A Dark and Stormy Capra
Christmas Eve in black-and-white. Snow falls softly over a picture-postcard American town. A man, thoroughly despondent and unaware of the extent of his influence to the good on the people around him, contemplates suicide in the midst of this peaceful scene.
No, it’s not It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m talking about Frank Capra’s classic Meet John Doe, released five years earlier in 1941. It’s not traditionally considered a Christmas movie, and yet it’s at least as deserving of that status as Life — and maybe even more deserving. And while It’s a Wonderful Life feels dated, Meet John Doe is still startlingly relevant today, nearly 60 years after it was first released.
In a publicity stunt to boost circulation, the corporate owners of The New Bulletin newspaper go along with columnist Ann Mitchell’s (Barbara Stanwyck) hoax: She created “John Doe,” a homeless, unemployed man “disgusted with civilization” who says he’s going to commit suicide on Christmas Eve by jumping off the city hall building. When the published “letter” provokes a public outcry — offers of jobs and places to live and pleadings not to kill himself — the newspaper brings in a ringer (Gary Cooper) to “play” John Doe while Ann keeps pumping out protest letters for the paper to run. Doe’s rants against corruption in politics, the lack of decency in world, and the like inspire people, first locally and then nationwide, to take an interest in their neighbors and make their towns a better place to live.
But nefarious things are going on behind the scenes. While the first John Doe Clubs spring up grassroots style, the media magnate (Edward Arnold) who owns the Bulletin soon gets his corporation involved in ensuring that the clubs are everywhere across the country. He has political ambitions and plans to use the John Doe Clubs to send him to the White House.
Meet John Doe could be remade today, and you’d barely need to change a word to have it still strike home. Corporate misbehavior, media circuses, consumerism, and wealthy fat-cats thinking they can speak for ordinary people — all things we unfortunately recognize today. The film’s morality is a lot more complicated than Life‘s, too — when Cooper threatens to expose Arnold’s plans, Arnold sets him back with this: At least Arnold believes in what he’s doing. John Doe is a fake. It’s a much more tangled dilemma — and much more realistic one — that drives “John Doe” to contemplate suicide than George Bailey faced. And Meet John Doe has a more overtly religious connection to Christmas as well: John Doe may end up crucified by the press and the public, but the truth of his message remains.
And while it can be called a paean to the little guy — just as It’s a Wonderful Life is — Meet John Doe is a lot more pragmatic. In the national radio speech that sends Doe’s stock skyrocketing, Doe says that the average man “is inherently honest but has a streak of larceny in his heart.”
Pessimistic? Maybe. But a lot more believable than the practically sainted working-class people of It’s a Wonderful Life.