A University of California
Multi-Campus Research Group

Fall 2000 Conference: November 3-5

Reading Meet John Doe
William B. Warner

Frank Capra's well known 1941 film, Meet John Doe stages a struggle between the sinister media forces that would determine American culture, and the heroic efforts of an ordinary citizen, John Doe, played by Gary Cooper, to speak for the common man. A brief consideration of the film will suggest the vexed history of American attempts to claim media freedom in a public space so powerfully shaped by modern electronic media. Most of you know this film's premise: as a publicity stunt to raise the circulation of a daily newspaper, Ann Mitchell, the sparkly female columnist played by Barbara Stanwyck, composes a letter to the editor from John Doe; the letter carries an impassioned attack upon social injustice, and in it, John Doe threatens to commit suicide by jumping off city hall roof. Once recruited to play the role of John Doe, the baseball player Long John Willoughby grows into the role he assumes; although he begins to believe the populist message Ann writes for his inspiring radio addresses, John Doe is fully embedded in the media system that invented him. It is part of the critical rigor of this film that John Doe is opportunistic about using the media. He is, for example, devoid of the kernel of upright character given the eponymous characters in Carpa's earlier films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The action comes to climax when John Doe discovers the way the media mogul, D.B. Norton, is planning to use the national convention of the John Doe clubs to launch his run for President of the United States. [Fast-forward through convention; include the shaming of John] In this scene of shaming, John Doe discovers the power of big media, and we suffer and enjoy his humiliation. Once John has let himself be determined as a media [symbol] of the average man, any effort to speak for himself, outside of the script and identity forged for him is catastrophic. In this scene the honest confession of the ordinary citizen speaking his decent heart doesn't stand a chance against, it is always already coopted by, the media system of the mogul, who can always unplug the microphone and issue a "special" newspaper edition to expose John Doe for who he really "is", a mere creature of the media. To deliver this critique of big media, the film John Doe indulges in a familiar species of media rivalry: while condemning fascist manipulation of the masses through a cunningly populist use of radio and newspapers, Capra uses all of the techniques of a classical Hollywood film system to hide the resources of the film medium as it marshals its audience in empathizing with John Doe's heroic rebellion against big media. However, although Capra's film seeks to revive a spirit of American community that is folksy and na´ve and prior to media, the predicament of the main characters, John Doe and Ann Mitchell, suggests that the counter-claims of media determinism and media freedom create an imbroglio or tangled web that is difficult to escape. In the face off between the isolated hero and big media, it requires a third term to save John Doe from the Christmas Eve suicide the film has scripted as his only authentic response. This third term is not just the love of Ann, but the sacrificial act of Jesus Christ, "the first John Doe," as it works within the John Doe club members who make the decisive appeal to John before he jumps. The problematic ending-where John is saved from the suicide the film's narrative logic requires of him-gives the audience a way out for their surrogate and spokesman, John Doe. (Chuck House)

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Created 11/3/00 | Last Modified 12/2/00