Friday, December 11, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Meet John Doe"

It's always disappointing when you seek out a film that's considered a treasured classic, and you just don't care for it.

It's happened to me before, most notably with "Gone With the Wind" -- a movie I consider in need of a two-hour haircut from its running time. Now I've discovered that my appreciation for "Meet John Doe" is rather skimpier than most people.

I'm not one of those Frank Capra haters. I have happily consumed my share of "Capra corn," the term for his distinctive movies with their All-American values and morality lessons. I still watch "It's a Wonderful Life" every Christmas, and "It Happened One Night" is one of my all-time favorite Golden Age flicks.

But let's face it, sometimes the Capra corn shtick is, well, just plain corny. That's my take on "Meet John Doe."

The film opens with a scene that was all too familiar to me: A newspaper newsroom on the day they're laying off a good chunk of the staff. The Bulletin has just been taken over by an oil magnate, and the caustic new editor is abruptly bringing in groups of reporters and editors and telling them they're history.

Interestingly, this figure Henry Connell (played by James Gleason) will later be revealed as a heroic figure who stands up to his boss. It's a textured portrayal of a hard-bitten newsman who treats other people harshly, but whose core values are admirable.

Among those given the axe is Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), a hotshot female columnist. She begs Connell for her job, to no avail, so for her final column she dashes off a made-up letter from an anonymous man named John Doe who's so disgusted with the state of civilization, he's going to throw himself off the top of the city government building in New York on Christmas Eve.

It causes a sensation, which is a slight problem since it's fiction. Ann and her editor hatch a scheme to hire a bum to play the role of John Dole, and settle on "Long" John Willoughby, a Bush League pitcher with a banged-up arm. He's been hoboing around the country with an older bum he calls Colonel, played by character acting great Walter Brennan.

The Colonel is possibly the most interesting character in the film, a proudly cynical man who's happily checked out of polite society. He sees a job, home and family as methods of tying a man down. He rails against "Heelots" -- people who are me-first heels, and there's lots of 'em.

He's certainly more interesting than John Doe himself, which is Gary Cooper during his typical stuttering aw-shucks routine. Inevitably, of course, he and Ann fall in love with each other, and I have to say it's one of the more unconvincing cinematic romances I've seen in awhile. Ann is portrayed as a ruthless career gal -- a first-class heelot -- who'll do anything to get ahead. Her 10-to-midnight conversion to truth and goodness falls flat.

Another interesting figure is D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), the oil magnate who cynically funds the John Doe movement in order to springboard himself into politics. He pays for fan clubs all over the nation, culminating in a huge convention at which John Doe himself is supposed to endorse Norton for the presidency. Long John gets wind of this from Connell, but his attempt to broadcast the truth is undermined when Norton exposes him as a paid stooge.

There's a very brief scene near the end where Norton is shown giving a large donation of money to some Christmas carolers in what looks like a Scrooge-esque turn of heart, but I wonder if he really feels that way. He dashes to the top of the city building to prevent Long John from carrying out his never-made promise to commit suicide, but one senses Norton is still intent on playing the angles rather than truly altruistic.

I think "Meet John Doe" was hampered by coming out when it did in 1941. The strictures of the day prevented Capra et al from taking the film to its logical conclusion: With John Doe killing himself. As it is, it ends with him being talked back from the ledge by some of his fan club members, with one of them making a populist crack about trying to lick "the people" to Norton and his moneymen.

Since the film has an overt parallel with the story of Christ, John Doe's journey only reaches a satisfying conclusion if he sacrifices himself.

2.5 stars

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