Meet John Doe (1941)
It's impossible to watch this movie today without the miasma of a year's bitter primary campaigning oozing in around the edges of Frank Capra's bumpy tale of a forgotten but otherwise happy man tempted and victimized by cynics and optimists alike. There are too many parallels and sad reminders that not much has changed in our political discourse over the past 75 years, and like us I guess, the film can't quite commit to either cynicism or optimism.
John Doe isn't real. He's the product of the disgruntled imagination of Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), a sob sister columnist for the Bulletin, who has just been laid off by the paper's new management. The old Bulletin's motto was "A Free Press Means a Free People;" the New Bulletin is "A Streamlined Newspaper for a Streamlined Era." Ann's parting shot at the new paper was to invent a letter for her column from an unemployed Everyman (Doe) who vows to leap off City Hall on Christmas Eve to protest the sorry state of American civilization. Most people in the newspaper game suspect this is a hoax, but the public believes the story and floods the New Bulletin with offers to help and pleas for Someone to do Something.
In order to avoid exposure managing editor Henry Connell (James Gleason) hires Ann back to help manage the public's expectations and to figure out a way to cover up the fraud. Luckily, a stampede of tramps has descending on the offices claiming to be John Doe in order to get the work and other help offered by the citizenry. Ann persuades Connell to pick one of these men to pose as the "real" John Doe and use him as a front to write a column about the plight of downtrodden regular folks and to boost circulation.
They hire "Long" John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a strapping, kind of dopey ex-ballplayer who never goes anywhere without his friend, a professional hobo called The Colonel (Walter Brennan). The Colonel believes that anyone who keeps money of any amount for any length of time is bound to be corrupted. "When you become a guy with a bank account, they gotcha, " he says, Who's gotcha? Heelots (a lot of heels) gotcha, because when you have money people want to sell you stuff and then you're caught, "you're not the free and happy guy you used to be, then you become a Heelot* yourself."
Sheesh. Who is that guy, Bernie Sanders' dad?
So here's the score so far: Ann's original column is a cynical move but it stimulates the public's optimism and basic decency. Willoughby makes the cynical decision to pretend to be John Doe, but is optimistic that it will help him earn enough money to get his pitching arm fixed. The Colonel walks around calling everyone Heelots and threatening to redistribute any wealth coming his way, which is either extra-cynical or wildly optimistic, depending on who you're voting for this cycle.
Pretty soon everyone starts getting in over their heads. Ann's column is a huge success, but it's ruffling political and journalistic feathers. The Bulletin's new publisher, D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold), makes a deal with Ann to put Willoughby on the radio as John Doe to put to rest suspicions that he's a fake (which he is), while providing Norton with a populist proxy for his political ambitions with Ann writing speeches at triple her former salary. Win-win.
Ann needs the money, by the way, because she is the breadwinner for her widowed mother (Spring Byington) and two school-aged sisters. Her mother has a habit of giving the leftover household money away on the needy, which Ann finds both irritating and inspirational. And at 62 cents on a man's 1941 dollar, a raise would come in handy. Mrs. Mitchell helps Ann past her speech-writing block by suggesting that "People are tired of hearing nothing but doom and despair on the radio... Why don't you let him say something simple and real. Something with hope in it?" So Ann writes a real barn burner and in the process, starts to believe in this John Doe stuff.
Willoughby, meanwhile, is offered $5,000 from a rival newspaper to read an alternate speech on the night of the broadcast confessing to the hoax. Gary Cooper does a masterful job conveying his internal conflict while deciding what to do: admit the hoax, ease his conscience, and get the operation he needs, or do right by Ann, with whom is is falling in love, and read her speech about tearing down fences, loving your neighbor, and being decent. He decides to go ahead with Ann's speech, but bolts with The Colonel immediately afterward to slip back into a life of poor but honest obscurity.
But Willoughby can't hide for long from Norton's media machine. While he and Bernie's dad have been out riding the rails, "John Doe Clubs" have been popping up all over; just regular citizens picking up his call to be nice to one other. And No Politicians Allowed. He is recognized at a local diner, corralled by "fans" and convinced by a local John Doe Club in one of the more tedious, Capra-esque, aw-shucks, cornfields of a speech to go back on the radio and spread the word.
Soon John Doe Clubs are spreading like wildfire. D.B. Norton is thrilled, because it's an election year and he has plans to make Willoughby announce the formation of a new political party and endorse Norton as The John Doe Party candidate for president. But John Doe Clubs are specifically apolitical, Ann and Willoughby remind Norton, and that would be wrong. Oh wise up, kids. Besides, Norton explains, he could very easily expose the whole racket that Ann concocted in the first place and ruin them both.
The kids don't back down; Norton exposes Willoughby on national radio and steps in as the savior of the movement. John Doe's once adoring fans are heartbroken and angry and they turn on him It isn't pretty. A despondent Willoughby disappears. Months go by and around Christmas time the main characters start to wonder whether he'll make his way to City Hall and make good on the original plan: throw himself off the roof in protest over how horrible people are.
Sure enough, that's where he winds up. He almost does it too, but a feverish Ann, a less cranky Colonel, and Bulletin editor Connell are there to stop him. Even Norton is there to convince him, in his sincere but Scroogey way, that it would be pointless to kill himself, because he'd just remove all traces of John's existence (come on, he's trying). What does the trick ultimately, is the cornball members of the first John Doe club -- also on the roof, at midnight, in the snow -- telling him they don't care if he's a fake, the message was a good one and whaddyasay? Ann faints from illness; Willoughby carries her off the roof (the regular way).
Is this a happy ending? I don't know, does Ann die of fever? This is the trouble with conservative Capra directing the script of liberal Robert Riskin: the tone is all over the place. The Heelot stuff is meant to be annoying, but Ann's mother is just as free with other people's money, and somehow she's more sympathetic. Why is the Colonel a crackpot and Mrs. Mitchell the heart of the people?
In the end it all goes to pieces HARD and big money wins again: that one rich bad apple probably became president for all we know. At the beginning of the picture, Long John Willoughby's is broke and can't afford an operation that will save his baseball career, but he has a friend and a harmonica and freedom. At the end, he's just as broke, still can't pitch, his friends love him, but now he wants to jump off the roof. Why? Because he had hope? Because no one turns on a savior faster than his disappointed followers?
That's bleak, man. No wonder It's a Wonderful Life is the Christmas picture.
* in ancient Greek, a helot is a member a class of unfree peasants or state-owned serfs in Sparta. I can get behind the idea that we're all ceding our citizenship to target marketing and general acquisitiveness, but does that mean we're heels, necessarily? Seems kind of mean, Walter Brennan.
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