Reviews of Meet John Doe
Democracy at the Box Office
The New Republic, March 24, 1941
Though Frank Capra is still right in the formula he has been holding to
for five years now, Meet John Doe is at least a promise that he may be
coming back to pictures. It is almost a point-for-point replica of Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington, but some of the old felicity is there again and
there are actually comedy sequences in it. I am not holding out too much
hope, for today there is nothing Americans so like to be told from the
screen as that they are Americans. So why should anybody with a
formula and a credit line like skywriting bother with making a swell
simple movie as his "production for 1941"?
The John Doe of the story is Capra's familiar and favorite American type, the easy shambling young man, shrewd and confused, rugged, a
lovable innocent but don't tread on him--the uncommon common man,
in short, with a heart of gold and a limestone fist, and integrity in long
fibers. Eyewash, of course, but there is something in it, for a national
hero is some sort of national index after all, and it is not so much how
miserably short we fall of being an ideal as what ideal we choose to
dream of. Anyhow, this young man, a bush-league baseball player with a
glass arm, is caught up in a freak stunt for tabloid circulation-building
which turns out to be dynamite both ways. As J. Doe, he is supposed to
be a social reformer with a deadline for a suicide of protest; as a national
news personality, he becomes so arresting and eloquent in his plea for
love and understanding--the Sermon on the Mount with a drawl--that
miracles are passed and John Doe clubs are formed, and it is presently
worth someone's while to own him as political property. It started as
fraud but eventually led to the young man's believing his own spiel and
wrecking the sinister plans when he found out their antidemocratic aim.
Love was a part of it, of course, and there are various clever wrinkles; but
the outline is enough.
The fascination of gossip and the awe of prestige make it impossible
that the question of what makes a picture should ever have a chance
against the question of who. But while the names of Robert Riskin and
Frank Capra are behind the production and writing and direction of John
Doe, I think we can see even behind the names to what is under our
noses. The message is that since it is all the little men who truly make the
big world, they should live together and hang together, doing away with
hate and suspicion and bad-neighborliness. Fine. Ringing. Of course there
are present among us oppression and injustice and scorn for all unsung
heroes whose names are Moe Million. Too bad; an outrage; something
should be done. So the lift of the story comes in the doing, in the
rallying to a new simple faith, as people and as Americans, through
homely things but as a mighty army under the flag. In this story the
powers of darkness are able to check the advance, but the victory in
defeat is that there will be advance again.
I have no doubt the authors of such theses believe in them, just as
it is easy for a songwriter to believe that God should bless America after
he has glanced over the recent sheet-music sales. But sifted in with any
such half-thought-out hoorah must be the true motivating conviction
that the box office is out there and will be terrific. And that is where the
thing begins to crack like Parson Weems's Liberty Bell, for in art there is
a certain terrible exaction upon those who would carry their show by
arousing people to believe, and it is that any such show must be made
out of belief, in good faith and pure earnest, in the whole of belief itself.
This rhetoric and mortising of sure-fire device of a success today is its
sure betrayal by tomorrow--the flag in a game of charades, the mock
prayer at a picnic.
As a picture, it does well the things which have proved highlights
before: the tender concern over the little fellers with great faith; the
underdog finally getting on his hind legs to tell them off; the regeneration of even a hard-boiled newspaper gal; the final blow-off scene with
the nation as audience. But it talks too much to no purpose and in the
same spot. The musical score is both arch and heavy (the most undeveloped department in all Hollywood anyway). And one of the saddest
things is to find Capra so preoccupied with getting over a message of
holy-hokum that he lets in half a dozen of the worst montage transitions--mumming faces, headlines, wheels and whorls--that have been seen
in a major effort since the trick first turned stale.
Whether this much of hollowness and prefabrication will spoil the
picture for you, I wouldn't know. There are things in it to see. The
business of promoting a thesis has distracted Frank Capra's attention
from much that he was superb at doing, and he still skips over many of
the little fitted pieces which make a story inevitable. But now and then
he lingers and you can see the hand of the loving workman bringing out
the fine grain--as in the direction of the little crowd around the local
mayor when Joe Doe is apprehended, with its naturalness and light
spontaneous humor; as in the edge of satire in the management of the
radio broadcast; as in the bringing out of homely humorous quirks in
John Doe himself; and as always in the timing of a line, its cause and
effect, so that it comes out with just force and clarity among the shifting
images. But Capra and Riskin now seem content to let good actors fill
out a stock part and stop at that, so Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan,
Gene Lockhart, J. Farrell McDonald, and several others have nothing
more incisive to do than they would in any B picture. Barbara Stanwyck
has always needed managing, and apparently got it here, though her idea
of a passion is still that it is something to tear to firecrackers. But one
man the director did give a chance to and smooth the way for, and that is
James Gleason, who made more of this chance than there was in the lines
and their meaning. The one scene which came through all these stream-
lined Fourth of July exercises with true sincerity and eloquence was
Gleason's drunken talk in the bar, the one that starts, "I like you, you're
gentle. Take me, I've always been hard. Hard. Don't like hard people,
you hear?" It was just talk, with business, but he made it his, and it will
remain one of the magnificent scenes in pictures.
That leaves only the star, who is so much an American John Doe
type you could never say whether he was cast in a part or vice versa--
Gary Cooper. It is he who has the human dignity which this two hours of
talk is talking about, and talking about; and it seems impossible for him
to be quite foolish even in the midst of foolishness. His is the kind of
stage presence which needs no special lighting or camera magic; he makes
an entrance by opening a door, and immediately you know that someone
is in the room. Meet John Doe has its humor, inspiration, and interest in
uneven degrees; but whether you find it good, fair, or merely endurable
depends more on Cooper than on what we know as sound moviemaking.
The New York Times
March 13, 1941
Call him Joe Doakes or George Spelvin or just the great American yap--he
is still the backbone of this country and as sturdy a citizen as there is.
You've seen him at the ball parks, on buses, at country fairs and political
rallies from coast to coast. You've even caught glimpses of him--and seen him
squarely, too--in films once and again. But now you will see him about as
clearly as Hollywood has ever made him out in Frank Capra's and Robert Riskin's
superlative "Meet John Doe," which had its local premiere last evening at the
Rivoli and Hollywood Theatres--you and countless other John Does. For, in
spite of a certain prolixity and an ending which is obviously a sop, this is by far
the hardest-hitting and most trenchant picture on the theme of democracy that the
Messrs. Capra and Riskin have yet made--and a glowing tribute to the anonymous citizen, too.
Actually, this is not our first introduction to John Doe. Mr. Capra has already
presented him under the names of Longfellow Deeds and Jefferson Smith, the I
fellows, you remember, who went to town and to Washington, respectively. He is
the honest and forthright fellow--confused, inconsistent but always sincere--
who believes in the basic goodness of people and has the courage to fight hard for
principles. When he went to town, he was fighting for a vague but comprehensible social idea; in Washington, his adversaries were those who would use the
United States Senate for corrupt and venal purposes.
But now, under the pseudonym of John Doe--John Willoughy is his real
name--he finds himself confronted with a much more sinister and pertinent foe:
the man--or, rather, the classÄ--hat would obtain dictatorial control by preying
upon the democratic impulses and good-will of people of the land. In substance,
the Messrs. Capra and Riskin are hinting broadly at the way this country might
conceivably fall into the hands of a ruthless tyrant. It could happen here, they
say--f it were not for the American John Doe.
For their story is that of a young fellow, a genial and aimless tramp, who is
hoaxed into playing the role of a cynical social firebrand for the sake of a newspaper stunt. At first he lolls in luxury while articles ag'in this and that are ghost-
written for him and printed in the aggressive, unscrupulous sheet. Then, under
the pleasantly romantic influence of his beautiful "ghost," he goes on the radio
with a stirring and encouraging appeal to the "little man" for brotherly love and
Immediately, and by virtue of his simple, sincere address, he becomes a
national hero, the messiahs for little people all around. John Doe Clubs are formed,
a spontaneous "movement" gets under way. But then the guiding hand behind
the whole set-up appears: the owner of the paper, a Napleonic industrialist, indicates his intention of using the voting strength of the clubs to bludgeon his way
into power. And, at this point, John Doe takes the bit in his teeth and gives
courageous battle. The outcome is not resolved; in the end, John Doe is almost
licked. But so, too, is his opponent, and an ideal has been preserved.
With an excellent script by Mr. Riskin--overwritten in many spots, it is
true --Mr. Capra has produced a film which is eloquent with affection for gentle
people, for the plain, unimpressive little people who want reassurance and faith.
Many of his camera devices are magnificent in the scope of their suggestion, and
always he tells his story well, with his customary expert spacing of comedy and
serious drama. Only space prevents us from enthusing loudly about individual "touches. "
And his cast is uniformly excellent. Gary Cooper, of course, is "John Doe" to
the life and in the whole--shy, bewildered, non-aggressive, but a veritable tiger
when aroused. Barbara Stanwyck plays the "ghost" and, incidentally, the dea ex
machine with a proper brittleness, and Edward Arnold is, as usual, the diabolically disarming tycoon. In supporting roles James Gleason makes a forbiddingly
hard-boiled managing editor whose finer instincts are revealed in a superb drunk
scene; and Walter Brennan, Harry Holman and Regis Toomey are distinguished
among a host of character bits.
John Doe may not be the most profound or incisive fellow in this cross-
purposed world of ours today. But he has an inspiring message for all good
Americans. And he is charming company. We most heartily suggest you make
his acquaintance at once.
"Meet John Doe Hailed as Capra Victory"
Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1941
Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe," an admirable challenge to the spirit of life
today, is a picture that should make history and give a new turn to the
thoughts of a nation, if--and the IF is very large indeed--it does not die
This is by far his most significant film in all respects except one: it lacks the
inspiration of a great ending.
He has seized the dilemmas that are to be found in modern life, wrestled with
them like a Sandow, but one feels that in the long run, he has compromised with
"Meet John Doe" had its premiere last night at Warners-Hollywood Theater,
with showings to continue at that house today and the Downtown. It is a valiant
work of the cinema, revealing that its director, and his writer, Robert Riskin,
have their fingers on the pulse of existence today in America. It is a rich picture
that they offer in its realism, bigness of an idea, and--to use a now almost trite
The director is, as always, a marvel in bringing to life hidden talents of people
whom he chooses to appear in his scenes. He transforms James Gleason into a
new man of destiny in the studios, and Gleason goes with him all the way in a
dazzling performance. He awards Regis Toomey one scene which is so pregnant
with humanness and feeling that this actor is certain to enjoy a new zenith.
The entire philosophy expressed in the picture is magnificent. It presents the
theme of good will toward men revived all over again--the spirit of Christmas
not limited to a brief period, but spread through the entire year.
So fine are the thoughts projected that they could well start a new Moral Rearmament movement. There is the practical thought put forward that each human
being should endeavor to achieve understanding of his fellows, break down the
fences which stand between individual lives, come to a more definite appreciation of problems that are mutual. It is a grand idea that is projected.
All that lacks in the picture is the spell of a great sacrifice to make the whole
impression convincing. Instead we witness John Doe, willing to give his life for a
cause, won over to living by the persuasions of a woman who has double-crossed
him. We also behold the man who had exploited him, and who never showed any
previous signs of relenting in his crafty ways, suddenly developing the milk of
If you can accept the situation that ends the picture you will be able to consume
all of it with a gratefulness that is surpassing. But I fear that many will feel that
John Doe should have paid a fatal price--something apart from the suicide he
contemplated--for the sake of a theory of brotherly love.
The finish, as it stands, makes it difficult to believe that the fine principles of
the philosophy he espouses, purely as a stooge at the outset, and later as a devout
believer, would or could be revived anew. He has been dubbed a fake and the
John Doe idea has been shattered.
However, this need deter no one from visiting "Meet John Doe." It offers
enough--in fact so much more than ordinary pictures--that it will be chronicled
as an event of the current year and be well remembered. There are other endings
that might possibly be devised to give it more potent meaning, but the one that it
has will probably be popularly received, notwithstanding it may not be wholly
appealing to more discriminating followers of the screen.
At all events, director and scenarist have made exceptional use of their theme.
It is the old "Miracle Man" idea--something conceived to deceive the public
which turns out to be so worth while that it becomes greater than those who
participated in the birth of the enterprise.
Barbara Stanwyck, as a newspaper columnist, is the one who accidentally
brings it all about, when she prints a letter from a supposed John Doe as her final
contribution to a newspaper from which she has been fired.
This purely fictitious Doe stands as a symbol of revolt against modern conditions. It becomes necessary to produce him by some hook or crook.
With the assistance of a new editor of the paper, played by Gleason, Miss
Stanwyck essays to do that, and they pick Gary Cooper as their pawn. He's a
former baseball player who has lost the use of his pitching arm. He accepts the
assignment which they hand him, despite the protestations of his buddy played
by Walter Brennan, who doesn't believe in such a fallacy or even the advisability
of acquiring wealth and comfort.
By degrees John Doe becomes a national figure, with clubs formed right and
left in his name. He is exploited to the nth degree, all for the good until the man
who is pulling the wires through it all (the newspaper owner, played by Edward
Arnold) decides to capitalize on the popularity of his protege.
Here the hero's native honesty comes forward and he refuses to fall in with the
plans which would aim to make Arnold President of the United States for his own
advantage and uses--practically a dictator.
The house of cards topples, Doe loses all his followers overnight through
But as Doe in the first faked letter had been made to assert that he would
commit suicide at midnight of Christmas Eve as a protest against the ways of
present civilization, it seemingly becomes incumbent on him to do this in order
to save the ideal of life for which he has been the apostle. He himself is willing
to, but is prevented in the manner already indicated.
One feels that it is a pity that some more compelling solution was not reached
in this picture which is clearly ennobling in its spirit, and which is so deeply
moving in many of its scenes, as well as being told with all the Capra vigor,
power and cleverness.
For many reasons, though, "Meet John Doe" will deserve high appreciation
and commendation, and a Capra picture, particularly after a long lapse of time, is
something indeed to be welcomed.
Plenty could be written about all those who undertake leading parts in "Meet
John Doe." Gary Cooper in such scenes as his radio address, his recital of his
dream to Miss Stanwyck, the one with her mother, provides a portrayal which he
has never excelled. In the earlier stages the character itself is not too well defined, but Cooper seems to develop it admirably under the Capra direction.
The role that Miss Stanwyck plays is somewhat equivocal, in that she is drawn
into a veritable net of intrigue, and only belatedly manages a regeneration. She
gives the interpretation everything of which she is capable and that is much.
In the case of Arnold the transition to the better life is all too quick, but he
supplies throughout the earlier part of the picture a splendid impression of a
The work of Gleason in a part that is genuine throughout is, as already suggested, noteworthy. Brennan, too, stays to his course most competently, and has
the chance to do this. Spring Byington endows the heroine's mother with charm.
Rod La Rocque is a striking personality in a heavy role, and should do more
Gene Lockhart, Irving Bacon, J. Farrell MacDonald, Warren Hymer, are
among the excellent performers seen in the large company. The Riskin screenplay was taken from a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell.
New Movies, April 1941
Jones Shelley Harrulton
It is Frank Capra's own doing that he has become the object of the most careful
kind of critical scrutiny when he brings out a new picture. He has made
himself one of the most enjoyable of directors by putting a lot of American life
on the screen with affectionate warmth and sympathy, and with a remarkable gift
for discerning and expressing the humors and sentiments and crochets of American character. His highly individual style as a director is full of that not too
common quality that we call good natured, and his expertness as a craftsman has
put him in the top rank as a maker of American films. His success has been
enormous, with both critics and audiences.
For some years now he has been concerning himself with something more than
being merely entertaining. His social conscience has been more and more evident, leading him more and more to consideration of the lot of the ordinary, the
"little," man, and questions of wealth and poverty and the workings of democracy. The Lost Horizon was his first approach to such matters, but laid in a far-off
setting with more fantasy than fact in its set-up. Beginning with Mr. Deeds he
took up a character that has remained practically unchanged ever since, involved
in problems that have become a pattern--a pattern so little varied that it is getting
almost too apparent. Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, and now Mr. Doe, are easily
interchangeable, and whether they appear in the person of Gary Cooper or James
Stewart they are always the same--a simple, honest young man, naive and innocent in worldly matters, suddenly forced by circumstances to confront some immense social-political problem, always coached by a wise-cracking disillusioned
girl to whom he gives back her lost ideals and faith, and always, in the end,
confounding the powers of darkness by his simplicity and honesty.
Meet John' Doe follows this formula faithfully. The ingenious story that
Richard Connell wrote called "The Life and Death of John Doe" provided a
parable most pertinent to Frank Capra's feelings and philosophy--save for its
ending. Starting with a faked letter to a newspaper column, announcing that a
certain John Doe is going to kill himself on a certain date as a protest against the
injustices of living, public interest is so aroused that the paper's editor has to
admit he has been bamboozled or find a real John Doe to satisfy it. Mr. Deeds-
Smith-Stewart-Cooper, a broken-down ballplayer temporarily being a tramp,
gets the job of being John Doe. The gag becomes a circulation builder for the
paper--John Doe becomes a public personage, preaching goodwill and neighborliness over the radio as the cure for all the world's ills. Backed by the tremen dous publicity that money can get with modern methods, John Doe becomes a
national figure--John Doe Clubs spring up everywhere. And the owner of the
newspaper, who is a man with fascist ideas and ambitions to be an American
dictator, has been behind it all, ready to use the immense John Doe following to
put himself in power when the time is ripe. It is when John Doe discovers this
plot that he becomes the Deeds-Smith fighter for the common people.
That's where Mr. Capra ran up against his great problem. How could John Doe
win out, and defeat the evil personified in the would-be dictator? He is branded--
justly enough on technical grounds, with all the proofs--as a fake: he had never
intended to jump off any roof as a protest. His followers desert him because he
was a fake. But he has been won to the ideals he has been preaching--all supplied by the girl, who provided them in the cynical pursuit of her own job. The
only way he can win back the trust of his followers is actually to kill himself as
threatened in the fake letter. But every provision has been made to keep his
suicide from getting into the news, or from ever being known except by those
whose interest is in keeping it hushed up. How could that be an effective ending,
being merely one man's tragedy and completely futile as a blow or even a gesture
against the enemies of righteousness? It would solve nothing--and nobody
would like seeing Gary Cooper killed.
A plot-problem that is the hugest kind of a headache for any writer or director.
The first solution to reach the public was John Doe kept from suicide by a plea by
the girl--herself now converted and in love--to start all over again, and the
wicked newspaper man and his henchmen announcing they were completely
reformed. Since then the startling reformation of the villians has been simply
lopped off from the picture. Another ending is reported to have been made with
John Doe Clubbers repenting of their distrust and--instead of the girl--being the
agents to save their hero. Which sounds as if it might be the best way out. But the
need to experiment with so many different solutions is a measure either of weakness in the plot itself or of an unfortunate timidity in resolving the plot, gambling
on audience reaction rather than tackling the situation firmly one way or another.
Which isn't satisfying in a picture that means to treat serious problems seriously.
Since Mr. Capra has got people into the habit of seeing meanings and lessons
in his pictures they are sometimes apt to examine what he does with more probing an eye than may be called for. Meet John Doe can easily be taken for just a
dramatic story, with a powerful and unscrupulous man plotting to use the sentimentality and gullibility of ordinary people for his own ends. Is it necessary to
take this as Mr. Capra's solemn conviction that sentimentality and gullibility are
the chief American characteristics, and that if they are used in the right way all
would be well with us and with the world?
Anyway, Capra is as skilled as ever in keeping things moving along briskly
and dramatically--though here and there are some pretty long speeches which
for all his artful manipulation have something of the effect of a set aria in an
opera. He is still gifted in making characters, particularly background characters,
vivid and alive--though there is a reporter in this picture who appears to perform
on the principle that tripping over a spitoon is always funny. Sentimentalities are
neatly balanced with sharp commentaries on sentimentality. Folkways are brilliantly pictured again and again, particularly in the small-town mayor's befuddled
antics, and in the broadcast of the John Doe convention. Such a characterization
as James Gleason's is deep and revealing.
But it's a pity Mr. Capra, with so much good stuff to work with, had to fumble
the point of it.
"Courage in Films"
Direction, April-May 1941
Courage is the best and the rarest quality of the American film--the courage
of artistic convictions, the courage of a determined philosophy. When a
philosophy that fights for the American people finds a forceful expression
in an industrial medium that is lending its almost unanimous support to a fight
against this people--that is a film to be seen. That is the courage of Meet John
Doe, produced in an era when the "discretion" of Back Street and Mr. and Mrs.
Smith is much the better part of a valor that even in normal times is none too firm.
The other week I witnessed another, perhaps more sensational display of courage, which in a way prepared me to see the best in John Doe. At an unsuspecting
German movie house in New York's Yorkville--sandwiched between a Nazi
newsreel and a military farce, Fritz Lang's last German film, finished in 1933,
was given its American premiere. On its surface The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
was a police thriller. Underneath it was an intricately detailed expose of the true
character of the Nazi ideology, as understood in 1932. The means of the attack
was extraordinary, necessarily taking on the disguise of an allegory; it was begun
when the Nazi party had already been financed for power (by the same money
that was behind the German film industry) and completed after power had been
taken. The production history of The Testament is in itself an exciting story of
ingenuity and risk, of outwitted studio heads and smuggled rolls of film, etc., but
that is not the outstanding importance of Lang's film. What is important is that
the motion picture medium was used by a grave group of film-makers to fight
against a crisis in the way they knew best.
Maybe I'm reading too much into the efforts of Frank Capra and Robert
Riskin, but their Meet John Doe, with its realistic, motivated portrait of a native
American fascist, with its genuine sympathy for ordinary people, seems an instinctive fighting gesture, using the best means at hand, an American analogy to
Lang's more conscious work.
In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Capra played safe, played demagogue, and
fought straw bosses. The issues were tiny and the technique was enormous. Meet
John Doe might have pursued this dangerous path further, but instead the Capra-
Riskin team (now independent producers) returned to pick up the decency of Mr.
Deed's where they dropped it for the temptations of Lost Horizons and the stuff
you can't take with you.
In the film's fight against native fascist tendencies, the parallel theme--of
brotherhood-of-man--becomes secondary, and if a weakness must be found in
John Doe this is it. The greatest weakness as well as one of the greatest braveries
of the film is its exposure of the technique of manipulating the American people,
but surely the American people know how to do more than be manipulated. It is
not enough for Capra and Riskin to demonstrate how fiercely they are fighting
fascism. Their fight is incomplete so long as it ignores the fight of the American
But the release of Meet John Doe is the first great film event of 1941. And 1941
is no ordinary year. I think we can hope that Citizen Kane will make more than
an artistic contribution, too. And then--Native Land--which Paul Strand, Leo
Hurwitz, David Wolff, Marc Blitzstein and Paul Robeson are now completing.
This is the courageous film we all have been hoping would be made--not by a
miracle, but by a brave group of filmmakers expressing their belief in American
ideals, in the way they know best.
"Frank Capra's Characters"
New Masses, July 8 1941
Dear Frank Capra,
No one can have watched and studied your work or known you in the
Screen Directors Guild without recognizing the purposefulness of your
character. You are the only director I have known who regularly called his fellow
craftsmen together to discuss scripts in advance of shooting. Your pictures have,
in the main, revealed the search for content. Your probing of chosen material has
marked you as no flighty purveyor of "pure" entertainment. On the contrary, you
have emerged through your work as an artist who believes that what is most
pertinent to men's lives is most relevant to their culture and entertainment.
If, therefore, you last work, Meet John Doe, presents much that needs challenging, respect for you demands that your friends wrestle with a tabulation of
shortcomings and inaccuracies, and also attack the reasons for them. Let us base
our examination, Frank, upon the uncontroversial question: are the characters
and their relationships truthfully presented? If we also examine certain political
generalizations emanating from the picture, this will be done not to engage in a
political discussion, but to study your characters in relation to those generalizations. For it is, finally, by character and situation that your work must be judged.
In attempting to measure this work, I shall use your two pictures which preceded
Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
What characterizes those pictures? The resourcefulness, the creative humanity, and the utter honesty of your protagonists and of many around them. They
were not isolated from material cultural traditions. They acted in accordance with
and were deeply conscious of the militance and independence of traditional
earthy Americanism. Your protagonists led the action. They assailed the forces
of evil. They were positive and dynamic, quietly in the case of Deeds, pugnaciously in the case of Smith. For all the superficial difference in their personalities, they were brothers at heart in the union sense of the word. Suddenly, into
this gallery of young Americans steps John Doe and with him, as a great shadow,
comes a new theory. This theory had its inception in You Can't Take It With You,
but in Meet John Doe it is no longer a tenatative but a full-fledged philosophy. It
is now so strongly felt by you that, for the first time in any of your pictures, the
theory overwhelms the characters and takes the play away from them.
This theory is that politics are of no use; that "unpolitical organized neighborliness" should take over. Now, Frank, is this observed from life and people,
or is it a special plea from you? Has it not forced you to distort the American
character in order to make that character speak this special plea? And whose plea
is it, and where does it lead? Are you counseling that politics be wiped completely out of American life, or only out of the life of the common people? For
this assault on politics is not necessarily unpolitical. Nothing, indeed, is so political as the suggestion that politics be forgotten. You would apparently counsel
the people to give up politics even though the fascist newspaper owner does not.
You ask that people give their neighbors odd jobs to eliminate relief. You suggest
that 10,000,000 unemployed accept permanent status as handymen, supported by
airplane workers who, even after winning the Vultee strike (for example), make
the munificent wage of twenty-five dollars a week. This private charity, you tell
us, holds a more creative future for millions of Americans than does the WPA.
Where is there a factual basis for such a theory in the whole of American
history? Was the Revolutionary War a manifestation of organized neighborliness
of an unpolitical character? Were the Democratic Party under Jefferson, the Civil
War, the right to free public education, the Wagner Labor Relations Act, women's suffrage, the Bill of Rights, or the Screen Directors Guild unpolitical events?
Will "unpolitical neighborliness" prevent the eight-hour day from becoming the
twelve-hour day? Our American political history is of prime importance to the
creative artist because it underlies American character. An artist who ignores
historical facts and the experiences behind the American way cannot make his
story or characters work or play. No man can think or create for the people in
opposition to the people.
Can you, after Deeds and Smith, accept the notion that "politics is a mug's
game"? Do you believe politics should be left to the mugs? The mugs, from
Hamilton to Hitler, have tried to spread such a belief. They invented the phrase,
hoping to engender surly disrespect for politics in the common people in order to
abscond with the profit and power that sole control of politics would give them.
Let us examine Meet John Doe to determine whether by accident or design it fits
"politics is a mug's game." 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.
Who leads the John Doe Clubs: a Thomas Jefferson, a William Garrison, an
honest member of the Progressive movement? No. The leader of the John Doe
Clubs is a declassed derelict, heading a movement he does not understand, believe in, or love. For him it is a job which will pay him enough money to recondition his pitching arm. Although such an objective is perfectly intelligible from
his point of view, to present such a man as a typical leader of the American
people is a travesty upon our history and our fellow citizens. American history has not been and will not be made by declassed derelicts.
John Doe constantly runs away, hides in hotel rooms, does the devious bidding
of a conglomeration of culprits; and his final acts of "decency" for love of his
girl make no sense at all, since they spring from nothing but animal impulse.
Meet John Doe has no such scene as that in Mr. Smith in which the young senator
strengthens himself with the memory of Lincoln before the Lincoln statue. Mr.
Smith is a defender of America's present because he understands and defends
America's past. There is no defeatism in him, nor is he an advocate of "unpolitical neighborliness." He was a fighting, "No For An Answer" American.
So was Deeds.
In the two earlier films you began with the people; in Meet John Doe you
began with the fascist. In the former the people act, in the latter they are acted
upon. In the former they were observed from life, in the latter concocted out of
theoretical confectionery. Deeds and Smith had faces. You could photograph
their alertness, their wit, their humanity. In John Doe you presented an expressionless mask; not John Doe, the average American, but John Doe, the legal
abstraction, first created to suit the needs of corporate law and then used by you
to suit the needs of a story of corporate treachery. And here, Frank, is the crux of
the matter. Meet John Doe is not a story of John Doe or the people but a story of
corporate treachery out of which you try to twist a moral for the people without
The proof of this is in your character development. There is only one rich,
positive, resourceful, and convincing character in Meet John Doe. That is the
fascist, the real protagonist of your picture. The world is his state, and all the
men and women on it his players. It is no surprise that the philosophy which
emerges from the film is his philosophy: politics is a mug's game. And that
philosophy is not only a negation of the best in the American tradition; it is also
a negation of the tradition of Frank Capra as represented by Mr. Deeds and
Let us examine the passivity of your people. They are drawn like filings to a
magnet when the fascist sends out a call through his newspapers. They play no
part in developing, qualifying, or creating the movement. They just join. There is
no more democracy in the John Doe Clubs than in the storm troopers. And since
the people have no part in the movement's struggle, the whole thing falls apart
when the leader rats. Contrast this with the history of the United Automobile
Workers and their erstwhile leader Homer Martin; when he ratted, they threw
him out and went on to organize and grow. It was their movement, not Martin's.
They have a saying of Jefferson's there should be an upsurge of the people
every twenty years, but in auto it's every two years.
You may ask whether your exposure of the fascist does not make the film true
and valuable for the people. But when you merely say that the fascists are mugs
and the people should have nothing to do with them, you speak the mug's language. If the people do not struggle against the mugs the people are canceled out.
For as long as you present no program of opposition to the powers of decadence
and destruction, your rescue of the people from the "messy political struggle"
leaves the people completely unprepared and helpless against attack. To ask the
people to make the best of the present is to subscribe to pessimism, to counsel
against growth, to negate and proscribe a better future. Nothing could be more opposed to the historical necessity which makes of the people the force of progress.
You yourself recognize this in part; for when your people are faced with destruction, you do contrive to set them in motion again. But when you warn them
against the full implications of their actions, you lead them in two opposite directions at once; one historical and effective, the other abstract and immobilizing.
Those in power always attempt first to cajole into immobility those whose common needs are drawing them together. Moral Rearmament, which swept the front
pages of all the newspapers a few years ago, asked us all to forswear selfishness,
but it asked us to do so in the relative positions of the status quo. It hopes thus to
perpetuate existing inequalities and to end the struggle of the dispossessed for
their rights. Moral Rearmament failed because it was not of the people and invited them to frustration and self-destruction.
Workable theory cannot be spun entirely out of the head of one individual;
neither can workable character. Politics can be brushed aside neither in life nor in
the movies. There is no escape from the struggle of reality. The people make
history, they do not concoct it. They make it under tremendous pressures, on the
basis of vast common interests and needs, under tested leadership, and independently of ruling classes and their false leaders and phony slogans. The genuine
slogans come out of the mouths of Deeds and Smith, but never out of the mouth
of John Doe.
We in Hollywood have a tremendous responsibility to American history; a
responsibility not to distort, to malign, to misrepresent motives. There is no
better way to understand what our people are than to understand what made them
that way. Study of our history and character will lead us to tap the boundless
resourcefulness, the independence, and the creative energy of the average American, the real John Doe.