Saturday, October 24, 2009

Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941)

Sometimes after watching a movie—or even while watching—it's hard to resist the temptation to admit the truth of the cliché that there are only a few plots. Here again it’s the intensely smart, independent, brassy woman exploiting the simple, good, tall man.

This time it’s Barbara Stanwyck who’s leading Gary Cooper on; she’s a newspaper-woman (yes, again) with a great headline grabbing story. She's dreamed up a populist Everyman to give voice to her ideas—and her father’s ideas—about simple decency in hard times--it's a Great Depression story. Her character, Ann Mitchell, is losing her job because she's too mild-mannered, so she fires off a piece of fiery writing, supposedly a letter from an anonymous man out of work, out of luck, and without any hope or confidence in society or big business. Her invented "John Doe" announces he's going to jump off the tallest building in town on Christmas Eve. The piece provokes an uproar, saving Ann's job, but now the people want to know more--so she hires a likely prospect to pay the part. Uh-oh!

As it happens, Long John Willoughby (Cooper), an out-of-work minor-league pitcher
chosen to play the part, really is a decent guy at least as sympathetic and, well, noble, as the one Ann invented. Inevitably she falls in love with him at the same time as her position gets more and more compromised, so that in the end she can only operate on emotion, not intellect. It's as if Capra imagined some sort of universal power that operates on smart women to reign them in, requiring them to become less voluble and peppery and daring , and then to become more “womanly.” Perhaps this is unfair, since falling in love transforms Long John, too, first making him act against his conscience and then making him risk everything to do the right thing.

Stanwyck is most compelling when she’s talking, and talking fast, with strong traces of Brooklyn still uncontrolled in her vowels. She’s not quite as pretty as some other comedic heroines, but she is very engaging in the speed of her talk, and the crispness of her movements, and her eyes are smart. I found this quotation somewhere online: “Eyes are the greatest tool in film. Mr Capra taught me that. Sure it’s nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting – watch the eyes!” Cooper, too, has good eyes, and a remarkably expressive face, which Capra uses to good effect with close-ups: dignified, sad, bleak, amused, desperate. He’s tall and rangy and surrounded.

The story of Meet John Doe is a populist confection for wartime—the newspaper story becomes a campaign against the ills of contemporary society (graft, corrupt government, callous big business, the tendency to dislike one’s neighbours), in short, a vague nod in the direction of treating people decently. Capra cuts between scenes with the principals and short scenes in which ordinary people in the street react to the John Doe story. Even though some of them are cynical and others panicky, they have an innate sense of right and wrong--so that even if they are misled by demagoguery, they can make it back safely to their real values.

The film opens with a workman using a jackhammer to remove the stone inscription about freedom of the press from the front of a newspaper building, replacing it with a big new ownership sign, and then everybody inside gets fired. The new owner, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), is a large, calm tycoon with a rich, attractive voice—the contrast between his assured calm and Stanwyck’s rapid-fire delivery is cleverly handled. Norton, however, is a fascist, and exploits the John Doe movement, then tries to destroy it when Long John refuses to help him become the next (right-wing) president. The people, though they’re temporarily swayed by Norton’s attack on Doe, come back to his values, and fascism is stopped.

There are some great character actors, most notably Walter Brennan as John’s hobo sidekick, the Colonel, Irving Bacon as the innocent clumsy gofer, and Warren Hymer as Angelface, the eternal wiseacre gangster-bodyguard. And there are wonderfully dotty sequences, especially the pretend baseball game in the hotel room, in which everybody is totally engaged. By mixing in screwball routines with a more serious story, Capra manages to keep the brush with disaster compelling and the return to ordinary life uplifting and sweet. With Capra, it's just when he seems not to be taking things seriously that the true serious heart of his work emerges.

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