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Celluloid Christmas: Holy Hollywood! "Meet John Doe"

John Doe (Gary Cooper) sent to save mankind

My 12th, and final, pick for the 12 Films of Christmas was directed by legendary Frank Capra, but it’s not the one you might think. In 1947, Capra helmed “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which was Jimmy Stewart’s big comeback role after World War II. My selection is an earlier film—a movie, in fact, that was made before America’s involvement in the war. “Meet John Doe” debuted in May 1941; Pearl Harbor would occur a scant seven months later. This movie is set in a country that is still wracked with unemployment, financial inequity, class distinctions, and corrupt multimillionaires. Most amazing of all, it’s a movie that meditates on both fake news and how populism can be twisted and destroyed in the wrong hands. Whichever side of the aisle your politics place you, you will be impressed by the warnings sounded in this flick.

“Meet John Doe” stars one of Hollywood’s most popular and iconic leading men, Gary Cooper. “The Coop,” as he was affectionately called, plays a down-on-his-luck ex–ball player named John Willoughby. His days of baseball were ended by a severe arm injury, and he lacks the money to pay for surgery. It is his weakness to walk a morally ambiguous tightrope for the sake of needed coinage that’s at the heart of this film.

Barbara Stanwyck as Ann, who dreams up John Doe

Barbara Stanwyck, at her fast-talking, levelheaded, chip-on-her-shoulder best, plays a newswoman named Ann Mitchell. She’s lost her job at the newspaper, and schemes to get re-hired by ghostwriting angry, pungent columns supposedly from a typical John Doe. These letters are meant to express the woes of the little guy; they’re promoted as daily reminders from the country’s forgotten men and women. What’s the only thing that would make these tirades more palatable? Why, having a flesh-and-blood man pretend to be the downtrodden yet articulate author of these reports.

Ann and the head honchos at the paper take “fake news” to a dizzying, dramatic level. They hire Willoughby to be the face of the everyman, and what a face it is! Cooper, who had acted in silent movies, knows how to do a lot with a close-up. Known for his laconic personality and quiet charisma, Cooper draws upon all of this to make his John Willoughby/John Doe into a common man who has found himself in extraordinary circumstances. His puppet master, Ann Mitchell, is pulling the strings, and the wily reporter has included a stunning warning in Doe's "I Protest!" columns: If society’s ills aren’t cured, he will commit suicide on Christmas Eve.

Cooper's John Willoughby is flattered by Ann's attention (Stanwyck)

The John Doe character begins life in the mind of a single, unmarried woman. He is an idea and an ideal—a promise to speak out and correct the ills that befall ordinary working people. The Doe hoax is meant to let the meek, who are promised the earth but seem to only get dirt, finally have their say-so. John Doe is packaged as a man who appears too good to be true: He has risen from humble origins, is walking among us, is sharing stories of good behavior and neighbor-helping-neighbor, and is slated to die if the powerful and criminal continue to “stack the decks.”

Doe is a stand-in for the life of Christ. He appears quietly at first, without a lot fanfare. Slowly and gradually, his messages grow, and his population attracts followings. Grassroots John Doe clubs spring up across the country—organizations that seek out fellowship and camaraderie among average Joes. The people who join these clubs don’t want sponsors or outside money from powerful bigwigs. They want the clubs to function for the people, by the people. It’s a merging of Capra’s American Dream: a nation that governs by the will of the people who follow the Golden Rule of civility and loving one’s neighbor.

Edward Arnold as D. B. Norton

Naturally, like Christ, Doe faces temptations. His Satan is the media magnate, D. B. Norton, who peddles the populist position to his readership. Norton (played by Edward Arnold), who owns newspapers and the newspaper staff, radio stations, and politicians that he bribes, aspires to run for the presidency. He knows that the persuasive John Doe and his brainy handler, Ann Mitchell, can help him ride into the White House. Norton is a businessman who has no regard for business or mankind. Unlike Jacob Marley from “A Christmas Carol,” who realizes after death that mankind was his business, D. B. Norton is a lost cause. He’s evil and manipulative, avaricious and controlling. He does not mind destroying the lives of his employees and relishes in his wicked ways. His desire to reside on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is his ultimate obsession. He will kill if he has to in order to attain that goal.

The Christmas Eve countdown is anything but merry in this film. Because “Meet John Doe” is made by Frank Capra, it spotlights many of his trademark touches: the camera lingers lovingly on the faces of the common men and women; rich and powerful bureaucrats are seen as callous and uncaring; people might be uneducated and unkempt, but they have more wisdom than the ruling class. This is particularly true of Willoughby’s pal, the Colonel (Walter Brennan). A fellow “tramp,” the Colonel is a fount of hardscrabble wisdom, including branding greedy, penny-grabbing people as “heelots.” Since this film was made before American soldiers were shipped to Europe to stare real evil in the face, Capra still has great faith in the overall goodness of humanity. Unlike “It’s A Wonderful Life,” where George Bailey is saved by angelic interference, “Meet John Doe” places its hopes squarely on the shoulders of mankind.

John Doe's followers are the working men and women of America, circa 1941.

The people who end up following John Doe’s philosophy are true believers. They circle around him like the early Disciples of Christ. They want to create a better world, a fairer world; they know they can attain this if they live by the John Doe lessons. It’s a meditation on how people have the blueprint for better living, if they adhered to what the Messiah laid down 2,000 years before.

“Meet John Doe” tackles political messages—how despots can hide among the masses and pretend to care about them—and warns that not all crowds or gatherings are grassroots. Some are bought and paid for; optics is everything. The Christmas Eve date, where a man is willing to die to prove that the John Doe philosophy is true, is a powerful reminder of who was born on Christmas Day, and for what purpose. In fact, a sobbing and distraught Ann Mitchell tries to talk her creation, her brainchild if you will, out of his preordained death. She tells him: “Another John Doe already died for humanity.” She has come to realize that unwittingly she’s scripted a Christmas passion play.

Stanwyck imploring Cooper in the Christmas Eve rooftop scene.

This has always been a remarkable movie. This Christmas 2019, it is an essential movie. Every nuance of the current American political landscape is on hand. From fake news to false populism, grassroots reality and artificial turf crowds, media bias and media expectations, it’s all here in glorious black and white. “Meet John Doe” is both a parable that mirrors the life and death of Christ, and a caveat that most politicians are not on earth to serve the people. Be wary of the “public servant” label. Too often, the public ends up becoming the servants.

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