December 29th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

It Really Doesn't Get Any More Film Noir than Meet John Doe (SPOILERS)

In 1941, well before the US officially entered the war against fascism, Gary Cooper and a very young (and sexy) Barbara Stanwyck starred in a movie in which the "Machine" (majority) wing of the Democratic Party aligned itself with the Republican Party, organized crime, organized religion, all three major media networks, all the major newspaper syndicates, and several wealthy American CEOs, conspiring at length to overthrow democracy and institute a fascist takeover of America, a plot that was only barely and perhaps not permanently thwarted when our heroes realize what they've been duped into and defect. It wasn't an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, nor was it an adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. It was Frank Capra's movie, Meet John Doe.

So many people look down on Frank Capra for making only schmaltzy, feel good movies that I can only assume that none of them have seen this movie. If they did, they obviously didn't fully understand it, because if you know a little bit about 1930s/40s politics and pay close attention, what you have here is an even darker, grimmer, more precise, and more terrifying exploration of American capitalist and political corruption than Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

In the very opening scenes, we see the idealistic motto of a medium-city newspaper being chiseled off to make room for a motto promising "a streamlined newspaper for a streamlined age." By "streamlined" what they mean is all of the classic 1930s muckrakers and their friends fired to make room for a smaller and more pliant crew of pro-capitalist suck-ups. "Ladies Column" writer Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) doesn't care about muckraking, she just desperately needs the job to support her widowed mother and younger sisters, so in her last outgoing column she almost by accident cooks up the ultimate circulation scheme: a suicide letter from John Doe. The part she didn't anticipate is that the city's Machine Democrat leadership is embarrassed by this guy's threat to make his suicide a political statement against city corruption by leaping from the skyscraper top of city hall; the city's Republican party desperately wants to buy this guy off and make him go away because he's also criticizing corporate corruption; the city's wealthy people want to adopt him as a pet because they heard about him on the front page. So Mitchell fast talks her new editor into hiring her back, paying her blackmail money not to expose the hoax, and hiring the best looking street bum they can find to pretend to be the John Doe who wrote the letter. Now, the new columns that she ghost writes under this guy's name and picture continue denouncing corruption, and continue threatening to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. The injured minor league baseball player they hire to impersonate John Doe (Gary Cooper) signs a contract for them to cover his and his hobo friend's living expenses, plus a weekly stipend, plus enough money to pay a surgeon to fix his injured arm so he can go back to baseball, in exchange for the use of his face and for him to disappear completely out of town on December 26th, presumably so they can fake his suicide.

D.B. Norton: "These are daring times, Mr. Barrington. There's a new order of things coming. There's been too much talk going on. Too many concessions being made. What the people need is an iron hand." (murmured agreement) "Discipline!" (unanimous loud agreement)
But it snowballs completely out of control when Ann, desperate to find something for him to be for, is given her late (Progressive) father's diaries and starts writing inspirational speeches that move hundreds of millions of people to tears. Most people who see this movie focus only on the fairly shallow religious themes, and completely miss the fascinating political and economic subtext; I think Capra intended us to think that Ann has missed it, too. So the wealthy oil company CEO who bought the paper and fired all the muckrakers in the first place, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) inexplicably suddenly becomes John Doe's biggest fan, under-writing an entire John Doe movement, tens of thousands of John Doe Clubs, all over America ... and ups Ann's salary substantially in the process. In the end, we find out why. From its beginning, the John Doe movement has excluded politicians of all three parties (Machine Democrat, Reform Democrat, and Republican) for not being "ordinary Joes." Behind the scenes, we find out at the end of the movie, what Norton has done is made it clear to all of the rest of the powers that currently rule America that he is now more popular and more powerful than any of them ... because in addition to having funded the John Doe Clubs, he's bribed John Doe's speech writer to get John Doe to stand up, in front of the first ever John Doe Clubs Convention and on live national radio, and endorse D.B. Norton as the candidate of the new John Doe Party. Having presented them with this fait accompli, he matched a carrot to his stick: if the Machine Democrats and the Republicans will throw the election to him, and the radio networks and newspaper franchises will endorse him and the Catholic Church will endorse him, and organized labor and organized crime lend him the shock troops he needs to make his coup d'etat complete, he will guarantee them all a seat at the table. The Republican official, "Mr. Barrington," warns that D.B. is playing with political dynamite, the kind of thing that could backfire on everybody in the room. Norton assures him that every possible avenue of failure has been covered, and besides, their victory is assured. Because, as we see in the meeting in which they finally let Ann in as a (suddenly obviously uncomfortable) member of their conspiracy, the one thing that everybody in the room agrees upon is that the Great Depression is still going on, 12 years after it started, because what America really needs is fewer dissenting voices and a ruler with a "firm hand."

John Doe finds out about this and tries to stop them. The journalists collude to expose him for his part in the original fraud, and when it becomes obvious that the Does are going to hear him out anyway, they send in their union and mafia thugs to create a riot. Doe escapes and goes back on the run, haunted by the memory of all the decent people that he innocently let himself be duped into hurting. So in an attempt to salve his conscience, he sneaks past multiple guards (including his only remaining friends) into city hall on Christmas Eve day, to keep the fake John Doe's promise to the city, to offer himself up as a sacrifice to integrity. Norton and his cronies, afraid that this would happen, catch him and warn him that it won't do him any good. Go ahead and jump, they tell him - the cops work for us. Your body will be defaced beyond recognition, your IDs and any papers destroyed, and your unidentified body will be buried in an unmarked grave in the pauper's field; nobody will ever know about your sacrifice. But Ann has bullied the local John Doe Club into helping her break into City Hall, too, and delirious with fever she begs John not to kill himself, to stay with her, to try one more time to make the Does work. He accedes, as much to save her life as because he believes her, and the local John Does take him in ... not as the John Doe, but as what he really is now, just another ground-down ordinary guy who needs his neighbors or he won't make it, and who has a few things to offer. As a John Doe. Norton and his goons let them leave, obviously convinced that the Does will never amount to anything without Norton's money propping them up. We are left, as the audience, to hope otherwise.

That's a feel-good movie, one that only shows America's good side? Or is there another Frank Capra that I don't even know about?

And by the way, the economic analysis in this movie interests me at least as much. In 1941, it was a fair question why in the heck, after years of the New Deal, was the Great Depression still lingering in so many places? Why were so many people still out of work and riding the rails or on relief? The Machine wing of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party did agree, whether they were in collusion or not, that what was needed was for the country's rulers to have a freer hand to do what they wanted without public criticism, and if their only point of disagreement was as to who was going to pick America's fuhrer, organized labor and crime or corporate CEOs, well, that pretty much leaves America screwed, doesn't it? But what Capra shows us as an alternative is that, at first only in a handful of towns but then across the country, what people found out was that they, themselves were the reason that the Great Depression was still going on ... because they were afraid of each other, because they distrusted each other. After John Doe's speeches about how the ordinary, non-ruling people of America needed to reach out to each other and help each other, some of them started to do so ... and accidentally kick-started their local economies, creating islands of accidental prosperity in the middle of Depression-era poverty. At one point in the movie, a Welfare administrator complains that if the John Doe Clubs keep expanding, everybody will be off relief, and he'll be out of a job!

Would it have worked? Hard to say. In the real world, it never really got tried. But it corresponds well with the latest applications of mathematical games theory to economics. Microeconomics is now modeled as a series of exchanges in which, for example, you and I exchange things where what I have is more valuable to you than it is to me, and vice versa. In an economy where everybody trusts each other and nobody cheats, such exchanges proliferate and everybody makes out like a bandit. If enough people cheat to create the perception that everybody cheats, then honest exchanges stop altogether, and while nobody loses anything to crooks, nobody gains anything either. How I read the political and economic analysis in this movie is that the one thing that all the great and powerful in this world agree upon is that you shouldn't trust each other, that you should fear all strangers, and that you should depend upon them to guide you through a dangerous world and protect you. And that they're lying.

(Tomorrow: An artist who's hated by liberals and hipsters and literati for his falsely-perceived mawkish sentimentality even more than they despise Frank Capra, and why he just might have left us the keys to save not just the Democratic Party, but America itself.)