May 28, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: Meet John Doe (1941)
This is part of a series of reviews we’re calling Movies that Predicted Trump, where we discuss the films that foretold (in ways both large and small) the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. (Read the other reviews in this series!)
Like so many of the media’s favorite buzzwords, “populism” is a term thrown around so freely these days most people don’t bother to pause and ponder its meaning. The recent rise of Donald Trump, UKIP, and various far-right and far-left movements in Europe have conjured images of frenzied crowds of poor, mostly-white working-class folk getting whipped up into a frenzy by loud, angry demagogues railing against an eclectic assortment of politicians, financiers, and/or minorities, all hell-bent on ruining their lives for the fun of it. In that context, the word “populism” doesn’t describe the movement’s foundational ideology so much as the way it presents and disseminates itself in opposition to something, in this case a dominant power structure.
The fundamentally emotional and reactive nature of populism makes it difficult to define with any real precision, save for the usual “hardworking common folk versus rich uncaring elite” narrative it promotes in all of its forms. It’s an appealing narrative, especially in a country like America whose founding myth is that of a plucky band of humble freedom lovers revolting against the world’s mightiest empire, and one that synthesizes complex socio-economic power dynamics into a simple outline that makes it easy for ill-intentioned demagogues to exploit.
The genius of Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, released in 1941 just as the Nazis were reaching the height of their power, is that it understands the cultural imperfections that make America just as susceptible to fall under the spell of fascist tyranny as Europe, all while using those same traits to make the case for a positive kind of populism, founded on hope and solidarity rather than fear and anger.
The film opens in the offices of The Bulletin, a major metropolitan newspaper that’s just been bought by multimillionaire tycoon D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) and renamed The New Bulletin. Due to the paper’s change of ownership, columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is informed by management that her writing style is deemed too frivolous and dull to conform to new editorial standards and that, as such, she’s to be fired after writing her next column. In a desperate last-ditch effort to save her job so she can continue providing for her family, Ann makes her last article a stirring denunciation of unemployment and injustice in the guise of a fabricated letter in which an imaginary “John Doe” announces his intention to jump off the City Hall roof on Christmas Eve as an act of protest.
Naturally, everyone assumes the letter to be authentic, and the article causes a citywide sensation, as well as a huge boost in the paper’s circulation, with thousands of readers offering “John Doe” jobs and lodging with pleas for him not to go through with his suicide. Ann’s job is saved, but she now has to continue the charade in order to keep sales up. To make things more convincing, her editor decides to hire a homeless man to pose as the eponymous “John Doe” and take credit for writing the letter. After holding a casting of sorts, they quickly settle on one Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), an unemployed ex-baseball pitcher who accepts the job on the promise of an operation for the injured arm that aborted his career. A deal is made, and Willoughby is moved into a fancy hotel room with his cynical fellow tramp friend the Colonel (Walter Brennan), who repeatedly warns him against the manipulations of these “heelots”.
John Doe’s protest letters soon become a regular column in The New Bulletin, and as the paper’s sales skyrocket, so does the popular will for change. Aware of the massive potential this could represent for his political future, D. B. Norton agrees to let Ann write a speech for John to read on a national radio network that Norton owns. After some hesitation, John agrees. The speech, which Ann writes based on notes and observations from her late father’s diary, is an earnest ode to the “John Does” of the world that made history through collaborative effort in support of great men like Columbus, Napoleon, Washington, and Jesus. This shared history is then used to make a moving call for nationwide solidarity in the face of hardship, in which his fellow John Does are encouraged to break down the barriers of hate and prejudice and help their neighbors. The result, John hopes, will be “such a tidal wave of good will that no human force could stand against it.”
As you might expect, the speech is a gigantic success, and despite his initial efforts to disappear back into anonymity, John becomes an overnight national hero. Local clubs dedicated to the ideals espoused in his speech start popping up all over the Midwest, soon merging into one big John Doe Brotherhood Movement. With millions of potential voters now under his influence, Norton begins plans to turn the movement into his own political party. Ann, meanwhile, is being rewarded for her work with lavish gifts and a possible engagement with Norton’s nephew and heir Ted Sheldon (Rod La Rocque), but is starting to feel guilty for letting Norton hijack and repurpose her father’s values to further his personal ambitions. This is doubled by the fact that John, for whom she’s developed mutual romantic feelings, has come to genuinely believe in what he’s being paid to say.
John’s idealism is soon crushed, however, when Ann’s editor drunkenly reveals that Norton has instructed her to write a speech for the upcoming John Doe convention during which he is to endorse the tycoon as a candidate for President of the United States. Refusing to believe that Ann could do such a thing, John storms into Norton’s mansion to confront him about it, only to walk in on him toasting her at a dinner party during which he declares his intent to bring a “new order of things” to America and rule the country with an “iron hand”. Incensed, John threatens to denounce Norton’s fascism at the convention, but Norton counters with a threat of his own: he’ll expose John as a fraud who duped him and millions of people across the country. Ignoring both that threat and Ann’s apologies, John goes to the convention anyway and is about to deliver his speech when Norton and his men burst in with copies of newspapers denouncing John as an impostor. Unable to refute Norton’s accusations, John tries to explain himself, but his mikes get cut off before he can say anything. With additional egging from infiltrating goons, the crowd boos John off the stage and the movement subsequently disbands.
Having let down millions of people across the country and lost everything he cared about, a humiliated John decides the only way to redeem himself and revive the movement is to make good on the original letter’s threat and really jump off the City Hall on Christmas Eve. Just as he’s about to do so, however, he gets joined on the roof by most of the film’s main characters, each trying to dissuade him from doing it for their own reasons. Norton tells him his suicide would be pointless, as the mayor has cops on the scene who will remove all marks of identification from him and bury his body in an unmarked grave. Ann gives a tearful speech in which she begs John not to kill himself, points out that Norton and his goons wouldn’t be trying to stop him if the John Doe movement was truly dead and gone, and professes her love for him. After a few more characters apologize for “losing their heads” and declare their intention to restart a John Doe club no matter what happens, John is finally convinced not to go through with his suicide. With renewed faith, he and his followers walk back into the building, leaving Norton helpless and defeated by the power of the people.
The most remarkable (and consistently misunderstood) thing about the films of Frank Capra is how quietly subversive they are. Beneath their wholesome baseball-and-apple-pie surface lurks a dark critique of the business values and conformism that are as much a part of the American fabric as the ideals championed by his heroes. His America is a harsh and pitiless place that holds at least as many dangers as it does promises, where individual thought and moral integrity get systematically crushed by powerful politicians, crooked businessmen, and the stifling pressure of group mentality. His films unambiguously celebrate the notions of individual freedom and equality that are at the core of America’s ideological infrastructure, but they also point out the many flaws within that infrastructure that make it easy for men to abuse, exploit, or deny these notions.
Meet John Doe exemplifies this perfectly: The fascist forces that dupe the people and hijack fundamentally good principles for their own purposes are not external, but rather products of the very same system these principles built. The entire John Doe Movement is based on a lie written out of spiteful, selfish protest against a capitalist news model that values sales over actual information (gee, isn’t that more depressingly relevant than ever?), the very same model that ironically ends up turning the movement into a nationwide revolution in the making. The folksy, old-fashioned Christian values of tolerance and solidarity preached by the movement may be good and true, but they’re being preached for largely self-serving reasons: Ann initially wants to get back at her employers but then has to keep up the charade in order to keep her job and get into her boss’s good graces, John needs money and shelter, the New Bulletin wants to make a profit, and Norton wants to use them all for political power. John himself doesn’t particularly believe in what he’s being told to say until the movement is well on its way to falling under Norton’s control.
One of the core traits of populism, left or right, is that it appeals to a shared feeling of cultural identity in order to unify the masses towards radical systemic change. In the case of Meet John Doe, said shared cultural identity consists of America’s much-touted core Judeo-Christian values, distilled to their most basic form. This makes people respond and act upon them more spontaneously, but it also makes it easier for them to be manipulated, much the same way extremists, conspiracy theorists, and demagogues like Donald Trump turn complex sets of facts and ideas into a simple narrative with easily-identifiable good and bad guys that their audience can react to accordingly. This is especially effective in America, because we’re a fundamentally idealistic culture; perhaps more than any other modern nation, our idea of who we are is based on humanist ideas which we perpetuate through storytelling. We’re a nation of myth-making storytellers and listeners, and this empowers us to rise above our faults in the hopes that we continue to live up to foundational ideals. However, it’s also an aspect that, if unchecked or misused, can end up consuming or enslaving us, which is exactly what happens to Long John Willoughby: He starts out a nobody, defined by failure and misfortune, and grows both in social stature and consciousness as he gradually becomes the fictional character he’s paid to play until it takes over him completely, leaving him no identity or power outside of it.
On a narrative and performative level, Meet John Doe may look like an inspirational underdog story, but it’s really a political horror film, as frighteningly prophetic as any of the great visionary dystopias of the 20th Century. It acknowledges the tremendous amount of potential that America has to generate positive change and progress, but also reminds us that the uglier aspects of its culture—our greed, our selfishness, our cowardliness, and our herd mentality—come from the same place and can easily sway us to the other side. Capra’s style may seem corny to jaded modern audiences, but at a time when the D. B. Nortons of our world arguably hold more power over our minds than their fictional counterpart could have ever dreamed of, his vision feels just as urgent now as it did back then.