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My favorite Christmas movie, and the best Frank Capra movie IMHO, was on TCM last night: Meet John Doe (1941). Robert Osborne introduced it as a "delightful comedy"--what has he been smoking? Sure, it's funny, Capra earned his chops doing Mack Sennett one-reelers, and whenever the plot lags, which is never, someone is always falling over a chair or, in one notable bit, messing up a hand painted sign on a new newspaper executive's glass door. But the theme is pure dystopian science fiction: What if the Second Coming of Jesus were a plot engineered by Hitler?

Jesus is Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a down and out minor league baseball player who becomes a love-thy-neighbor speechifying "John Doe" to millions of Americans without hope. Hitler is D.B. Norton, who has his own personal police force (shades of Bush and Blackwater) and owns as much major media as Rupert Murdoch. Norton secretly underwrites the "John Doe Clubs" that spring up around the country in the wake of a popular radio speech by Willoughby (shades of Cindy Sheehan's grassroots appeal), and although the clubs are supposed to be apolitical and anti-politician, the media tycoon plans to have the bought-and-paid-for baseball bum announce the "D.B. Norton for President" campaign at a national "John Doe Convention" (shades of Promise Keepers, Million Man March, etc.).

Willoughby is a media creation, the brainchild of a cynical reporter played by Barbara Stanwyck, who has Rovian instincts for tapping aggrieved populism, while Norton supplies the dirty tricks. According to an interesting Capra bio I read, Willoughby is a stand-in for the director, who became enormously popular after the success of the populist films Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington but as a well paid Hollywood functionary was always uncomfortable with people's expectations that he would "stand up to the system" or be a general champion for socialist causes, particularly as Hollywood's politics started to shift rightward after the Depression. The bio points out that Capra was slightly fixated on suicide. As in It's a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe's plot hinges on a character about to jump from a high place.

Like the better-known and loved Jimmy Stewart movie, Doe is dark, it's deep, and it's great.

- tom moody 12-23-2005 8:26 pm [link]