December 17th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Much food for reflection in a single Christmas carol

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coalition limps through year of frustrations

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The left's whitewash of Fidel Castro

THE MEDIA Greed, ideology generate burst of fake news online

WA LEGISLATION Foetal homicide reform a very small step forward

SOCIETY A proposal to assist the victims of sexual abuse

AUSTRALIAN DEVELOPMENT The financial and social costs of cramming ourselves into just five coastal cities

MUSIC What Ellington heard: Allan Zavod, RIP


CINEMA Capra on the Common Man: Meet John Doe

BOOK APPRAISAL Religious incredulity: a most modern virtue

BOOK REVIEW A continuing analysis

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Capra on the Common Man: Meet John Doe

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, December 17, 2016

When fired from her job as a columnist for The Bulletin, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) decides to go out with a bang. She drafts a letter from a Mr John Doe, who has decided to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve as a protest against the corruption of the world.

The letter causes such a ruckus that her new, hardheaded editor, Henry Connell (James Gleason), has to track her down to find this Mr Doe.

On learning the truth, he first tries to spike the story, but Ann convinces him to keep it running. She figures that, since Doe is so popular, an ongoing column – ghost-written by her, of course – will be a hit. They just need to find a stooge to play the part. And they do, in the person of Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a washed-up baseball pitcher who needs his arm fixed so he can return to the game.

Willoughby proves to be the perfect John Doe, and the scheme grows in stature from a column of complaint to a program of community renewal, as Ann draws on her deceased father’s writings on neighbourliness and looking out for the other fellow, turning John Doe from an isolated man into the figurehead of a nationwide movement.

This doesn’t sit quite right with Willoughby or his ornery friend, the Colonel (Walter Brennan), but he goes along with it when he sees the good it can do. All the while, in the background, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), the tycoon who bought The Bulletin, is busy, seeing the John Doe movement as something that will prove useful for his own ends.

Meet John Doe is Frank Capra’s “other” Christmas movie, one that’s even darker than his later classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. Written by Robert Riskin from a story by Robert Presnell snr, itself based on an older and somewhat different story by Richard Connell, Meet John Doe explores the idea of the Common Man and his place in the world, how he can be used and abused by those with power, but how he remains his own man despite this.

There’s a tendency to paint the Common Man as somehow being more innocent and pure than the Big Shots, but this isn’t quite correct, and not what the likes of G.K. Chesterton were thinking of when they wrote about him. The Common Man is fundamentally decent, but he’s also self-interested and liable to give himself over to his passions.

As John puts it in his first radio speech: “He’s inherently honest, but he’s got a streak of larceny in his heart. He seldom walks up to a public telephone without shoving his finger into the slot to see if somebody left a nickel there.”

More. He can be manipulated, at least up to a point: “He’s the man the ads are written for. He’s the fella everybody sells things to. He’s Joe Doakes, the world’s greatest stooge and the world’s greatest strength.”

It is the trait that Norton wants to exploit. Norton, who has what amounts to a private army, believes that the people need “an iron hand” and he seeks to use the John Doe Movement to become President, and if things don’t go his way, he’s willing to crush it. When Willoughby tries to tell the truth at the John Doe Convention, Norton cuts him off and has paid agitators break it up.

The media play a key role here. They make John Doe and the Movement, but they also break him. They are interested in News and Truth and Facts, but also in circulation and influence. They appeal to the John Does of the world, while also taking them for suckers.

But their role is not all-powerful. In fact, they need the John Does more than the John Does need them, for without them, they’d have nothing. And the same goes for the Big Shots. As Willoughby says: “We raise the crops, we dig the mines, work the factories, keep the books, fly the planes and drive the busses!”

The John Does of the world are not mere puppets. The first John Doe clubs are formed by ordinary folk who take the message to heart. And even though many are disillusioned and turn on Willoughby when they learn the truth, some continue their clubs and even start new ones. The people are capable of thinking, and acting, for themselves – even if they may just as easily follow. They can be influenced, but not controlled.

This tension gives Meet John Doe its dramatic edge, and its keenest insight – that we can all do good or ill, but that the good we do, even if only in our homes, can help make the world a better place.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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