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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

MEET JOHN DOE (1941)

Frank Capra’s first pic after leaving Columbia Pictures was something like a mash-up of his Greatest Hits. Favorite writer Robert Riskin returned for this tale of an average Joe (Gary Cooper) who gains a big radio following with a spiel of neighborly pablum only to learn he’s in danger of selling his soul to the fascist capitalist devils who are sponsoring him; it’s MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN THRU A GLASS DARKLY! The gal reporter who hitches her by-line to the rube, and then falls for the mug, has Barbara Stanwyck pinch-hitting in the Jean Arthur role; James Gleason gets the hard-nosed sentimentalist Walter Connolly, Lionel Stander & Thomas Mitchell limned going back to Capra/Riskin’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT/’34; Edward Arnold repeats as the politically connected news baron seen in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON/’39, and he’s still got his private police force. But something’s gone ‘off’ for Capra, as if he doesn’t believe in his stuff anymore. Take the centerpiece moment, the big ‘mission-statement’ where Cooper belatedly discovers what it’s all about. In DEEDS, it’s a moving vignette played out in near-silence between Coop & a desperate, and desperately hungry, gun-toting out-of-work man, a pantomime epiphany. Now, we get Regis Toomey, in a spiffy soda-jerk uniform, blathering on about neighborly goodness. In fact, the whole film blathers & dribbles along, sorely missing the old Capra speed & moxie. For the first time in his career, Capra feels politically and technically behind the times. And yet, in spite of the falling-off (maybe because of the falling off?), it’s all rather fascinating, politically & dramatically. Famously, Capra didn’t know how to finish the damn thing, writing & shooting four or five endings. But the real problem was all those John Doe’ers, all those ‘good’ little people. They’re as scary as the fat-cats and the Party-Line types! And Capra knows it, feels it; he just doesn’t know, dramatically, what to do with it. And a Christ parable without a sacrifice is, in the end, a cheat. Partner this up with two similarly flawed looks at power politics, the mob & the press, A FACE IN THE CROWD/’57 and NETWORK/’76 for a great debatable triple-bill.

NOTE; Lots of horrid Public Domain DVDs out there, so buyer beware. Image once had a decent edition, but it may not still be around.

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