“Look at that face. It’s wonderful,” enthuses Barbara Stanwyck of Gary Cooper’s incomparably gorgeous visage, early in Meet John Doe (1941), the final entry in Frank Capra’s Common Man Trilogy, after Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, also starring Cooper as an ‘aw-shucking’ small-town Good Guy) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, with Jimmy Stewart in that role). Indeed, for Stanwyck’s character—and for contemporary movie audiences—Cooper’s attractiveness had particular mass appeal because it was All-American: sturdy (at 6’3,” 180 pounds), sun-kissed, associated with onscreen cowboys and war heroes for over a decade by then. (Montana-born and raised, the man was a Yellowstone tour guide before becoming a movie star in the late 1920s, for goodness sakes!) To underscore Cooper as national ideal in Meet John Doe, his title character is a baseball pitcher, as American as apple pie and antifascism.
Actually, building that latter association—America = antifascism—serves as the film’s very raison d’être, as the U.S. film industry rose to the occasion of the emerging second world war and, along the way, helped to redefine the “American Way” in contrast to European and Asian fascism in ways that have lasted eight decades, despite current right-wing efforts to denigrate antifascism—or ‘antifa’—as radical and un-American. To revisit Meet John Doe—and its dire warnings about the seeds of domestic fascism lying in our democratic soil—is to recall that antifascism is as American as baseball, Capra films, and Gary Cooper’s kisser.
Just months before Meet John Doe’s release, President Franklin Roosevelt coined the “Four Freedoms”: freedom from want and fear, freedom of expression and worship. As opposed to foreign fascism (which represented authoritarianism, censorship, persecution, and economic regimentation), America stood for popular democracy, a free press, civil liberties, and free market economic opportunity for all. So devoted were U.S. citizens to these ideals of freedom—under grave threat by the likes of Hitler and Tojo—that they would fight to the death to preserve them. Never mind that U.S. public opinion was only slowly shifting from its interwar isolationism; that the lingering Great Depression (and entrenched Jim Crow segregation) left serious doubts about economic and political equality in the U.S.; and that Roosevelt’s New Deal itself expanded state power, executive authority, and mass media manipulation in ways that invited comparison, not just contrast, to global fascism from the third-term president’s detractors.
By then, most Hollywood studio heads were not among those detractors. They were, instead, giving themselves over to the Roosevelt administration’s agenda, especially its growing antifascist international interventionism. In that pivotal year of 1941, it was Gary Cooper—more than any other matinee idol—that was most associated with this shift. He starred in that year’s top-grossing film (by more than double its nearest competitor): Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York, released with great ballyhoo during the Fourth of July weekend. In it, Cooper plays famed World War I hero, Alvin C. York, who single-handedly neutralized a German unit in a dramatic battle, but only after converting from his status as conscientious objector. Sergeant York focuses on the latter drama, giving us York (Cooper) as a backwoods Tennessean Christian who experiences a revelation (as a surrogate for isolationist holdouts in the audience) that the Bible and American History allow for, even insist upon, just wars—in order to save lives and preserve freedom from blood-thirsty power-hungry enemies, like the Huns of yesteryear or, more to the point, the Nazis of current-day. Beloved in this role, Cooper won his first Academy Award, easily besting industry outsider Orson Welles, nominated for his role in a little film called Citizen Kane, itself filled to its cornucopian brim with the emergent antifascist zeitgeist.
Like Citizen Kane, and unlike most of Hollywood’s flood of wartime antifascist films, Meet John Doe—Cooper’s other film of 1941—is concerned with fascism as a domestic threat, not just an international one. (The other major entry in this category is Keeper of the Flame .) Also like Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe is the product of a screenwriter and director collaboration in which the director hogged the credit, though Capra’s partner, Robert Riskin, took it better than Welles,’ Herman Mankiewicz, whose dispute with Welles is the source of enduring debates in film studies (see auteur theory) and recent resuscitation in Mank. Riskin collaborated with Capra on no less than eleven films, including It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and You Can’t Take It With You (1938), for which he received one Oscar to the director’s four, and mostly accepted his relative anonymity as a matter of course. Still, he had his limits, according to his daughter Victoria Riskin’s biography. “One day,” she writes, “after reading one Capra interview too many about the Capra touch, Riskin put 100 pages of blank white paper on Capra’s desk and said, ‘Here, Frank, put the Capra touch on this.’”
Whatever its source, the Capra touch—that reassuring sense that the ‘Little Guy’ and his small-town decency will redeem American ideals from the Fat Cats corrupting it—is plenty evident in Meet John Doe. In this case, the Fat Cat in question, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold, reprising his villainy from You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith) is not only money-hungry but power-hungry, the film’s would-be fascist. He is linked to European fascists by his motorcycle “troopers,” his Nazi-esque nephew (Rod La Rocque), his taste towards Riefenstahlian pageantry, and his dialogue: “What the American people need is an iron hand!” The films begins with his purchase of a big city newspaper, after which a jackhammer chisels away the words “A free people means a free press.” The fast-talking, (only superficially) cynical gal-reporter Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck, taking on the role perfected by Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith) saves herself from Norton’s merciless lay-offs by proving she knows how to protect his profits. She cooks up a ‘fake news’ circulation stunt that involves an anonymous unemployed man who writes in threatening to jump from a tall building in order to protest “the greed [and] inhumanity” of the Powerful and “the problems of the average man.” It’s in her search to cast this fabricated “John Doe” that Ann finds ‘Long John’ Willoughby (Cooper) and his wonderful face.
Hungry, a bit dopey, and in need of money to fix his pitching arm, Willoughby agrees to the plan, dragging along his hobo-philosophizing sidekick, the “Colonel” (Walter Brennan, whose rapport with Cooper was established in four previous films, including Sergeant York). Opposed, the Colonel speechifies on the entrapping and emasculating effects of money. But Willoughby proves incorruptible; Ann hasn’t discovered a faux-populist but unleashed a real one. He believes the stuff Ann has him say: about “The People,” about the meek inheriting the Earth, the “teamwork” of America’s “little punks” as they stomp out the Fat Cats’ “darkness.” Increasingly, Ann does too; she is convinced by Willoughby, with whom she has fallen in love, that such “platitudes” really “mean” something. And so do the hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks who form “John Doe Clubs”—a movement Norton intends to exploit in his bid for the U.S. presidency. Norton makes Willoughby the headliner at his third-party political convention, swarming with disturbingly adulate followers.
For all the folksy sentimentality of the Capra touch, it is important to note that Meet John Doe is not as naively optimistic about American Democracy as the “Capra-corny” reputation suggests. As in so many of his other films, we dwell in its corruption at length before we are allowed its redemption. Sometimes the scathing social criticism embedded in the dramatic arc overcomes the hopeful resolution. At the end of Meet John Doe, the despairing Willoughby sets out to make good on his suicide threat on Christmas Eve, with the film ramping up its John Doe-as-Christ analogies to full wattage. At the last minute, Ann and ‘The People’ talk him into living to fight on, a sort of deus ex populi—the lameness of which both Capra and Riskin lamented, unable to devise something better.
Along with Norton in the shadows, the film’s warnings linger about the thinness of the line between popular democracy and fascism and, relatedly, about money in politics and the power of Big Media to manipulate a gullible public so easily whipped into a frenzy and inexorably drawn towards charismatic leaders. We would do well to remember: such leaders are as likely to be as selflessly benevolent as Long John Willoughby as they are to be as gorgeous as Gary Cooper—the face of all-American antifascist heroism in 1941.
“Meet John Doe” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.