The heart of politics is not policy but people. Frank Capra’s lesser-known Christmas-themed film, Meet John Doe (1941), not only proves this point but more importantly, gets to the heart of what it means to be an authentic American.
Much like Capra’s other films, Meet John Doe celebrates “the everyman” as a character people can relate to and perhaps even aspire to be. Although the stars of the film are Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, Capra’s film titles open with scenes of ordinary Americans hard at work. They come from all walks of life, and they are trying to make ends meet. The Depression still looms large. People are unemployed, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.
Stanwyck plays Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist, who was recently fired. She’s not the only one with a pink slip, however. A new editor, Henry Connell (James Gleason) has been hired by the newspaper’s publisher, D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) to clean house. The paper is not doing well, and it needs something fresh and fast.
According to Connell, Ann’s writing is too feminine and there’s no room at The Bulletin for her “lavender and lace” columns. Naturally overtaken by anger, Ann writes her last column. It is a fake letter written by a fake “John Doe” stating that he is fed up and disappointed with civilization, and intends to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, in protest of the decline of America.
The letter is a hit! The nation is taken by one man’s desire to end it all. Ann is rehired and she sells the idea to Connell to stretch this enterprise all the way to Christmas Eve, boosting the circulation of the newspaper. Without a doubt, Ann is an opportunist, although the film makes clear that she is motivated to take this step by altruistic motives as she is trying to be the breadwinner for her mother and two “kid sisters.”
What happens next is something the newspaper management did not anticipate. Dozens of tramps show up at the paper’s offices, claiming to have written the letter. Ann cooks up another idea: to present “John Doe” to the world and announce he will now “write” a column at The Bulletin called “I Protest!” and thereby arouse in the people their shared complaints about the state of the country.
As the homeless men come and go, Ann finds most of them unsuitable for the job. But then enters John Willoughby (Gary Cooper). Cooper, who can convey anger, sadness, and humor in just one look, as Willoughby is an out of work baseball player who comes to the paper looking for a job. Willoughby didn’t seek to sell himself as the author of the letter but Ann offers John a deal he can’t refuse: do what they say and get medical help to fix his injured arm so he has hope of continuing to play baseball.
“John Doe” becomes the most talked about man in America. People love him. He moves from newspaper to radio to the lecture circuit, delivering great speeches of American optimism as well as anger against the elites and the state of the world. They—the media—have created him! And yet throughout this entire time, Willoughby feels conflicted. Willoughby is always accompanied by another tramp, a friend he calls “The Colonel” (Walter Brennan). In a way, he serves as Willoughby’s conscience, reminding him that no good can came from this immoral fakery.
Willoughby is ready to quit the entire racket, but events overtake him. His personality and the things he said at the beginning of this charade start a “John Doe Club” movement. People are inspired to take control of their country by the things Willoughby said and politicians are not allowed to join the club. Willoughby is moved by this and decides to continue giving life to this persona. But the final straw comes at the end when D. B. Norton sees an opportunity for himself.
Recognizing the social movement John Doe has created Norton pounces and introduces politics into the mix—creating a third political party. Willoughby’s final act in this play will be to endorse Norton for the United States presidency. Willoughby cannot accept this, and so in an ironic twist of fate, he decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve.
The late, great radio host Rush Limbaugh used to say that if media creates you, it can also destroy you—and Capra’s film certainly demonstrates this truism as well. Is a man living a lie truly in possession of his own sovereignty? John Willoughby proves in the end that he is. His inner freedom cannot be taken away, even if he is homeless or imprisoned.
Meet John Doe is not only about personal freedom. It is also about authenticity and fakery. At the beginning, Ann is interested only in exploiting Willoughby: “He’s a baseball player? What can be more American than that?” But what kind of fake is John Doe? The American people were entirely energized and inspired by the ideas that he presented, and shouldn’t that be the most important thing? Shouldn’t the message take precedence over the messenger?
At the same time, what do we lose when we find out that the source of a temporary inspiration was a faker? Isn’t the authenticity of deeds more important to the American people than the authenticity of words? Speeches can move emotional mountains, but the proof is always in the acts.
Whom do we trust? This is the question of our time and Meet John Doe mirrors the American experience of today. We live in a world where substance—be it intellectual or political—is woefully missing. Just when we think that we may have found a source of knowledge and moral steadiness, the proverbial rug is pulled out from under our feet, and we feel duped. To engage in fakery easier today than ever, and it seems we’re always on the lookout for a few good men and women who can provide not only a “lighthouse” (as Connell mentions in the film in reference to the America’s founders) but also some sense of stability.
Of course, this stability must come from a being higher than one of human creation. In the end, this is the strongest point Capra’s film makes explicit, especially at the end, as Christmas Day approaches. Man is not the measure of all things, and it is only when God’s wisdom is the foundation of man’s being and existence that we live authentically in both words and deeds, face to face with the people He created.