Tuesday, May 03, 2011

 

The world's been shaved by a drunken barber


By Edward Copeland
After a montage of workers in all walks of life set to tunes ranging from "Roll Out the Barrel" to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" that wraps with newborns in a nursery, we see men removing the sign from The Bulletin newspaper, including its motto, "A free press means a free people" and replacing it with THE NEW BULLETIN. The images would seem to be sending a warning (or at least ammunition for his critics) that Frank Capra was about to lean on his worst tendencies in Meet John Doe, which opened 70 years ago today, and Capra displays his weaknesses in the film, though frequently they get averted thanks to his sharp cast, led by the wonderful Barbara Stanwyck who in 1941 had one helluva year.


The newspaper building's sign isn't the only change afoot. A new managing editor named Henry Connell (the great James Gleason) has been handed the reins and his first duty requires him to clear out "the dead weight," which basically means firing a lot of the staff, 40 people total, including columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck). She pleads her case for staying on, even offering to cut her $30 a week salary to $20 a week, since her mother (Spring Byington) and two sisters depend on her. Connell isn't moved since the paper doesn't need her column of "lavender and old lace." He was brought in to boost circulation and "wants fireworks." Connell tells Ann she owes them a final column and then she can pick up her final check. Stanwyck, always good, but great as a brassy newspaper woman scorned, goes back to her office and tosses the column she'd written when the typesetter informs her it's a little short and makes up an entirely fabricated column about a letter she received from an unemployed man, so dispirited by what they "laughingly call a civilized world." She signs "his" letter John Doe, who blames slimy politics for unemployment and threatens to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve. In Ann's own commentary portion of the column she adds that in her opinion "the wrong people are jumping of roofs." Needless to say, Connell eats it up and gives it big play in the next day's paper starting a chain reaction among the populace and political leaders.

Governor Jackson (Vaughan Glaser) and his associates are convinced that John Doe is a creation of the Bulletin's new owner, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), to make the governor look bad. The editor of competing newspaper The Daily Chronicle (Stephen Toombes) concurs that it's an old gag and promises to expose them. The town's mayor (Gene Lockhart) seems more upset that John Doe would pick his building for his suicide leap. Connell's panicking because he wants to keep this thing going and find John Doe, but he's got people out and they can't even find Ann. When she finally turns up, she's completely honest about her fraud. Connell is prepared to admit that they were duped until The Chronicle runs a story accusing them of making it up. Ann sells him on the whole idea of hiring a John Doe so they don't prove the other paper right, provided she gets her job back with a raise. On the other hand, she shows him a document she's made up admitting she made it all up that she bets The Chronicle would pay her plenty to make them look like fools. Connell tells Ann they've already been besieged with job offers and marriage proposals for John Doe and the mayor practically wants to adopt him. Ann suggests John Doe columns through Christmas all about man's inhumanity to man. Connell wants to know where she thinks they'll find someone to assume the John Doe role. She happens to open the office door and finds the outer office overflowing with down-on-their-luck men all claiming to be John Doe. Connell's right hand man says, "Show me an American who can keep his mouth shut and I'll eat him."

Forgive me for a brief, unrelated tangent. Having seen so many films from the eras of the 1930s and 1940s with their less-than-flattering portraits of the press and then compare it to that brief moment in the 1970s around the time of All the President's Men when journalists actually became the heroes of films and were viewed admirably and to now be stuck when cable news is a disgrace and what little real journalism remains dies slowly with the newspapers run by publishers who don't know what the hell they are doing and have behaved like chickens with their heads cut off for more than a decade, why aren't we getting any movies, serious, comic or satirical that really address the situation? State of Play came closest, though it seemed as if it were from another era, while Nothing But the Truth addressed a serious issue and ruined it with one of the most absurd plot twists I've seen. Surely, after these weeks when the NBC entertainment division has run its network and cable news divisions by giving Donald Trump ample air time to spread lies and veiled racism, some screenwriter can think of a movie out there — and I write these things as a former working journalist who is ashamed and disgusted by what's become of his former profession. I've digressed, back to Meet John Doe.

Most of the homeless, bums and tramps who parade into Connell's office fail to leave much of a positive impression on Ann, Connell or any of the other Bulletin employees — that is until he walks in. It's Gary Cooper. Of course, his name isn't really John Doe, but John Willoughby, though he was known as Long John Willoughby when he pitched in bush league baseball until an injury to his arm ended his possible Major League career and set him to riding the rails with a friend he made known only as The Colonel (Walter Brennan). Cooper received his first Oscar nomination as best actor working for Capra on Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Cooper would win the Oscar in 1941 and Brennan would get his final nomination (3 wins out of 4 nominations in six years is something no one likely will ever match), but they weren't for Meet John Doe but Howard Hawks' Sergeant York. When Ann starts talking to Willoughby, she knows she's found her John Doe and Connell sets out to make the deal with him to be the face of daily columns and keep the suspense going until Christmas Eve as to whether he will go through with his plan to jump off City Hall. At one point during the conversation, John gets weak and faints because he hasn't eaten in awhile, so they bring some lunch up for both he and the Colonel. The delightful Colonel thinks all the plotting sounds like the work of "helots" and doesn't buy the argument the newspaper people try to sell John on that he would be improving the world. "You couldn't improve the world if a building was jumping on you," the Colonel declares. Connell explains the details of the deal to John. They will pay him $50 a week and put up in a hotel through Christmas Eve. On Dec. 26, they give him a train ticket out of town and pay to have his arm fixed. John insists that the surgery must be performed by "Bonesetter" Brown and he wants the Colonel to stay with him.

They install John and the Colonel in a plush hotel suite (and make sure they have bodyguards not only to keep the public from John but to keep him from making an escape as well). When the duo enter the hotel room, both are offered a paper to read, but the Colonel wants no part of it. "I don't read no papers, and I don't listen to radios either. I know the world's been shaved by a drunken barber, and I don't have to read it," the Colonel declares. Soon, Ann has joined them with a phalanx of photographers to start documenting their new populist hero, though he needs a lot of coaching, having to be reminded that he's disgusted with civilization. He thinks that means she wants "crabby guy" but it comes off looking to her as if he's trying to smell the world. She finally gets what she wants by telling him to think about an ump making a bad call. Though Meet John Doe had its origin in a story, it was written, as was Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, by Robert Riskin and part of it plays as if he's trying to impose the Deeds template. (This was so much the case that the original 1941 ad campaign read ALL AMERICA WANTS TO MEET THE "MR. DEEDS" OF 1941!) John Doe might not be suddenly rich like Longfellow Deeds, but he's similarly stifled by keepers and used by a newswoman who comes to fall for him. Despite this, for the early portion of the film, Meet John Doe works remarkably well when it's Stanwyck's Ann leading the way. The supporting cast also helps — and they have to late in the overlong film, which runs a full two hours — when instead of just telling a story of political corruption and yellow journalism, Capra and Riskin opt to make it a warning against fascism in America and, on top of that, try to equate John Doe with Jesus Christ.

It had been quite some time since I'd seen Meet John Doe and my memories of it had never placed it as one of my favorite Capras. I probably wouldn't have bothered with an anniversary tribute if it weren't part of Barbara Stanwyck's 1941 triumvirate. She's very good here, even better in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve and magnificent in her crowning achievement for 1941 — as Sugarpuss O'Shea in Hawks' Ball of Fire which featured a screenplay by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett from a story by Wilder and Thomas Monroe. Ball of Fire was the role that earned her an Oscar nomination that year and also displayed much better comic chemistry between her and Gary Cooper than you'll find in Meet John Doe. Stanwyck does give a great turn in Meet John Doe, especially in the film's early scenes where she's a schemer, plotting to keep her job and inventing the entire John Doe scam. Perhaps it's best exemplified when Ann and Connell are summoned to D.B. Norton's estate to meet with him. Connell has grown jittery and thinks they should pull the plug on the John Doe fraud while Ann suggests to D.B. to make it even bigger by using his radio network to have John appear and speak to the public in person for the first time, making the phenomenon metastasize. Norton, played as an ethics-free tycoon as only the great Edward Arnold could, dismisses Connell so he can speak with Ann alone. "What do you want out of this?" he asks her. "Money," Ann responds bluntly. "Glad to hear someone admit it for a change," D.B. smiles, telling her that she should work directly with him from now on and if she plays her cards right, she'll never have to worry about money again. What's even more interesting about Stanwyck's performance is that she doesn't immediately fall for Cooper's Long John Willoughby. For the longest time, Ann falls for the John Doe that doesn't exist, the one she created from thin air, so she's really engaged in a form of self love. The only times in the film when Stanwyck runs into trouble as an actress is when the script lets her down by suddenly turning Ann into mush by having her fall for Cooper and begging him not to kill himself when things turn sour. The screenplay forces her to try, through tears, to tout the idea that Cooper's John Doe is "like the first John Doe" — Jesus. That'd be a hard sell for any actress, even one of Stanwyck's caliber. Besides, as much as I worship Stanwyck, I've never thought she was at her best when playing vulnerable. She's greatest when she's fun or mean or manipulative, whether comically as in Ball of Fire or deadly as in Double Indemnity or even a later film such as the Western The Violent Men.

As I said, it had been a long time since I watched Meet John Doe before I looked at it again for this piece and, while I enjoyed the bulk of it, even when it lays its harmless but corny message on a little thick, when it takes its turn toward deifying the Cooper character and transforming Arnold's character from a tycoon who wants to gain political power into someone who practically wants to be an American Hitler, I almost canceled plans for writing this piece altogether. I decided to perservere, but this shouldn't be mistaken as the usual anniversary tribute I write for a film because I've got to be much more critical of it than I expected to be. The screenplay truly is a mess. Early on, it creates the conflict between Norton and the governor character, but then after two scenes, the governor vanishes from the movie, never to be heard from again. Despite that hole, the film rolls along nicely for awhile when everyone wants to use John Doe for their own selfish purposes and though Cooper gives a performance even stiffer than usual, it's nice when Willoughby finds himself genuinely conflicted about what to do or who has his best interests at heart. Brennan steals most of the scenes out from under him just basically doing the usual Brennan shtick. When John does take to the radio, his speech does have its moments, such as when he suggests (though Ann wrote his speech) that even the average guy "has a streak of larceny in his heart." Spontaneously, his message of "love your neighbor" resonates and people start John Doe Clubs which Norton capitalizes on to sponsor more of them across the country to use as the start of a third party. However, he's not planning to challenge the Democrats and the Republicans with a normal independent party but a John Doe Party, at whose convention Norton expects John to endorse D.B. as the party's candidate for president. I guess that's why the governor part of the story vanishes. However, as Norton plots with other political bosses and labor leaders about how he would win (and why they would back this plan is beyond me) Norton complains that the government has been making too many "concessions" and America must be ruled by an "iron hand." Huh? Where in the hell did this come from? John hears it though and plans to expose D.B.'s plan, but Norton instead exposes John as a phony, figuring if he can't use the John Doe Clubs for his nefarious purposes, he'll destroy them instead. It's where we get our first flat-out Christ allusion as Connell says, "Chalk up another one to the Pontius Pilates." Of course, all the John Doe fans turn on him and Willoughby decides he will kill himself by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve to resurrect the John Doe Clubs. It all goes as predictably and plays as maudlin as you'd expect. When people speak of Frank Capra with derision, Meet John Doe may be why. The man did make some great films though: It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life being the very best with some other good ones as well. Meet John Doe does not belong on the list.

However, Meet John Doe contains one scene that displays the ability of a good actor to use his talent to overcome hackneyed material. Before John has learned the truth about what D.B. Norton is plotting, The Bulletin's managing editor Henry Connell (James Gleason), already drunk, sneaks John away from his bodyguards to take to a bar. He notes that John is too young to have served in the Great War (not renamed World War I yet), but that as soon as the U.S. entered, he signed up at the age of 17. His father did as well and they both ended up in the same unit. Connell saw his father killed, right before his eyes. Connell got out of the war without a scratch, just an ulcer, which reminds him that he shouldn't be drinking booze. "I should be drinking milk, you know. This stuff is poison," he tells John as he orders another. "Yes, sir. I'm a sucker for this country. I'm a sucker for the Star Spangled Banner and I'm a sucker for this country. I like what we got here! I like it! A guy can say what he wants — and do what he wants — without having a bayonet shoved through his belly," Connell tells John. He then goes on to talk about people who would like to see what makes it great destroyed. He doesn't name Norton, but John guesses that is who he is speaking about. "Lighthouses, John. Lighthouses in a foggy world," he says. A subtle speech it ain't, but the veteran character actor Gleason pulls it off while playing (and most tellingly, not overplaying) drunk. It's a triumph of man over material. Unfortunately, there's not enough power to overcome all the material in Meet John Doe.


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Comments:
In his autobiography Capra admitted this movie is a mess. He blamed it on the script and his inability to come up with an ending.

What he didn't admit, and probably didn't know, was that his three Oscars had gone to his head and convinced him that he was some sort of Big Thinker with Something to Say.

Capra would get my vote for most overrated director in history, except he'd have to fight it out with Welles, Ford, Stevens and Scorcese.
 
I've never liked Capra. It's A Wonderful Life is one of the most asinine gloops of diabetes-inducing idiocy ever committed to celluloid. It's a shame Stewart and Cooper didn't organise a suicide pact and send both these movies into oblivion where they belong. IAWL only became a perennial favourite of the television companies once it fell out of copyright, otherwise it would have just disappeared into the mawkish mists of time with Meet John Doe. See Capra, what you've done? Just thinking about your movies puts me in a bed mood!
 
Have to disagree with you on It's a Wonderful Life. It's really a much darker film than it gets credit for because of its ending. Stewart is great in it as a man who constantly sacrifices his dreams for others and ends up getting crapped on his entire life. It Happened One Night also is great as is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Meet John Doe is a mess.
 
Thanks for this. One should single out Gary Cooper's remarkable performance ("stiff"?) throughout. His first appearance as a man on the verge of starving walking into the newspaper office -- without uttering a word Cooper astounds. His time in silent films paid many dividends in his long career. And then there is the harrowing -- almost too painful to watch -- scene of "Doe" attempting to make his speech in the rain at the stadium heckled, abused, abandoned. Powerful stuff from an underrated actor who happened to be a great movie star. -- Gene Casey
 
Edward - I'll give you Mr Smith Goes to Washington: but even then, its like a perfectly good waffle that's been drowned in maple syrup. I think that's my problem with Capra in a nutshell. As for Wonderful Life, yes its dark - which makes the idiotic ending such a cop-out, plus the annual fawning about how positive and uplifting it is..... uh.... have these people even read the plot? It's totalitarian agitprop - a blueprint for being a good little citizen and taking whatever crap The Man throws at you. Yeah, you can see how angry I get every Christmas - and it's all Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart's fault!
 
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