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Meet John Doe (1941)

downloadFrank 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.

download (1)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.

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Meet John Doe)_03My 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).

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

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.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Movies

 

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Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

Poster%20-%20Here%20Comes%20Mr_%20Jordan_121939 has long reigned as the acknowledged finest year in movie history, but I really think 1941 gives it a run for its money, though perhaps I’m biased. Many of my favorite movies come from that year. Here is just a sample of the wonderful year that was 1941: The Maltese Falcon, The Lady Eve, Citizen Kane, The Wolf Man, Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, Suspicion, Sullivan’s TravelsBall of Fire, The Little Foxes and many more.

Another wonderful film that came out in 1941 is Here Comes Mr. Jordan, with Robert Montgomery, the incomparable Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton.

IMDB labeled it a fantasy/comedy/romance, although really it is a genre all its own, having spawned many other movies of its type, though Here Comes Mr. Jordan remains one of the finest films of the genre of angels or ghosts interacting with, guiding, or annoying humans.

Joe Pendleton (Montgomery) is a boxer with high expectations of becoming the next heavyweight champion. However, while flying his plane and playing his lucky saxophone, his plane takes a nosedive and hits the ground. The next we see of him, he is walking on clouds, absolutely incensed that an angel has pulled him out of his body. He keeps insisting that he is not dead and the bumbling angel (Horton) insists that he is. However, when it comes time to board that plane that presumably leads to the hereafter, Joe complains to the angel in charge, Mr. Jordan (Rains) and it turns out that there has been a grave error. The bumbling angel, Messenger 7013, had pulled Joe out of his body before he was actually dead; Joe was actually fated to survive the crash and live another fifty years. However, it’s too late to put Joe back in his body because it was cremated by his boxing manager, Max Corkle (Gleason).  Mr. Jordan decides that he will take personal charge and find Joe a body he likes.

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Messenger 7013, Joe Pendleton and Mr. Jordan

And after looking at 130 prospective bodies for Joe to inhabit, they do find one that Joe can use temporarily until they find him a really good one that he can use to win the heavyweight championship. Joe steps into the body of Bruce Farnsworth, corrupt banker who was just murdered by his wife and her lover.

Joe, of course, is not really Farnsworth, which confuses everyone he’s around and he discomfits everyone by his strange behavior, like undoing some of Farnsworth’s shady dealings and trying to get Farnsworth’s body back into shape so he can compete for the heavyweight championship. He even manages to convince his manager, Corkle, that Farnsworth is really Joe. And to top it off, he falls in love with Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man that Farnsworth had framed.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is, among other things, an example of what my sister and I call a “cosmic romance.” A cosmic romance is any romance that is a love story outside of time or dimensions, that goes on forever, where two people were meant to be together, or are trying to be together, despite little things like space and time. Another aspect of a cosmic romance is that there is only the one person for you; there is never anyone else you could be with and if you cannot have them you will live your whole life waiting to be reunited afterwards. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison is a cosmic romance, as is Beau Brummel with John Barrymore and Mary Astor, and even, improbably enough, The Mummy with Boris Karloff. And The Princess Bride is actually spoofing the true love, cosmic romance concept, if you think about it, with Wesley and Buttercup and his constant assertion of how this is “true love” and that “death cannot stop true love.”

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Bette Logan, Robert Montgomery and Mr. Jordan, with the angel pins looking like eyes on his suit

What makes Here Comes Mr. Jordan a cosmic romance is also what gives the movie its underlying philosophic core: that a person’s body is just the wrappings of the human soul; the person is still the same no matter what body they inhabit. It’s an idea that goes back to people like Plato and made its way through Rene Descartes. It’s the dual nature, mind/body concept, with the body less important than the mind/spirit. For example, Mr. Jordan tells Joe that although Bette Logan hates Farnsworth, she will learn to look past the fact that Joe looks like Farnsworth and will come to love the Joe who is inside. In fact, no matter what body Joe happens to be in, it is always clear that he and Bette have that special connection and they will always be attracted to each other.

However good the romance is, though, Claude Rains, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton are all natural and delightful scene stealers and who really put this movie over the top. James Gleason’s confusion at the strange goings-on and the body hopping of Joe is so fun, as well as his genuine concern for the guy. And Claude Rains is simply perfect. He has just the right smile, distant and all-knowing as befits an angel, but also benevolent without seeming smug, and definitely with a touch of dry humor. You get the feeling that although he showed Joe 138 bodies before he got to Farnsworth’s, he always knew what body he meant Joe to choose. He spends a lot of time standing around in the background, not saying anything, but looking very wise, and it is amazing how the eye is drawn to him even when he is not doing a thing. And I love how his two angel pins on either side of his lapel make it look like he has two extra eyes watching you.

I don’t know how I missed this movie for so long. I’d hardly even heard of it, but it is so wry, heart-warming, whimsical and so extremely well acted, that it has become one of those movies I feel could become a life-long favorite.

Joe tries to convince Corkle that he's Joe while Mr. Jordan looks on

Joe tries to convince Corkle that though he looks like Mr. Farnsworth he’s really Joe, while Mr. Jordan looks on

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in Comedy, Fantasy, Romance

 

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