Frank Capra and Christmas go together like baked apples and cinnamon. Even some of his non-Christmas films have a Christmas vibe. But I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent feeling about Capra’s films, partially because I can never figure out exactly what he’s trying to say. There often seem to be contradictory messages. I like to be able to take the meaning of a film and crystallize it and no film defies crystallization more than Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.
And after watching it this morning on TCM, I still can’t decide whether I like Meet John Doe or not. Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper are adorable together (two of my favorite actors), the cast is good and it is certainly a thought-provoking movie. Heart-warming, humorous, cynical, sentimental and totally irritating. I am eternally fascinated. It’s also a Christmas film.
When a newspaper is taken over by the wealthy business tycoon D.B. Norton, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) loses her job along with many other people. In revenge, she writes one last column, purportedly from a man threatening to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve in protest against the current state of society. The column causes a sensation, with people writing and calling in, begging “John Doe” not to jump and the paper is besieged with accusations that John Doe is a fraud. The frazzled editor Henry Connell (James Gleason) finally manages to find Ann, who tells him that she made the letter up, but she has an idea to capitalize on it. Why not find a man to play John Doe and milk the sensation for all it’s worth? If Connell isn’t willing, she threatens to tell their rival paper that it was all a fraud.
What they first have to do is find a man who looks like an all-American John Doe and Connell and Ann interview various tramps who show up at the newspaper looking for work or claiming to be the “real” John Doe. The man they ultimately choose is John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a baseball pitcher turned tramp who hurt his arm and is looking for work so he get can get enough money to have a specialist fix it. Ann talks him into being John Doe and they put him in a hotel, get him new clothes and coach him on how to act.
But John Doe fever catches on beyond anyone’s expectations, especially after he makes a speech over the radio (written by Ann) about the average guy. It causes such a sensation that J.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) takes notice of how people are reacting. Perhaps he can use the sensation for his own ends, riding the new John Doe wave to the White House, and maybe beyond. He enlists Ann to handle Willoughby, despite Connell’s growing discomfort with the direction the fraud is taking and the increasing complexity of the lie, which is only resolved in a riot and an attempted suicide.
The film’s message is all over the place. It is a warning that fascism could come to America, media exploitation, a call to the working man to stand together, a protest against commercialism and greed, a tender romance. Capra believes in the common man’s capacity for kindness and at the same time their capacity for mobbing and naivete. He also seems to be warning against the danger of centering a movement on the appeal of one person (John Doe) and at the same time asking if an ideal or principle can still be valid when it is based on a lie. But Capra never seems to fully develop any of these themes.
My biggest frustration with the movie is the character of Ann Mitchell: a living contradiction. She is part cynical newspaper exploiter and part sentimental idealist who supports her mother and two sisters. The reason she’s so desperate for work is because her mother is always giving away their money to help people. There’s some irony there. Her father was an idealist who was generous to a fault. Is her money-at-all-costs attitude a reaction against her father’s excessive generosity? This unspoken tension is never resolved. She seems to idealize her father. One moment she’s flatly telling Norton what she wants is money and the next she is starry-eyed with enthusiasm for John Doe and what he stands for. It’s like a reverse Pygmalion; she’s in love with the man she created…who she created somewhat in the image of her father.
Also interesting is that John Willoughby seems to lose his identity in John Doe. By the end, he believes completely in what John Doe stands for and that he really is John Doe. He has no identity apart from that and whether or not Ann loves him for being John Willoughby or John Doe is never answered. The ending is downright confusing. Even Capra said he tried various endings and never could figure out how to bring it to a satisfactory close. There are messianic overtones. Ann basically asks John to take on the mantle of John Doe; he sort of dies and is reborn on Christmas Eve as the man of the people.
The cast – as in all Capra films – is unmatched. Only someone as skilled and genuine as Barbara Stanwyck could make a mess of a character like Ann Mitchell still appealing and interesting. She’s especially great as the fast-talking journalist (listen to her try to sell Connell on her idea, talking a mile a minute…she sells him on it, too). Gary Cooper is earnest and sincere and has adorable chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck (I love them in Ball of Fire, too).
Walter Brennan plays the tramp who is a tramp by choice and doesn’t believe in civilization. He calls people helots, but even he can’t do without human connections and never does find it in his heart to abandon John, even when John becomes a tacit accomplice in the fraud. Edward Arnold is the would-be fascist with his brown-shirted motorcycle brigade, quietly menacing as he polishes his spectacles. And James Gleason is excellent as the hard-boiled newspaperman whose sympathy is with the people. Even smaller roles, such as Bert, the man who tells John Willoughby what the John Doe movement has meant for him, are well played.
Perhaps what the core of film is about is helping people. It sounds simplistic, but if every single person helped their immediate neighbor the world would be very nearly perfect. The John Doe movement was about the average person helping their neighbors, finding humanity, dignity and comfort among each other, apart from politics, government, the media or corporations. In one of John Doe’s speeches, he talks about what it would be like if the spirit of Christmas prevailed all year long. But Capra also recognizes the many conflicting realities of the world that prevents it. But that does not invalidate the principle. What Capra ultimately seems to want to convey is that no exploitation or lie can invalidate a true principle.