Meet John Doe (1941)

A Face In the Crowd

Sadly Meet John Doe appears to be an uncared about film falling into the public domain. I’ve previously wondered if this film could have the power to inspire real-life John Doe clubs, like Fight Club inspiring real-life fight clubs. Meet John Doe is the ancestor to film’s like A Face in the Crowd and Network, chronicling the rise and fall of a media built character. Meet John Doe is not thought of as a conspiracy/paranoia film but is a few actions scenes away from being a conspiracy thriller. After watching you’ll start feeling more like tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist untrusting of government and the establishment.

John Doe is a Christ-like figure; he preaches loving thy neighbour when he is disgraced a newspaper editor proclaims “chalk one up for the Pontius Pilates of the world” and even plans to sacrifice himself on Christmas day. On top of that, Barbara Stanwyck’s speech at the end in which she tells John he doesn’t have to die for the idea of the John Doe movement – that somebody else already did – the first John Doe and he has been keeping the idea alive for 2000 years, all while the Christmas bells ring. Classic Hollywood films sure love their hard-hitting symbolism and metaphors.

Barbara Stanwyck is a phenomenon here with so much life and energy she can make any bit of exposition entertaining. As for Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in of their many film pairings; what is it makes them a great duo? Perhaps it’s just the humorous interactions of two folksy Americans. Cooper’s boyish charm is on full display here, such his baseball pitching in a hotel room to his curious on look at a naked statuette. Meet John Doe is one of the finest performances he ever gave with his outburst at the dinner meeting making the hairs on my neck stand up. Walter Brennan’s The Colonel, on the other hand, doesn’t trust any media, authority or society in general. He’s comically cynical in the extreme and probably be a conspiracy theorist if he had lived in later decades. Throughout the film he refers to others as “helots”; state-owned serfs of the ancient Spartans (“When you become a guy with a bank account, they got you, yes sir, they got you”).

Although the John Doe movement claims the John Does are inheriting the Earth, the movement is funded by a corporation; so did they not see someone like D.B Norton taking advantage of them? Edward Arnold as D.B Norton is one scary, menacing guy who is complete with his own personal army force, giving the full authoritarian dictator vibes. When he sees his servants listening to Doe’s speech on the radio and applauding, he realises the political power he can have if he can get John Doe on his side. Under a scheme to buy his way to power he uses the John Doe movement to further his own agenda, to create a political party of which he leads in order to become President of the United States. His description that he plans to create “a new order of things” and “the American people need an iron hand and discipline” sounds like he has the intent of turning the country into a fascist dictatorship. There’s no doubt that Meet John Doe among other things was an argument against American isolationism in the war.

Another striking moment of Meet John Doe is the monologue given by Bert Hanson, the soda jerker (Regis Toomey) on how little we know about our neighbours and how a failure to get the whole picture leads to misconceptions of other people. It’s true in real life, people you live next to for years and you never contact them: perhaps the guy next door isn’t a bad egg.

Many of Capra’s films showcase the people’s need for a leader (Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith or George Bailey) and in turn, they appear to be clueless and misguided with one (think of Pottersvillie in It’s a Wonderful Life) in a showcase of Capra’s darker side. Here the public buying up what the media tells them such as when Norton exposes John Doe for being an apparent fraud in one of the movie’s most powerful scenes as the movie captures so vividly the destruction of a dream. As dark as the movie’s ending is, it still remains optimistic in which the fight goes on (“there you are Norton, the people!”).

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Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Meet Longfellow Deeds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I’ll admit that it took me a while for Gary Cooper to grow on me as an actor and to see his appeal under his minimalist, low key style of acting; but eventfully I got it. It’s been said Cooper’s face was the map of America; so why in under God did they cast Adam Sandler in a remake of Mr Deeds Goes to Town?

Mandrake Falls is a town full of oddballs, and the naive but not a total dunce Longfellow Deeds comes off as a weirdo to the city dwellers who are fascinated by his behaviour and start mocking him. Mr Deeds Goes to Town certainly highlights the divide between city slickers and small-town folk; this is particularly evident in the scene in which Deeds, himself a poet meets a group of distinguished poets in the restaurant and is appalled by their snobbery and elitism to the point that he beats them up.  Likewise, the film also features Charles Lane as a lawyer, the inspiration for The Simpsons’ blue haired lawyer.

In an example of the darker side of Capra’s films, Mr Deeds Goes to Town is a cynical look at society and the media as a whole (“Why do people seem to get pleasure out of hurting each other, why don’t they try helping each other once in a while?”). Multiple people are out to snag Deed’s fortune while the media is out constantly pursuing him due to his odd but ultimately harmless behaviour; the media manipulating how a person is seen by the public. Mr Deeds is a man who became famous for inheriting a fortune, in other words, he’s famous for being famous and the newspapers appear to have nothing better to do than report on his escapades such as feeding donuts to a horse; relevant to today’s celebrity culture.

With the scene in the park in which Babe plays a set of improvised drums and Deeds sings humoresque. Capra didn’t want to include it as he thought it was too sappy but Jean Arthur insisted it remain. Capra of all people thought it was too sappy?!  But ah Capra sentiment, it never fails to move me.

The sanity hearing at the end of the film is pure movie fantasy; I doubt in real life someone could be classified insane on such so-called evidence. In a demonstration of Cooper’s ability as one of the best actors when it comes to giving a rousing speech or monologue, he talks about the silly quirks we all have. Although the likes of “o” filling or knuckle cracking seems rather trivial, I’m always left with the impression that the movie is making a statement on society’s treatment of those who don’t fully “fit in” or adhere to conformity and asks the question; who is truly “normal”?

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead-end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real-life figures. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance at the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the makeshift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films, you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise, nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotions like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so-called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small-town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise, the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status, the film was shown on some TV networks in 24-hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those networks as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

It’s Truly a Wonderful Life

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

You Can’t Take It With You follows the Sycamore/Vandrerhof household; the ultimate eccentric family. In fact eccentric probably isn’t the right word, they’re complete nuts. They live a counter-cultural lifestyle of not working or paying taxes (and somehow getting away with it) and doing whatever makes them happy without a care in the world; people who aren’t afraid to live. There are like cartoon characters who can twist their way out of any situation with people more in tune with reality, such as when Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) manages to convince the timid Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) to stop throwing his life away working as a bureaucrat and start having fun. The Sycamores/Vanderhofs are families we probably can’t be in real life but wish we could.

Even with a large ensemble cast, Lionel Barrymore is the actor at the heart of the film in a role which is the polar opposite of his part of Henry F. Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The scene in which Vanderhof is confronted by a government official played by the always miserable looking Charles Lane feels like a dig at big government. When Grandpa asks the official what the government gives him for his money he is given the response of “The government gives you everything”, emphases on the word everything, followed by Vanderhof’s humorous but thought-provoking rebuttals. The family’s refusal to pay taxes may be ethically questionable but it’s a movie fantasy and could never happen in real life. Don’t you wish you could deal with bureaucracies as easily as Grandpa Vanderhof?

One of Grandpa Vanderhof’s other fascinating moments is his monologue on “ismmania” although I’m quite sure what to make of it (“when things go a little bad nowadays you go out and get yourself an ‘ism’ and you’re in business”). The message feels similar to a 1948 animated short “Make Mine Freedom” in how the danger of isms can cripple the people. All we need is our Americanism as Vanderhof proclaims, which itself is an ism but I digress. Regardless his line which following this, “Lincoln said, with malice toward none, with charity to all – Nowadays they say think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you”; that gives me chill every time.

One the sweetest, most heartwarming scenes in any film ever is when Grandpa Vanderhof tells Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) about his love for his deceased wife and how the room still smells of her perfume. Ugh, it just kills my poor little soul; a perfect display of Capra’s gift for directing very intimate, emotional scenes in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any actress whom James Stewart didn’t share a great dynamic together. James Stewart and Jean Arthur share a perfect chemistry together, pairing the embodiment of the everyman and the embodiment of the everywoman.

Non-conformity is the name of the game in You Can’t Take It With You. Grandpa Vanderhof understands the preciousness of life as he pursues his own interests and his own forms of fulfillment. He encourages others to follow their dreams and not submit to the will of others. In one scene Alice speaks of Grandpa’s thoughts on how “most people are run by fear, the fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, their health, scared to save money and to spend it. People who commercialise on fear scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need”. Amen sister! – The only thing to fear is fear itself.

You Can’t Take It With You promotes what we would now refer to as a libertarian mindset, live and let live as long as you’re not hurting anyone. As Tony Kirby (James Stewart) tells his father Antony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) towards the end of the film, “I think this business is great. It’s good for you because you like it. I don’t, and I never will”. In many ways the Sycamore/Vandrerhof family is the embodiment of the American Dream. They own their property, each member pursues their individual dreams and they are above all happy. They live their life without inference from the government or other such bodies: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the other messages derived from You Can’t Take It With You is the same as that to come from the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life in which the townspeople come to George Bailey’s aid, giving him money so he won’t have to do jail time followed by the final message from the angel Clarence; “No man is a failure who has friends”. A very similar incident occurs in YCTIWY in which friends and neighbors of the Sycamores pay for their fine in night court so they won’t be locked up. Likewise, the family’s arrest for being mistakenly identified as communists feels like a foreshadowing to McCarthyism. Then again they should have thought that a fireworks show based on the Russian Revolution as well as advertising it perhaps isn’t the greatest idea; it stinks!

There are those who will hear the name Frank Capra and have a reaction along the lines of “Oh Frank Capra, sentimental, saccharine, manipulative rubbish”. I don’t make apologies when I say that dismissing a film for being sentimental is the nonsense film criticism to end all nonsense criticisms; it stinks! Newsflash, stories have been manipulating people’s emotions since the dawn of time. Pulling of effective sentimentality is a skill and I have not come across a single good reason as to why it is a problem. You Can’t Take It With You is Capra at his most sentimental, manipulative, saccharine and all those other dirty words and I love it for that. So if that’s the crime of the century, then lock me up for life. Capra-corn and proud of it!

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If anyone asks me why James Stewart is my favourite actor I just say watch the final scene of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The final scene of this movie is simply of the greatest things I have ever witnessed in any film ever. That may sound like a hyperbole but I’ll never forget the very exact feeling of goosebumps I had when first watching it. Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of a small handful of films I would call life-changing, one of the films which helped to mold the way I think and ultimately turn me into the person I am today. It encouraged me to be more skeptical, not to believe everything you here and stand for what you believe despite great opposition. It’s thanks to films like these why cinema is my bible. As much however as Capra is criticised for his films being overly idealist, Mr Smith Goes to Washington does not exactly paint the most glowing picture of the American political system. To quote Thomas Paine (Claude Raines), “The duty of a true patriot is to protect his country from its government”.

One of my favourite scenes in Mr Smith is that in which Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) attempt to explain to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) the entire procedure of creating a bill and submitting it to Congress. For starters, the scene is incredibly funny with the comedic timing and Stewart’s childlike reactions. Secondly, it’s a very informative civics lesson and thirdly, this scene shows us how Jefferson Smith acts of the film’s ambassador the for the average Joe watching film who’s just as confounded by Sauder’s lecture as Smith is. The scene lays out in an entertaining manner the political hoo-ha for the politically lay; my knowledge on politics was very limited when I first watched Mr Smith Goes to Washington but that wasn’t a barrier to being engrossed in the film’s state of affairs.

This is as good an opportunity as any to raise the question, why is Jean Arthur such a forgotten actress? Despite working with several big-name directors, co-starring with famous actors and appearing in a number of beloved classics, her presence is incredibly overlooked as the definitive urbanite career woman with her wit, warmth, and innocence. Also, that voice! Her role as Saunders is the opposite of Mr Smith. She is cynical, jaded and knows the ins and outs of the system with its corruption and cronyism. It takes Smith, the Americaphille who appears to know more about American history than the people working in Washington to restore faith in her with his childlike optimism and perseverance.

Along with the attack on the American political system, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is just as harsh with its portrayal of the press as a pack of ravenous vultures. The scene in which Smith confronts the reporters in a bar is truly shocking as they flat up tell him about their lack of journalistic ethics as reality hits Smith like a ton of bricks (also among the crowd of reporters if Jack Carson, always a scene-stealer). I just have to question the morals on the part of Smith prior to this scene in which he literally goes around punching reporters in the face although it could be argued this was more of a social norm back then between men.

Another striking monologue is that in which Smith’s mentor Thomas Paine justifies corruption as a comprise in order to achieve good deeds, a process which has existed since the birth democracy as he puts it. As convincing as he might sound at first, through the course of the film you can tell he’s a man who knows he’s sold out on is ideals partially from the complete look of shame which bestows Claude Rains’ face. Even at the beginning of the film just look at the reaction of Paine’s face when Smith declares “Dad used to tell me Joe Paine was the finest man there ever was”.

The relationship between Paine and the business mogul James Taylor (Edward Arnold) is like that of The Emperor and Darth Vader. Taylor hovers above Paine only for his conscious to be put to the ultimate test by the end of the film. Taylor’s ability to control the media of Smith’s home state and preventing any of his words from the Senate reaching the state is frightening. I can just be glad that in the age of the internet and mass communication that such control of the narrative isn’t as easy as it once was.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington is very snappy and faced paced; with the culmination of some of Hollywood’s finest character, acting talent helps carry the exposition in an entertaining and at times screwball like manner. The final 30 minutes of the film in which Smith filibusters is one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid with its immense hair-raising build up to an exhausted, out of breath James Stewart declaring that he will fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these!

Like other political films to arise from classic Hollywood, no party is mentioned during the film nor do we know what state Smith is from and which he fights so hard for. Those on the modern right could see Mr Smith as a little guy standing up against big government and the Washington elites. By contrast, those on the left can view Smith as a rebel fighting against corporate, capitalist fat cats like James Taylor. Independents could see Smith as someone who stood alone without backing from any party to fight for his beliefs. Like many of Capra’s films, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is hard to place on the political spectrum. Anyone can see what they want to within the film which is part of its enduring power.  Really, if I ever met someone in elected office, I will be asking them if they have seen this film. Mr Capra and Mr Stewart, thank you for this film.

It Happened One Night (1934)

What Is the Deal With Donut Dunking?!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

It Happened One Night was my first exposure to what I now consider to be my favourite genre of film, the screwball comedy. I’ll never forget the feeling of exuberance at watching Clark Gable run to his boss at the newspaper to pitch a story about how he’s fallen in love with a princess, such energy, such emotion; I had never felt such a way from watching a movie before. It Happened One Night is the famous and most widely seen film of its genre and I believe it deserves such an accolade; something unforgettable is happening in every scene, whether funny or tender, jam-packed little details to spot on every viewing. It Happened One Night along with Twentieth Century gave birth to the screwball comedy, but it isn’t the only sub-genre it set a standard for. The runaway princess movie, the road movie and the newspaper comedy all owe their debts to it.

In his opening scene, Clark Gable is introduced as the king; couldn’t be more adapt. Watching the movie closely I can say that everything this man says is pure gold from his art of donut dunking, art of clothes removal, the different methods hitchhike signaling and his wall of Jericho. Then it dawned on me just how Seinfeldian this movie is. Much of Clark Gable’s dialogue in this movie could be a Jerry Seinfeld stand up routine. It’s easy to see how many screwball comedies have influenced modern day sitcoms; all that’s missing is the laugh track.

Claudette Colbert is one of the most famous incumbents of The Gable Treatment; what I like to call the macho manner in which Gable treats his leading ladies. Of course for any other actor to have this characteristic they would be an unlikable brute, but because it’s Gable it works. I also have to ask did the scene in which Gable eats a raw carrot while attempting to hitch-hike with his usual confidence and cockiness inspire Bugs Bunny? Ah Gable, has never ever existed a more charismatic human being?

Broadway Bill (1934)

A Day at the Races

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Broadway Bill is Frank Capra’s forgotten follow up to It Happened One Night, likely due to the film being out of circulation until the 1990’s and what a shame too. Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy are not romantic leads as she is his sister in law but both of them have great admiration for each other with Dan Brooks (Baxter) referring to her affectionately as The Princess and Loy clearly in love with the man and holding the same ideals as him but unable to go any further due to family ties; I find this dynamic is more interesting than a standard romance. Capra originally wanted Clark Gable in the lead role but had to settle with Warner Baxter who at least seems to be the next best thing as he holds much of the same rugged, footloose appeal of Gable.

Broadway Bill features many of the same Capra-isms as seen in his other films. The small town of Higginsvillie being run by business mogul J.L Higggins played by Walter Connolly is a much more light-hearted version of Mr Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. He is in control of his entire family who run his individual enterprises and even their own national bank as visualised in a gag in which the entire Higgin’s family proceed to eat dinner in perfect unison. They’re not the Rothschilds but they’re wealthy and powerful (“Higgins, that’s not a family, that’s a disease”). Yet at the end of the film J.L. gets rid of his businesses or as he puts it, gives back institutions to the people who founded them. Like the Sycamore family in You Can’t Take It With You, Dan Brooks want to leave behind his life of work in favour of leisure and enjoyment, ideals comparable to the counter-cultures of the 1960’s. After all what could be duller than running a paper box company? Unless you’re Seymour Skinner.

One of the most pivotal scenes in Broadway Bill involves one of the richest men in the world, J.P. Chase putting a $2 bet on Broadway Bill at 100/1 as a means to pass time will in hospital. When word gets out it spreads like wild-fire and the claims of what the amount of money he placed on the best become exaggerated from $2 to $20,000 to $50,000 all the way up to a quarter million. Simple message – don’t believe everything you hear.

I love Broadway Bill for its simple cheerful Innocence. This is one of several films which has managed to tug my heartstrings over the fate of a horse. One plot element even involves the horse Broadway Bill refusing to race because he doesn’t have his pet chicken called Skeeter. You wouldn’t find this kind of innocence today in a film which is supposedly made for adults.