“Meet John Doe”, Alive And Well

On July 26, 2012, 1:00 PM by

Frank Capra’s 1941 movie “Meet John Doe” shows how corporate interest usurp grassroots movements. Is this Charles and David Koch’s favorite flick?

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Before the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the primary political conversation surrounding The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t about violence in movies or gun control. It was about whether director Christopher Nolan meant fictional anarchist villain Bane to be a stand-in for anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street. Nolan had no such intention, telling Rolling Stone, “If you’re saying, ‘Have you made a film that’s supposed to be criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement?’ — well, obviously, that’s not true.” This holds true for his trilogy as a whole. Said Nolan, “the films genuinely aren’t intended to be political.”

Like Nolan, legendary filmmaker Frank Capra’s career boomed during a similar period of economic and political tumult, the Great Depression. His first big hit was 1934′s It Happened One Night and was followed by Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936. Later, and after a few stinkers, Capra debuted a similarly titled Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939. Unlike Nolan’s cinematic forays that bear only an assumed connection to our times, Capra’s flicks embraced the socioeconomic tumult, mindfully weaving everyday woes and triumphs into the plot, much like in his 1941 film Meet John Doe.

Released before America’s entry into World War II essentially ended the depression, Meet John Doe revolves around reporter Ann Mitchell who, on the verge of being fired after mogul DB Norton buys her newspaper, pens an op-ed letter “from” an unemployed man “protesting the state of civilization” and vowing to jump off City Hall’s roof at midnight on Christmas Eve. The letter is signed “John Doe.” Mitchell’s ruse proves to be a hit. And so, Mitchell (played by Barbara Stanwyck) colludes with her editor, Connell, to boost circulation by hiring a bum to be John Doe’s public face.

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Enter Gary Cooper as John Willoughby, a down-and-out baseball player hoping to earn enough cash to fix his pitching arm. A series of op-eds “by” John Doe soon follows. Everything is protested: political corruption, hospital closures and “all the brutality and slaughter in the world.” The impact is instantaneous and enormous: people want to give Doe/Willoughby a job, politicians fear electoral upheaval and average Joes start forming John Doe Clubs devoted to bringing neighbors together. If someone is in need, everyone pitches in.

But therein lies the opportunity for private reward. The mogul publisher Norton realizes he can throw his fortune into the fray to build a vast army of John Does who will champion his hidden agendas — and he does. A grassroots movement becomes an astroturf front and, eventually, a third party hoping to overtake Democrats and Republicans in a presidential race. Doe, the mogul hopes, will be the candidate and his own errand boy.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Based in Brooklyn, writer Andrew Belonsky has penned pieces for Gawker, Salon, the New York Times' T blog, and AlterNet with a focus on the overlooked details of political and popular culture that shape our world today. His favorite quote from E.B. White is, "[A writer] is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in.

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