In this age, above all others, newspapers and newsreels and radio and the mechanisms of ovation have such power, in making or breaking the idol of the moment, that fresh irony has been given the statement "Heroes are not born, but made." -Dixon Wecter, 1941.(1)
The comic mode take[s] second place to Capra's exploration of the evils larger than shysterism which seemed to be enveloping the world. Europe's crumbling made simple portrayals of unity impossible. Even Capra couldn't end a movie with Hitler playing a harmonica. -Andrew Bergman(2)
Capra said he made Doe, a film to "astonish the critics" whose "Capra-corn barbs" had gotten to him, because "little "fuhrers" were springing up in America, to proclaim that freedom was weak, sterile, passe."(4) The film's preoccupation with fascism is evident in the evolution of its script. The script was based on a short story by Richard Connell published in 1922. Saunders Rook, the main character of "A Reputation," is a clerk living in New York City. At a Park Avenue gathering, he commands the attention of the exclusive Heterogeneous Club by announcing his intention to protest the state of civilization by committing suicide: Rook plans to drown himself in the Central Park reservoir on the 4th of July. His announcement earns him entrance into the high society world of the club members. Politicians and literati consult him and the public follows his story with great interest. Eventually, he feels compelled to live up to his promise; before drowning himself on July 4th, he comments, "Still, after all, a reputation is a reputation."(5)
In 1937, screenwriter Jo Swerling used Connell's story as the basis for a play, The World is an Eightball. Swerling's version heightens Connell's satire of high society and adds satirical criticism of the mass media and entertainment industries. Swerling's main character, Ferdinand Katzmellenbogen, is a shy photographer who gets drunk at a society party and announces his intention to commit suicide as a way to protest fascism. A Hindu mystic hails him as a messiah and rechristens him "John Doe"; radio and newspaper publicity spawns the formation of John Doe clubs nationwide, whose members plan mass suicide. Paramount Pictures buys the rights to film Doe's story and arranges to stage his suicide at the film's premiere on the 4th of July. Swerling never wrote the concluding act of the play.
Richard Connell and Robert Presnell used Connell's original story and Swerling's unfinished script to write a screenplay version in 1939 titled The Life and Death of John Doe. Their script eschews Swerling's social satire and offers a more sober look at martyrdom. The main character is now John Doe, an anonymous worker at Grand Central Station. When his favorite movie star accidentally leaves her purse at the station, he crashes a party she is hosting to return it. In an attempt to gain the attention of her guests, he announces his suicide plans. A newspaper reporter who attends the party collaborates with Doe on daily newspaper columns and ghostwrites a radio speech in which Doe exhorts average citizens to protest war, poverty, and injustice. A John Doe movement springs up around the world; a coalition of corporate leaders and politicians conspire to bribe Doe and suppress the movement. Doe rejects their bribes and, inspired by his disciples' sincerity, keeps his vow to jump from a building on the 4th of July as his followers sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on the street below.
Capra and Robert Riskin purchased the rights to "A Reputation" and The Life and Death of John Doe in 1939. Capra and Riskin's final (except for the ending) script begins with the sale of The Tribune newspaper, whose motto was "A Free Press for a Free People," to tycoon and domestic fascist D.B. Norton. The New Tribune's motto is "A Streamlined Press for a Streamlined Age." The first act of 'streamlining' is a corporate layoff. Columnist Ann Mitchell retaliates by submitting a final column in which she prints a phony letter from a man signed John Doe who threatens to kill himself on Christmas Eve because he is unemployed. The column creates an instant public sensation. When the editor of another newspaper charges that John Doe is a fake, Ann and her editor Henry Connell hire a vagrant named John Willoughby, who is traveling through town with his hobo friend "the Colonel," to play the part.
Connell's 1922 short story of identity as it related to class consciousness evolved into a feature-film length treatment of fascism and the media. Although Ann Mitchell's original John Doe letter protested four years of unemployment and an inability to get relief from the state government, Doe's protest, in subsequent tellings of his story, became a more general protest of the state of modern civilization. Frank Stricker argued that Capra thus "retracted the elementary political point" of Doe's mission, but Stricker misses the fact that Capra turns Doe's protest towards a more widespread political evil.(6) Morris Dickstein contended that in the years between Smith and Doe, "Capra's politics have leapfrogged in one bound from the rural evangelism of William Jennings Bryan to the antitotalitarian pessimism of Herbert Marcuse!"(7) Although fascist envoys sit in the Senate gallery in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the real threat Jefferson Smith faces is a domestic political machine headed by greedy capitalists. Within a national framework, Capra contrasted Smith's small-town, wholesome innocence to Taylor's big-city, affluent corruption. Doe's institutional scope was wider ; in it, Capra tackled a pressing international concern. When it was applied to this concern, the American cultural myth of the heroic 'backwoods innocent' broke down completely.
Reinhold Niebuhr addressed the failure of American mythic "innocence"
during the 1940s and '50s in The Irony of American History.
Niebuhr observed that America's "dream of a pure virtue" was "dissolved in
a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of
responsibility...only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb."
Niebuhr believed that America's "vast involvement in guilt" was especially
ironic given the fact that "the two leading powers engaged in [the Cold
War] are particularly innocent according to their own official myth and
collective memory." In reality, "we could not be virtuous (in the sense of
practicing the virtues which are implicit in meeting our vast world
responsibilities) if we were really as innocent as we pretend to be." The
U.S., argued Niebuhr, was
"innocent fifty years ago with the innocency of irresponsibility...now we are immersed in world-wide resonsibilities...Our culture knows little of the use and abuse of power; but we have to use power in global terms. Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions."
By the close of World War II, Niebuhr claimed "we had sloughed off the tendencies toward irresponsibility which had characterized us in the long armistice between the world wars." World War II and the Cold War forced Americans to confront governments which "generate more extravagant forms of political injustice and cruelty out of the pretensions of innocency than we have ever known in human history. The liberal world which opposes this monstrous evil is filled ironically with milder forms of the same pretension." Niebuhr was confident this pretension was not really dangerous in America, because "we have not invested our ostensible "innocents" with inordinate power" due to "reservations about human nature which emanated from the Christianity of New England."(8)
Niebuhr based his remarks chiefly on America's role in the Cold War, but
the loss of innocence he described had its birth in the fascist threat of
the '30s and '40s. Dixon Wecter observed that during the '30s,
communists, fascists, and American democrats all employed the common-
man-as-innocent heroic type. In Meet John Doe, Norton recognizes
its utility during Willoughby's radio speech, which flatters the public as
"simple but wise, big but small, inherently honest with a streak of larceny...the world's greatest stooge, the world's greatest strength... the meek who are supposed to inherit the earth. We raise the crops, we dig the mines..we've been dodging left hooks since history began. In the struggle for freedom we've hit the canvas many a time...The character of a country is the sum total of the character of the little punks."
Despite the similarities in fascist and democratic rhetoric, Wecter, like Niebuhr, remained confident of America's democratic future. Wecter argued that there are safeguards in America which prevent excessive hero- worship and abuse of power: the American hero must be the people's choice; he must exhibit modesty and a disdain for personal power because "the strong man is unpopular here"; and he will be treated informally, since Americans don't take their living heroes too seriously.(9)
Capra was much less confident of this in Meet John Doe; his fascist villain was a formidable force. We are well into the film before we ever see D.B. Norton, although his pervasive influence is felt from the beginning of the film in jackhammers, layoffs, and telephone calls. In our first glimpse of him, he is on horseback watching his personal uniformed stormtroopers/motorcycle corps drill in precision maneuvers; Norton commands them with a police whistle. Capra noted in the margin of his shooting script that Norton should be found reading Hitler's Mein Kampf and possessing medals and Legion of Honor ribbons.
Capra needed an American hero to do battle with this villain. He cast Gary Cooper, who Capra described as "tall, gaunt as Lincoln, cast in the frontier mold of Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, Kit Carson." Capra felt Cooper "embodied the true-blue virtues that won the West: durability, honesty, and native intelligence."(10) Time magazine did a cover story on "Gary Cooper - John Doe" in which they described how an "ordinary man from Montana went to Hollywood and became the most popular man in America" due to his "indestructible naturalness."(11) In the office of the Mayor of Millsville, Capra frames his shots of Gary Cooper between two background portraits of Washington and Lincoln. Clearly, this is a film that wants a hero: Connell expresses this desire when he describes Jefferson and Lincoln as "lighthouses in a foggy world," a phrase Capra repeated in his World War II documentaries. Some critics believed John Willoughby supplied such a hero: Charles Maland compared Willoughby to previous Capra heroes and found him "more vernacular...not the upwardly mobile Horatio Alger, animated by the Protestant ethic and character, but rather John Doe, the common and neighborly good man that made America work and that made America worth fighting for."(12)
Maland's moral inventory of John Willoughby was generous. When we meet Willoughby, his character is morally ambiguous and he lacks the idealized rural/small town past of Deeds and Smith. Richard Glatzer concluded, "There is in the first half of Meet John Doe no traditional moral sense similar to those that energized Longfellow Deeds and Jefferson Smith."(13) Willoughby becomes John Doe purely by accident, not through any struggle or work of his own: he happens to be in the newspaper office searching for odd jobs--not even specifically the role of John Doe--when Mitchell and Connell notice him. He agrees to act the John Doe role because he wants to get his pitching arm fixed so he can return to bush-league baseball. Even after he makes his stirring radio speech, he remains unmoved: he heads for the exit and tells his friend the Colonel, "Let's get outta here." His only friend is a man who advocates complete escape from American culture, not any kind of moral or civic engagement in it. Willoughby emphasizes this rootlessness when he tells Mitchell and Connell that he has no family. In earlier Capra films, the idea of 'fatherlessness' usually meant that the hero's father--and often the hardboiled girl reporter's father as well--was deceased, but the father's memory provided a wellspring of idealism. In Doe, however, the father is completely lost. Mitchell and Connell both mention their fathers in an idealized way, but Willoughby is not able to draw upon them for inspiration and guidance. Willoughby is converted to the cause eventually, but even this, as Richard Glatzer noted, doesn't assure us of an innate goodness in him: "If taken symbolically, Willoughby's conversion implies, not that Americans are traditionally ethical, but rather that the anonymous 'little man,' so long as he remains anonymous, is little more than a moral blank slate."(14)
Willoughby's ambiguity makes him in many ways a richer character than Jefferson Smith. Raymond Carney argued that most Hollywood films "offer dramas based essentially on the conflict of various fixed character types," but that Doe took "the creation of the free character itself as [its] subject."(15) "Free" may not be an accurate way to describe this character, however, for in Doe the character's formation comes at a price and is accomplished through larger forces. Carney believed that Norton's appeal rested in his ability to offer "the bribe of a stable identity...in the American moral interregnum, he provides the possibility of grounding unmoored values."(16) Norton is insulted when Willoughby tries to assert an independent identity: "I picked you up right out of the gutter and I can put you back there again." Norton reminds Willoughby that he has been "paid the thirty pieces of silver." Willoughby himself doubts his ability to become the true spokesman of the John Does when he tells Mitchell that "a fellow'd have to be a mighty fine example himself to tell other people" how to live.
"represents no particular personal observer or group of observers in the film...The basis of Hollywood editing--the point-of-view editing convention that intercuts the respective points of view of one, two, or three ideal observers...is stunningly abrogated. The different takes or cuts of John's radio speech do not cohere into one ideally complete personal view of it; rather, the oppositie is true."(18)
Even if Willoughby could speak to the people, their apolitical John Doe
clubs would be woefully inadequate in a battle with D.B. Norton. The John
Doe clubs reflect various Christian nonsectarian and populist movements
in the 1930s including the Moral Rearmament movement, the Townsend
Plan for a national pension, Huey Long's Share Our Wealth clubs, and radio
priest Father Coughlin's National Union for Social Justice. Capra declawed
his John Doe clubs by insisting, as soda jerk Bert Hansen does to the
Millsville mayor, that no politicians would be able to join. The John Doe
clubs' solution to all social ills was an increase in neighborliness. Critic
Herbert Biberman took Capra to task for this, asking
"Are you counseling that politics be wiped completely out of American life, or only out of the life of the common people?...You would apparently counsel the people to give up politics even though the fascist newspaper owner does not...Who is the initiator of the John Doe clubs? John Doe? No; the fascist newspaper owner, who wished to use the discontent of the people to gain his own ends. This was not the way the Abolitionist Clubs grew."(20)
The people appear willing to listen to Willoughby after the microphone wires are cut at the convention. One audience member shouts, "Speak up, John! We believe you!" but it only takes a seconds before the crowd follows the example of a Norton plant in the audience who yells," John Doe's a fake! Booo!" A riot ensues. The mayor of Millsville holds a similarly dim view of his constituents. When Norton arrives at the City Hall, the mayor tells the townsfolk, "Everybody on your dignity. Don't do anything to disgrace us." The mayor tells Norton that the people were so excited about meeting John Doe "they nearly tore his clothes off."
The role of the people in deciding John Doe's fate and audience reaction to Capra's portrayal of the people were chief among Capra's concerns as he shot five different endings for the picture. When an filmgoer wrote Capra a letter objecting to the club members' betrayal of Doe and their riot, Capra responded, "Your point is that the John Does wouldn't have turned on John Doe. You say you wouldn't do it, and neither would any other John Does. I say the world today is a pretty good example they do do it."(21) In the first ending, John Willoughby follows through with the suicide, and in the film's final moments the Colonel cradles Willoughby's body and says, "Long John, Long John, you poor sucker, you poor sucker."(22) This ending was never distributed to theaters, although Riskin fought for it, because Capra felt the public wouldn't want to see Gary Cooper killed off. Capra shot the subsequent ending in August 1940 at a Los Angeles icehouse. This version of the film ended with Ann arriving on the City Hall roof, pleading with Willoughby, and fainting after she says "I love you, John"; he abandons his suicide plans and carries her out. Capra added a tag scene to this ending in his script, although there is no evidence it was ever filmed. He wanted to add a scene showing Mitchell and Willoughby in a small town attempting to revive the John Doe clubs. The townspeople snub their efforts, and the film closes with a close-up of the Colonel looking directly and the camera and warning the audience, "Listen, you heelots. I'm giving you just one more chance." Capra reshot the entire ending in January 1941. He added Connell and the Colonel to the ensemble already on the City Hall roof (Mitchell, Willoughby, Norton, the mayor, and a few Norton associates). Willoughby is unmoved by Ann's pleas and in desperation she cries for divine intervention. Because it is Christmas, John is transformed. He wishes Norton a Merry Christmas. Norton's fascist tendencies dissolve, he orders Connell to print the true story in paper, and the Colonel concludes, "Well, looks like I gotta give the heelots one more chance."(23) Capra recut this footage after the film was released. He kept Norton's conversion but replaced the Colonel's closing line with a chorus which combined Christmas carols and "My Country 'Tis of Thee." In March 1941 Capra abandoned Norton's conversion altogether, although he left in a scene of Norton watching Christmas carolers which he had spliced in to an earlier section of the film, a scene which today seems curiously out of step with the rest of the movie. Ultimately Capra had the Millsville club members come to Willoughby's aid. In a passage from his autobiography, Capra claimed that this ending was the suggestion of an anonymous audience member who sent him a letter signed "John Doe."
Critics and reviewers have, like Capra,
identified the film's ending as its major flaw. The character of
Willoughby clearly represents the failure of the individual hero to
challenge a system. Raymond Carney wrote,
"Between the attitudes of Whitman and Poe concerning self-distribution, it is Poe who is the presiding spirit of this film. Capra's vision is a nightmare inversion of his previous belief in the individual's ability to improvise an identity and to revise and adjust it as necessary...whatever Doe does in the final scene, he is playing a part written for him by someone else."(24)
Neither the hero nor Capra can look to the people for help. Although both do in the final scene, they do so unrealistically. Frank Stricker argued, "Had Doe's followers been shown midway through the film coming to a realistic sense of who their enemies were, of the need for political realism, and for taking control of their own movement, the final standoff might have convinced."(25)
Capra was literally left with nowhere to go at the end of this film. Institutionalization and internationalism demanded a hero more savvy than the one typically supplied by American myth, a heroic type anachronistic by the time Capra filmed Doe. Institutionalization and mass culture mediated the hero's relationship with the people in ways that made it difficult for him to appeal to them on the level he had before. The people, like Emerson said, wore "the fool's cap" and increased "their federal errors." Capra made one attempt to resurrect the American hero in It's a Wonderful Life by returning him to small-town life and small- town evils, but the life Capra filmed in Bedford Falls was, for most Americans, pure nostalgia. The film wasn't successful and after it, the hero didn't resurface in Capra's later remakes, documentaries, and musicals.
1 Dixon Wecter, _The Hero In America_, 488. 2 Andrew Bergman, "Frank Capra and Screwball Comedy," _Frank Capra: The Man and His Films_ Richard Glatzer and John Raeburn, eds., 79. 3 Charles Maland, _Frank Capra_, 56. 4 Frank Capra, _The Name Above the Title_, 297. 5 qtd. in Charles Wolfe, ed., _Meet John Doe_, 5. 6 Frank Stricker, "Repressing the Working Class: Individualism and the Masses in Frank Capra's Films," _Labor History_ no.4, 1990, 461. 7 Morris Dickstein, "It's a Wonderful Life, But..." _American Film_ May 1980, 47. 8 Reinhold Niebuhr, "Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?" from _The Irony of American History_, online. 9 Wecter 11. 10 Capra 183. 11 qtd. in Wolfe 27. 12. Maland 114. 13 Glatzer 246. 14 Glatzer 249. 15 Raymond Carney, _American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra_, 51. 16 Carney 48. 17 Wecter 8. 18 Carney 362. 19 Carney 374. 20 qtd. in Wolfe 232. 21 qtd. in Wolfe 206. 22 Glatzer 34. 23 qtd. in Wolfe 185. 24 Carney 363, 371. 25 Stricker 462.