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”?

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!

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?