Meet John Doe
directed by Frank Capra
In his autobiography, Frank Capra opens the section on Meet John Doe with these words:
Making a film out of Meet John Doe proved to be as full of surprises as breaking a half-rogue wild stallion to the saddle. Precisely when I thought it would make one of the world’s great show horses, it would leap and buck and throw me over the fence. It was still untamed when, with blinkers on it, we shoved the maverick into a theatre for its opening night.
That’s how the movie feels. Untamed. And Frank Capra, Mr. Populist, had sort of stumbled across the mentality of the Mob in this film – the “John Does” – so revered by him – turn into a Mob with a capital M – and once that Mob Mentality took over the film it’s like Capra couldn’t get it back “on track”. There was a lot of anxiety about the ending (according to Capra). In the short story the film is based on, “John Doe” ACTUALLY starts to consider suicide, because of the stresses of his fake role and celebrity. And while that does happen here, you can feel the film sort of war with what it has discovered. Made in 1941, the whole world was going crazy. The film feels out of control, and that is a very fascinating thing. A good thing, too. I think if the fake John Doe had actually committed suicide, the film may have been truer to its dark heart, but as it is, it’s still very interesting.
The film starts with a scene of layoffs at a big city newspaper. The newspaper has been bought, and the new overlords want to shake things up. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who supports her mother and two younger sisters on her meager salary, is determined to keep her job. She writes a fictional letter by a fictional “John Doe”, who says he is so disgusted with the world that he is going to kill himself by leaping off of City Hall on Christmas Eve of this year. He will commit suicide as a statement, a protest. But of course it’s all made up. It’s just Barbara Stanwyck’s way of saving her ass at the paper. Everyone knows from the start that it is all made up. They set out to find a guy who can play this John Doe, be the figurehead, for what will be a regular series of columns by John Doe, describing all of his problems with today’s world. They audition a bunch of hungry-looking tramp-like guys, but no one is right until Gary Cooper, shy and quiet-spoken, named John Willoughby, walks in the door. There’s a rip in his pants. He was once a baseball player until he blew his arm out. He looks forward to getting back on the mound again. Until then, he rides the rails with his pal named “The Colonel” (played by Walter Brennan, excellent). They play harmonicas together and seem happy. Barbara Stanwyck and her editor promise John Willoughby that they will help him find the best doctor in town to fix his arm if he will “play” John Doe for a time.
The Colonel is against the idea. Money corrupts, he has a whole philosophy about it. But John Willoughby sees a good opportunity here for himself and agrees. Then begins the mayhem. He is holed away in a hotel room, hidden, and Barbara Stanwyck churns out editorials by “John Doe’, descrying all kinds of political and social problems. John Doe’s fame explodes. He has tapped into the underlying misery of the human condition, he speaks what people feel. But of course, the real guy, Gary Cooper, is just a guy who contents himself playing imaginary baseball games in his hotel room. He doesn’t “get it”. He doesn’t get what’s happening, not at all. His naivete is his tragic flaw. When his eyes are opened to what is happening, it is devastating. And Barbara Stanwyck is tragic, too. She’s effervescent, excited, driven. She doesn’t appear to have much of a sex drive, although the closeup on her face when Gary Cooper first walks in the room, tells the story of what’s happening underneath it all. But there is very little romance here. There’s not room for it. She plots and schemes to keep John Doe in the news, and he follows along, trying to ignore the Cassandra-warnings from The Colonel, who looks on at everything, shaking his head. There’s a very funny bit when “John Doe” gives his first radio speech, written by Ann, of course. Gary Cooper is excellent at showing how he is reading this thing for the first time. It’s subtle, but the slight hesitations, the messiness in pronouncing some of the words, shows that this is a first-read. The live audience cheers, etc., and with every ovation, Cooper glances over at Brennan, standing off to the side. Brennan keeps slightly opening the door behind him, a signal to John Willoughby: “You can walk away any time … here’s the door.”
Meanwhile, as John Doe’s fame grows, Ann is drawn into the circle of a businessman/politician named D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold). The first time we see Norton, it’s out at his big estate, and a motorcycle gang, all in black, do complicated geometrical maneuvers that look slightly … fascist in nature. Scary. Not to mention the black storm-trooper uniforms. Later in the film, when the big John Doe Convention happens, Norton sends his black-uniformed minions to the scene to cause trouble – and they all ride in cars marked “D.B. Norton Troopers”. The man has his own army of thugs. Oswald Mosley, anyone? He sees an opportunity in the John Doe fans, and all the John Doe Clubs that have popped up across the nation. If that undifferentiated mass of people could be organized into a political party, a fifth column, they could take over the White House. There are some terrifying shots of Norton’s maps of the United States, covered in little black flags, showing where the John Doe Clubs are across the nation.
Thomas Carlyle has a whole chapter called “Clubbism” in The French Revolution, about the need of People to gather together to express themselves. This can be a good thing, and it can also be a bad thing. But it is indeed a “thing”. Here’s Carlyle:
Where the heart is full, it seeks, for a thousand reasons, in a thousand ways, to impart itself. How sweet, indispensable, in such cases, is fellowship; soul mystically strengthening soul! The meditative Germans, some think, have been of opinion that Enthusiasm in general means simply excessive: Congregating – Schwarmerey, or Swarming. At any rate, do we not see glimmering half-red embers, if laid together, get into the brightest white glow? … Observe, moreover, how the Aggregative Principle, let it be but deep enough, goes on aggregating, and this even in a geometrical progression; how when the whole world, in such a plastic time, is forming itself into Clubs, some One Club, the strongest or luckiest, shall by friendly attracting, by victorious compelling, grow ever stronger, till it become immeasurably strong; and all the others, with their strength, be either lovingly absorbed into it, or hostilely abolished by it. This if the-Club-spirit is universal; if the time is plastic. Plastic enough is the time, universal the Club-spirit: such an all-absorbing, paramount One Club cannot be wanting.
Look out for those who want all of humanity to join One Club. Even if you agree with the underlying principles! Look out. It’s fascism in disguise, a desire to erase disagreement from the world. A cynical attitude, perhaps, but borne out by history.
The interesting thing is that “John Doe” stands for the Little Guy, the guy with no voice, the everyman. But in this film, while it’s all a “good idea” (apparently), the end result is indistinguishable from fascism. The John Doe Convention looks like outtakes from Triumph of the Will. And Gary Cooper’s character, who has by this time been convinced that he actually IS the made-up John Doe, and he believes in the ideas of the made-up John Doe, insists over and over again, during his downfall, that John Doe is a good idea, that the IDEA is good, even if it has been taken over by bad elements.
I can’t help but think of the folks who continue to insist that Communism was a good idea in the beginning, it was just thugs like Stalin who made it “look bad”. A world of sins and cover-ups on an institutional and worldwide level was the result of that kind of thinking. The famine in the Ukraine was pooh-poohed and dismissed by charlatans like Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and Walter Duranty. They were, essentially, propagandists for the Soviet State. Those who dared to say, “Are they, like, killing millions of people over there?” were not only shouted down, but ruined professionally. The whole point was to preserve the Russian Experiment, to disallow critique and examination. Stalin referred to people like the Webbs and Duranty and others of their ilk as “useful idiots”. One only has to read Arthur Koestler, George Orwell or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to understand that no, it wasn’t a “good idea” corrupted by bad people. The whole POINT was to gather power in the hands of a very small elite. Stalin was the one who took that idea to the farthest degree, power all gathered in the hands of one man. And he was smart enough to realize that it was not a “corruption” of the original ideal, it was actually the point all along. You can debate this, but you had best know what you are talking about. The evidence on the “other side” is overwhelming. And so here, in John Doe, Ann Mitchell is a “useful idiot”, for someone like D.B. Norton, who wants to turn the United States into a fascist state, and realizes that the people can be molded to buy whatever any charlatan is selling. The ideas of John Doe is to praise the Little Man, the Everyday Guy, and yet in reality, when it starts to get political, when actual power is involved, there’s only room for one guy at the top. Sound familiar?
Anyway, the cynicism in Meet John Doe is breathtaking, especially when you consider the filmmaker.
Cooper is extraordinary in the role. His transformation is complete. It’s heart-breaking. He tries to escape, and then he cannot. He is denounced and exposed. He is ruined. And Barbara Stanwyck is heart-wrenching, as she realizes what she has actually done. It’s awful. A very dark film. The final frame cannot erase the darkness of the entire.
And one final note: There’s a scene that takes place in a small town. John Willoughby has made his first escape, with The Colonel. They relax at a diner. But then, oops, John Doe is recognized from the newspaper. There is a John Doe Club in the town. Gary Cooper looks around him, with the dawning realization that escaping will not be so easy. He is mobbed. He is taken into the City Hall, and given refuge in the Mayor’s office, with the entire town clamoring to get in to meet this Great Man. Finally, Cooper says, fine, let some of them in, I’ll say hello. A group of nervous tremulous people enter the room, and they stare at Cooper as though he is the Resurrected Christ. (The entire film is filled with references to the story of Jesus.) He is uncomfortable with their reverent behavior, because, after all, he isn’t John Doe, he didn’t write that first letter. But he hears them out. One guy steps forward to tell the story of what has happened in their small town since the publication of that first John Doe letter, which pleaded that people say hello to their neighbors, lend a helping hand if necessary. The guy who steps forward is a soda-jerk, who is still wearing his uniform and little white cap.
He is played by Regis Toomey, a regular guy who shows up in almost every movie ever made, it feels like (including Elvis Presley’s last picture, A Change of Habit, where he plays a cranky priest annoyed by Vatican II, basically). He was in everything. And here, he is given the longest monologue in the picture (and there are quite a few long speeches in Meet John Doe). And seriously, it is a miracle that it goes over as well as it does. The whole film stops in its tracks to listen to this man speak. It’s quite a sentimental piece of writing, how the town started looking out for one another, how they started finding out who was in trouble and offering to help … but it is filled with details – the elderly couple holed up in their mansion, the “sourpuss” neighbor in his backyard, his wife, etc. – and Toomey makes it all sound 100% real. It’s not kitschy or folksy, even though the material kind of sways in that way. It is all Toomey, Toomey making it sound not only real but urgent. He must keep John Doe believing in his own cause. He must let John Doe know what it is he has already accomplished. Monologues are never easy, and this one plays out in one or two takes, with a couple of touching reaction shots from Cooper.
I love Regis Toomey, and he’s wonderful in everything, but I really admire how he pulls off that monologue. I find myself thinking, as he goes on and on, “How on earth would I approach this monologue if I had to say it?” He keeps it simple, and yet underlying it he never forgets his objective. The objective is not to fill up the screen with sweet stories of helping your neighbor. No. The objective is to to convince John Doe not to give up. And THAT is what Toomey is playing.
It’s a marvel of a performance, small as it is.
It tells you how “untamed” this film is that I would have to bust out Thomas Carlyle, Oswald Mosley, Walter Duranty, and Arthur Koestler in a short discussion of it.
A Short Film About Love
directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Haunting. This film is haunting. Directed by great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who directed The Double Life of Veronique, one of my favorite films of all time, not to mention the great “color trilogy”, A Short Film About Love owes a lot to, obviously, Rear Window, with its voyeuristic aspect, but also The Conversation, a great portrait of an anti-social individual who spends the majority of his time “listening” to other people living what seem to be full lives. While he … ? There are really only three characters in A Short Film About Love, although there are a couple of secondary characters. There is Tomek, played by the extraordinary Olaf Lubaszenko, a lonely 19-year-old kid who works in the post office by day and watches a neighboring woman through a telescope at night. Tomek grew up in an orphanage (we find this out later), and was taken in by a friend’s family. This friend, Martin, is now traveling, sending postcards home. Tomek continues to live on with this friend’s mother (Stefania Iwinska, known in the cast list as only “The Godmother”). She tries to engage him, telling him to come out and watch television shows with her, but he cannot. He is driven to watch this woman across the way. At first you think, This guy is a Grade A creep. He sets his alarm for 8:30 every night because that is when she comes home. He settles down with a mug of instant coffee, and watches. His face is so expressive, and yet so mysterious, that I spend the majority of the film wondering, aching, “What the hell is going on with this guy?” It’s painful, a painful portrait of loneliness, one of the best I’ve seen.
Grazyna Szapolowska plays Magda, the woman Tomek watches. He also behaves in incredibly unethical and creepy ways. He steals her mail (he works at the post office, remember). He makes up dummy money-order slips which will bring her to the post office so he can see her in person. She is so annoyed every time she is brought there, when there is no actual money waiting for her. But Tomek doesn’t care. It’s a thrill just to be in her presence.
So, creepy, right? But the film is not cliched, and does not follow on the typical track. You notice things along the way. Magda comes home every night, and she appears to work on a giant tapestry (I think I saw hanging colored bits of yarn in one of the scenes), but mostly what she does is sleep with men. We see her with two different men, in the same week, so we can assume that this is a pattern for her. She sleeps with men. But what I notice is that Tomek watches the preliminaries, he watches the two embrace, he watches her go for the guy’s belt buckle, but once they lie down on the bed, he averts his eyes. His expression is impossible to classify. It’s riveting. Does he judge her for her promiscuity? I don’t think so. Does he want to be the guy in her arms? I’m not so sure about that. In one scene, she comes in after having had a fight with a guy on the sidewalk, she takes a bottle of milk out of the fridge, sits down at the table and clumsily knocks it over, the milk spreading over the table. She sits at the table, sobbing, her hand in the milk. Fascinatingly, after watching this scene, Tomek gets up and goes into The Godmother’s bedroom. She lies in bed. He sits on the side of the bed. He has a question for her.
“Why do people cry?” he asks.
This is the first moment in the film where the “creep” label flew out the window. Something is wrong with Tomek, something in him has been blunted through the hardships of his life. He does not understand why people cry and he needs to know. Why does he need to know? Maybe so he can join the human race. Maybe so he can know how to comfort Magda, if he ever was with her in person. Who knows. The Godmother, tenderly (she’s wonderful), tries to explain that sometimes pain is such that you have to cry. “Have you never cried?” she asks. “Once,” he replies. “Long ago.”
As the film progresses, and as Magda eventually learns that she has a voyeur, the Loneliness at the heart of the film starts to become almost a deafening yowl. Not just his loneliness, but hers. He brings her a small snowglobe (as with his other films, most notably Veronique, Kieslowski is fascinated by glass, and how it reflects, distorts). She looks at it and says, “I’m not a good person. I don’t deserve presents.”
And maybe she isn’t a good person. She’s not particularly nice to Tomek at first, but I wouldn’t be either. I’d shut that bullshit down FAST. But something else occurs here, an exchange, painful and revelatory. Tomek pays a price. His loneliness is so acute, his alienation from human contact so enormous (and even the possibility of it happening in the future seems pretty bleak), that you wonder … what the hell is going to happen to this poor boy?
So much of the film is about Lubaszenko’s astonishing performance, although all the leads are phenomenal. But I will be thinking about Tomek, I will be wondering what happened to him. I will not forget him. I will hope for the best for him. Although, honestly, the prospects don’t look good.
A Short Film About Love is an incredible experience. Quiet, sad, and powerful, I had to sit quietly with my thoughts/feelings when it was over, for a good long while.
directed by William Wyler
A favorite. A perfect film.
This past viewing I was struck by the power and mastery of Ralph Richardson’s performance as the father. The painful thing, the complex thing, is that he is right about Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). He is right to try to protect his daughter from such a fortune-hunter. He clocks Morris in their first conversation. And maybe it’s just because I’m dead inside, but I can see that Morris and Catherine (the brilliant Olivia de Havilland) would be a bad match. He would break her. I mean, he ends up breaking her anyway, but the “break-age” would be a done deal, it seems to me. But the deeper commentary in the film, the place where it almost gets political, is that women deserve to be the arbiters of their own destiny. And women who have been shielded from every difficult decision until they are of marriageable age are no good to society, society has failed the very members it has sworn to protect. Ralph Richardson can see this. He can see that he has raised his daughter to be “a willing victim” (a devastating line). There are other elements here, in his performance, all of which he modulates and expresses beautifully, not missing a beat. He cannot forgive his daughter for not being like his dead wife. He is not proud of his daughter for who she is. She is a sweet little home-making woman, shy and socially awkward, who loves embroidery. There is really nothing to be ashamed of in any of that, but he somehow, powerfully, makes her feel ashamed. And she is too much of a “willing victim” to HIM that she cannot see it at first. She does not understand that the man she most loves (her father) does not “like her very much”. The Heiress is so brilliant in that it shows that the father is indeed right about Morris, but that his victory will be a terrible one.
And so one wonders, the way one does when witnessing a Tragedy: how could this have been avoided?
Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins, so so good) says to Catherine at one point, “If you had just had a little more sense …” But Catherine hasn’t been taught “sense”. She hasn’t been taught how to “play the game” with men, how to hold something back, how to “vet” a man properly. She is prey to the first predator who shows interest in her. That’s the facts. And yet de Havilland is so extraordinary in showing us the real heart and soul of this woman, her desperation, her sweetness, and also her dawning desire to do whatever the hell she wants to do. That one scene, shot from the perspective of the stairway, the night that Morris deserts her, and she stands in the parlor with Aunt Lavinia, and she falls apart. She is pacing, and moaning, “Morris! Morris!” Lavinia is horrified and runs to close the door so the father won’t hear. It’s heartbreaking. Something sweet and precious has been murdered.
The tragedy in The Heiress is airtight. It could not be avoided.
De Havilland’s final climb up the stairs, as Montgomery Clift bangs on the door outside, is one of the great scenes in cinema, and the look on her face would turn your blood to ice. She has won her final battle, but in doing so she has banished herself from the world of softness and sweetness that was her natural heritage.