Edge of Outside: Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe

When one thinks of Frank Capra one does not readily call to mind the image of an independent filmmaker. But like Alfred Hitchcock, Capra was one of the few men of the Golden Age of Cinema who carved out his own path. He may not have made films of an overtly controversial nature, but he did make films his way and followed his own rules.

Because of his early success Capra had the confidence to challenge the boundaries of the studio system while working at Columbia and consequently found himself butting heads with then studio chief Harry Cohn. The popular director was an early champion of the auteur theory, long before it was defined in words. He believed in the concept of the director as author and that a film should be the product of a singular vision by that author. Subsequently, in the early ‘40s, the studio interference inspired Capra to form an independent production unit within the studio (Frank Capra Productions) with frequent collaborator writer Robert Riskin. Believing fervently in creative freedom, Capra went to great lengths to maintain his control, going so far as to use his own home as collateral to get the loan needed to finance Meet John Doe, and thereby participating in the profits generated.

It’s very suitable that TCM should choose to represent Capra’s independent oeuvre with Meet John Doe. The romantic comedy is a timeless fable of a forgotten man reluctantly chosen to represent the little people, and goes on to champion a David vs. Goliath cause, winning the affections of the girl along the way.

This inspiring tale stars two of the cinema’s most popular and enduring screen icons. Barbara Stanwyck is ideally cast as the young and beautiful wisecracking reporter who writes a fraudulent story of a lost soul who has given up on the world and promises to end his life in protest of the nation’s deplorable conditions. A rough and rugged blonde, Stanwyck had the unique quality of believably portraying a gorgeous beauty who, despite meager beginnings never hesitates to roll up her sleeves and take the challenges of life head on. She was American Determination in a 5’ 5” package, able to convey all the contradictions and complications of a depressed country through the expressive eyes of one tough cookie.

Gary Cooper is the incredibly handsome and humble tramp picked from the crowd to fill the hapless role of John Doe, becoming an overnight national hero and the unknowing pawn of big business. Once again, Capra’s talent for casting supports his recurring theme in physical form. There has perhaps never been anyone who so encapsulated all things American as Gary Cooper. Down on his luck and living off of his hopes, he still makes an impressive and striking impression when he first appears, hat in hand. Ultimately, this simple man of the people (a professional baseball player) embraces his destiny with greatness and fulfills the hopes of countless others who have come to depend upon him for inspiration.

Much like an independent filmmaker, this depression-era story illustrates one of Capra’s ever-present themes of the common man conquering the attempts of big money for absolute power. And in a similar parallel to the struggles of a maverick director, the narrative of the film hinges on the protagonist’s ability to speak and have his opinions heard. This idea is not in opposition to his belief in the power of collaboration. The film’s bad guy, Edward Arnold (a wonderful character actor, always dripping with affable charm) represents what could go wrong with America if one focus too much on the needs of the individual. Meet John Doe asserts that we as a nation, as a whole community, need to take responsibility for looking out for each other. It is then that the country is at its best, and therefore gives the individual his greatest opportunity for success.

Frank Capra is considered to be one of the most highly regarded and greatly esteemed classic film directors of all time. During the height of his popularity he received accolades from the press, he was admired by the industry, and adored by audiences. In fact, throughout the 1930s, a film by Capra was either the recipient of the Academy Award (It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You) or the favored nominee (Lady for a Day, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

Much like Spielberg today, the Capra name is a recognizable signature ensuring a quality production with a wide appeal. So identifiable is his particular style that his name has become an adjective, like Welles (“Wellesian”) and Hitchcock (“Hitchcockian”), to describe subsequent films that have mimicked his style or include “Capra-esqe” elements. However, during the span of his career he suffered from the extremes of broad and varied criticism, perhaps more than any other major director. It was after WWII when, for the most part, his career went into a serious decline (It’s a Wonderful Life was initially a box office failure) perhaps due in large part to the critics growing intolerance for what some considered unpalatable “Capra-Corn”. His simplistic pre-packaged message was well intended; it just didn’t grow and change with the times. The audience simply outgrew an ideology designed to bolster a less informed public.

In fact, most of Capra’s films are, by today’s standards, excessively sentimental and politically naive. But this opinion trivializes the great director’s immense talents – his affinity with the audience, his ability to inspire actors to give their best, his unwavering eye for framing and his everlasting impact on the lexicon of cinema.

Also showing Wednesday July 12th: Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris at 5:00pm, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly at 6:30pm, Orson Welles’ Othello at 10:30pm.

Rating: A+
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