The Inspirational Hero: Frank Capra’s ‘Meet John Doe’ (1941)

by Paul Batters

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‘Why, your types as old as history! If you cant lay your dirty fingers on a decent idea and twist it and squeeze it and stuff it into your own pocket, you slap it down! Like dogs, if you cant eat something – you bury it!’ John Doe (Gary Cooper)

Cinema has provided heroes and heroines since its’ inception. If recent films are anything to go by (quality and depth notwithstanding), the audience interest in heroes has certainly not waned. Humans need heroes – they fill a deep need for inspiration, hope and the often a powerful desire for heroic qualities to be found within ourselves. That unfulfilled self-identification is transferred onto the screen, where we imagine ourselves to always have the right words, the right reaction and certainly the uncanny ability to successfully deal with a sworn enemy.

But the traditional journey of the hero is almost always a difficult one; a trope that can be traced all the way back to tales of Greek mythology. One of the most potent aspects of the hero’s make-up in literature and film is that of the reluctant hero. Cinema is rich with this particular figure, where the hero is plagued with nagging self-doubt and initially may hold no heroic qualities that we can easily identify. Yet what makes such a hero so compelling is that they are made from the same clay we are all made from – they are just like us and yet rise above their supposed station to make changes, save the day and stand up for what is right.

Frank Capra has made some of Hollywood’s greatest and most memorable films, focusing at times on such heroes and drawing on the literary and cinematic figure of ‘the everyman’. Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) are perhaps two of Capra’s most celebrated films, whose central character is the ‘everyman’ hero with Jimmy Stewart starring in both films. Stewart’s performance in both films has long resonated with audiences for obvious reasons and though they are different characters with vastly different storylines, Stewart personifies Capra’s everyman in both of these classic films.

However, another Capra film, which perhaps does not receive the accolades that the aforementioned films do, was his first with Warner Bros. after leaving Columbia. 1941’s Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck is also a story of the ‘everyman’ and more to the point, the reluctant hero. Whilst not as explicit in its’ celebration of individualism as It’s A Wonderful Life, with greater focus on community, Meet John Doe nevertheless hails the role of the everyman hero and the impact that the individual can have in his or her world.

Capra was a complex individual and whilst not a focus of this article, it is important to note that Capra was a Republican despite his progressive outlook and the heroes of his films would obviously reflect his worldview. Those he collaborated with, particularly Robert Riskin, who co-wrote many of Capra’s best-known films, often swayed him towards realism, liberal ideas and progressive politics. Conservative right-wing writer Myles Connolly, who would contribute to the script of Meet John Doe, would steer Capra towards rediscovering his Catholicism, as well as feed Capra’s dislike of President Roosevelt. The Christ-like figure holding high value tenets of humility, innocence and sacrifice is at the core of Capra’s heroes and was certainly influenced by Connolly’s 1928 book Mr Blue – a book greatly admired by Capra.

Meet John Doe is the story of ex-baseball drifter ‘Long’ John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) who becomes part of a publicity stunt for a newspaper. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is a tough, sassy reporter just fired by Henry Connell (James Gleason), the new managing editor for the newspaper just purchased by publisher D.B Norton (Edward Arnold). Her last article for the paper features a ‘letter from a John Doe’ who threatens to jump from City Hall on Christmas Eve at midnight, to protest civilization ‘going to pot’ and the ‘slimy politics’ present in the current world. The letter stirs up a hornet’s nest and Ann (eventually supported by Connell) sees the opportunity to save her job and save her own career by exploiting the situation. John is hired to claim her wrote the letter and will become the face of a ‘I Protest’ column for the newspaper, ghost-written by Ann. However, John’s companion and anti-society conscience ‘The Colonel’ (Walter Brennan) continuously speaks out against the whole situation, acting as a brake on John’s journey, which John often ignores.

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Stylistically, Meet John Doe initially displays all the hallmarks of the screwball comedy and this appears to be the template, which Capra works with. However, the turning point of the film arrives with Norton meeting with Ann and Connell. Norton has greater designs other than being a media baron and Capra lays the foundations for his key theme – the dangers of fascism and dictatorship. John is to make a radio speech (written by Ann, who draws inspiration from her late father) and at first he is nervous, unsure and even considering taking a payment not to make the speech by a rival newspaper. At first John’s concerns are selfish, especially when it is made clear to him that his plan to use the money to fix his arm will be thwarted by the truth getting out. But when he starts delivering the speech, encouraged by Ann’s idealism, he starts to become animated and his delivery arouses the audience. Norton realises something is happening, as does Connell, whose bitter cynicism from years in the newspaper game, has hardened him. Ann is moved to tears by the end of the speech but John feels like a cheat and runs off with his friend and fellow hobo ‘The Colonel’.

Here, we see the essence of the reluctant hero. Yes, he is a fake at first but he is deeply conflicted by his fakery whilst delivering what is ostensibly truth and hope in the message. John runs not because he doesn’t want to be found out to be a paid player in a publicity stunt but because he feels that he is cheating the people listening and committing a desecration of the message he is giving them. Yes he later laments his decision, telling The Colonel ‘I had the money in my hand’ but it is not delivered with real conviction and it appears that his motivation is the inspiration from Ann. On a side note, despite Ann’s telling Norton that what she wants is money, her emotional response when John finishes his speech, reveals she too believes in the message, seeing her father’s words alive in John.

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Meanwhile, a grassroots movement starts, inspired by John’s speech, and John Doe clubs begin to spring up. Ann, along with Norton track John down and they convince John to come back and help build the movement. Finally convinced, the movement begins to spread ‘like a prairie fire’ with Capra using an effective montage to show its’ growth and the energy John brings to his role.

Yet John will discover how naïve he has been and a showdown with Norton reveals his motivation – to use the John Doe Movement as a political tool for his own device to become President. Norton’s mask drops and the fascist overtones are final revealed – contempt for the masses as a ‘rabble’ and the need to rule the nation ‘with an iron hand’. At a large conference where John is supposed to endorse Norton for President, he instead states that he will reveal Norton’s scheme. John’s impassioned rebuttal fully illustrates John’s deepest feelings and his belief in the movement. But Norton makes the point that he is the ‘fake’ and that he and his retinue of industrialists and power brokers ‘believe in what we’re doing’.

But John has transcended this and goes to the conference, only to be undone by Norton being prepared and the revelation that John was and always had been a paid actor in a publicity stunt. The Christ-like element in Capra’s hero comes to the fore, with the crowd that primarily ‘worshipped’ him now turning on him and calling for his head. Begging to the crowd to ‘stick to your clubs’ and that ‘the idea is still good’ proves futile. Police get John out but his reputation is destroyed. A tearful Ann, who has lost John’s trust, despite a love growing between them, tearfully mourns how events have unfolded. Connell cynically offers a brilliant epitaph – ‘chalk another one up to the Pontius Pilates’. His comment more than cements the Christ-like persona of Capra’s hero – a (not so) innocent victim crucified by evil men for political purposes.

The following montage shows a dejected figure in John Doe, all washed up and mocked by the public, finally heading towards the City Hall to redeem not so much himself but the John Doe movement and the message that he had given for so long. As tempting as it is to discuss the ending at length, I will refrain from spoilers but needless to say John Doe’s reluctance as hero has been left far behind and the power of ‘the people’ is a strong statement against the dangers of fascism and that ultimately the ‘John Does’ of the world will overcome the dictators of the world – quite a statement in 1941 with the world (and soon the U.S) in the throes of World War Two.

Capra and Riskin wrote the script and obviously drew on the formula previously used to shape their hero. John Willoughby is laconic, naïve though not stupid and a man of ‘the people’ (and a baseball player no less). But there was a problem with Capra’s hero – John Willoughby is initially a ‘fake’ and ‘imposter’. Yet whilst some critics (even Capra himself who flip-flopped on the issue) have seen this as a major flaw in the film, it actually offers a powerful dimension to the concept of the hero, and the ebb and flow of the hero’s journey becomes evident from the moment John takes on the persona of ‘John Doe’ till the climax of the film.

There are contradictions in Capra’s hero and a number of critics have made some fair comments. Critic Andrew Sarris charged that in some ways John Doe is himself a demagogue with fascist overtones yet is speaking out against fascism and demagoguery, and embracing a populist approach to galvanising people into the John Doe movement. There is constant tension between the best and worst of individualism, and the reality of political corruption. Yet what makes Meet John Doe work and thus Gary Cooper’s portrayal an inspirational one is illustrated by Jeffrey Anderson’s review in Combustible Celluloid where he states that the film is not condescending or angry, nor does it seek reward or the audience’s affirmation that John is a hero but offers hope as its’ message. By extension, Sean Axmaker in Parallax View makes an astute point:

‘Capra’s idea of a populist movement is not political anger but social connection, transcending politics with neighborly concern and patriotic benevolence, and he makes a point of stating that these common folk are outside of politics, but nonetheless it is hard not to make a connection. It’s still salt of the earth citizens trying to make their voices heard…’

Certainly a different approach to movements today and their appropriation by others!

John’s inspiration and authenticity is measured by his growth as a hero and acceptance of his responsibility in the role. In the end, John rejects those close to him because he can only carry out the solution he feels is necessary alone. As an audience, it is impossible not to be touched by John Doe and the hero that emerges from his earlier reluctance and even later inner conflict. It is this factor that makes John Doe even more authentic and real for all of us, as we too find ourselves struggling with the obstacles of life that seem insurmountable and too crippling to deal with. Meet John Doe has its’ flaws but to focus on them is to miss the beauty of Capra’s hero and thus the inspiration of the most simple rule – ‘love thy neighbour’.

For a viewing of the film, please click on the link below:

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history

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13 thoughts on “The Inspirational Hero: Frank Capra’s ‘Meet John Doe’ (1941)

    1. It’s definitely worth the time. The only downside is that the film has been in the public domain since the 1960s and so there are copies out there that are not the best. Additionally, the negative isn’t in the best state, although I understand it has recently been restored and a great copy is now available. At any rate, there is a link at the end of the article to my youtube channel. Hope you get the chance to enjoy the film!

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    1. Hi Patricia. I like your observation that John is a vessel for others – he certainly brings out the heroine n Ann, who changes from someone who wants money to finding her better-self and her father’s principles again. She is very much a heroine at the end of the film as well. Hope you enjoy watching it again, Best regards!

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  1. While reading the first two paragraphs of this post about heroes, I immediately thought of Mother Theresa. After her death some of her writing was released in which she expressed major doubts about God and her calling. I remember it being a big deal at the time and people wondering if she was in reality a fake. But I was thrilled, because it gave me hope that despite human weakness and doubt, we can all act heroically and with self-sacrifice. I actually found it encouraging that this “saint’ of a woman was as human as the rest of us.

    Even though Capra’s films have sometimes been mocked as Capra-corn, I’ve always been a fan. This one has such an excellent cast. The darker tone reminds me of one of Capra’s later films, It’s A Wonderful Life. Capra was great at featuring heroes with doubts.

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    1. I think that’s what we need in film heroes – they need to be human for us to access them and be encouraged by them as you put it because they have flaws as we do. It gives hope that we also have heroic qualities, especially in the face of adversity. And I couldn’t agree more regarding Capra – sometimes seen as too saccharine yet people miss the darker tones. In It’s A Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe, the heroes face suicide (albeit for different reasons) which shows the depth and darkness of human exasperation. And I believe heroes in real life face conflict an doubts, as per the example you gave. Thanks so much for sharing your comments!

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  2. I’ve wanted to see this for a while — thanks for providing a link to the whole film in your post! Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses, and your review makes it sound like a film I’ll enjoy. I hope to finally watch it before long!

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