was not there, so I cannot verify it.

      I liked the folk songs and the pop songs of the ’60’s. I liked the sentiments. What I have not liked has nothing to do with hippies, real or figurative. It has to do with a somewhat small,, but a sometimes determinative amount of people on what they would call the Left, carrying their cynicism and political purity so far. that they refused to support or help decent Democratic candidates, and proudly voted for Nader, Sanders, and Stein, or refused to vote at all, thus helping the Far Right to take over; and never feeling guilty about it , but blaming the people they were too contemptuous of to vote for. Bill Maher and Oliver Stone come to mind, as public examples of this, Susan Sarandon is another.

      I am the son of proud FDR/Stevenson Democrats and Jewish people. My father volunteered for service in WWII, joined the Army Air Corps, and flew supply planes over Asia and Africa for five years. My mother organized USO events. After the war, they both attended UCLA, where my mother, trying to join a sorority, was told by them that she should
      join the “Jewish Fraternity” instead of theirs. .And I watched Donald Trump, a literal Nazi, become President, and try to hand America over to the totalitarian forces my father and so many others fought against, due to the efforts of the evil Far Right, and then the indifference of those people who just couldn’t be convinced to vote for Hillary because she represented their mother or something, and they wanted to show everyone how free-thinking and hip and disdainful they were.

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