#40 — Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941)
For all the huffing and harrumphing that plenty of people resort to when engaged in discussions of the broken state of modern politics (and I include myself in that “plenty”), there’s a sad, corrosive truth at the core of our problems. To borrow a handy bit of phrasing, this dysfunction of our politics isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. That’s perhaps best evidenced by the ways in which the damage decried today as proof of the historic animosity and corruption within the power structure can be found recurring through U.S. history like the clearest of echoes. No less stalwart of a cinematic patriot than Frank Capra has acknowledged that, at least creatively.
Meet John Doe is widely considered the third installment in Capra’s informal trilogy of populist political fables that began with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, released in 1936, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, released in 1939. Hitting screens at the time when fascist forces were trying to give a forcibly unified Europe a whirl, the film can be interpreted as a cautionary tale, a warning about how easily similarly dictatorial forces could get a foothold in the U.S. system without due vigilance from the citizenry. That’s a useful goal for the fiction, but it also reveals precisely how much overt manipulation of the populace was already taking place. Barbara Stanwyck plays Ann Mitchell, a newspaper writer who concocts a angry, desperate figure named John Doe, whose pronounced misery as all the ways the American system has failed him has him ready to end his life by taking a swan dive off a tall building on New Year’s Eve. Entirely fabricated, the story becomes and sensation and the columnist and her paper soon recruit a man to play the role, which is a failed baseball player named John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) comes in.
The ruse in place, the fervor over John Doe only builds, with Willoughby’s amateurish performances with the language he’s being fed only accentuating the sense that he’s the last decent, honest man in the country. Much as Capra attunes his message to a belief in the overall soundness of U.S. national character, what makes Meet John Doe most distinctive is the Tabasco dash of cynicism in its soul. John Doe develops a grassroots following which powerful figures immediately try to exploit, shifting the message of the movement ever so slightly but with calculation, making certain the decency of the citizenry is twisted until it suits the longterm goals of accumulating more authority and wealth for the men who stay shaded behind a wall of curtains. This isn’t a warning of what could be. It’s a plain assertion of what was and is. Capra’s expert modulating of the emotions of the piece only accentuate how easy it is to be taken in, relinquishing skepticism at the prospect of a hale fellow who surely has everyone’s best interests at heart.
The background of the film’s production includes a detail that seems somewhat out of time, most suited to an era decades later when major studio product was test marketed to death. By most counts, Meet John Doe had at least five different endings — either shot or tweaked into place in the editing room — and no one was able to settle on which one was correct until very late in the process (and even then there was hardly certainty they’d opted for the right approach). In a way, that seems wholly appropriate. As the film’s continuing relevance demonstrates, the ugly grand scale con games presented in Meet John Doe never truly end. They endure until their effectiveness wanes, then they reconfigure themselves to start fleecing the public anew.