Friday, December 24, 2010

The Invisible Man Is Finally Caught in the End

Meet John Doe is Frank Capra’s highly ambitious and complex examination of American society and politics, especially the powerful relationship between the news media and public opinion.  Without being willing to break completely from the optimistic and reassuring tendencies of his previously successful movies, the director was not fully prepared for a serious and provocative film about the function of media in American life, and the extent to which it could even threaten American democracy.  Some of the reluctance to go all the way in revealing, and condemning, the regular use of propaganda in American life is perhaps related to what Frank Capra could get away with in the early 1940s, before America’s entry into World War II.  He is on tricky ground as an immigrant, a Roman Catholic, and a patriotic American.  The director is trying to make a courageous movie, while simultaneously using his established techniques of emotional reassurance and thematic optimism to shape the audience’s reactions to a disturbing story about mass manipulation.  Capra wants to provoke and reassure at the same time.  It is a difficult balance for the director.  The scene of John Doe’s potential suicide on the top floor of the town hall was a new, much bleaker scene for Capra, though it would not be the last time that the director would combine Christmas and the real possibility of suicide by a main character.  But his attempts to emotionally reassure the audience that all could still be right in America are unsuccessful because of the serious flaws in the movie, and a lack of self-awareness by the director.   The need for reassurance churns, with increasing desperation towards the end of the movie, through a cycle, and recycle, of patriotic and religious themes, songs, and a second round of testimony by the John Doe disciples.  This is all in an effort to walk back the potentially convicting message of his film for American society.  Capra pulls out all the stops on the organ to sing a happy tune on Christmas Eve.  The director throws everything at the wall to see what kind of optimistic message will still stick, at the end of his troubling and potentially very important movie.  Capra himself seems unconvinced about his closing message and scene, and this is evident in the multiple endings he explored and actually shot.  The usual triumph of the heart over the head, faith over doubt, and goodness over evil, in Capra’s movies is unsuccessful in Meet John Doe.  The viewer who takes Capra’s cinematic criticism of American society seriously should then view many central elements of American life with increased critical thinking and skepticism, especially the categories of patriotism, religion, and films making itself.  This would have been a worthy end for Meet John Doe.  But Capra tried to save the romance of Ann Mitchell and John Doe, and instead he lost his message, and his focus, with the Christmas carols and ringing bells of the happy ending we didn’t need, or really want.   Capra was unwilling to go all the way with his media message of national warning, and the director attempted, unsuccessfully, to create a sacrosanct thematic area for his Christian piety and patriotism to inhabit and comingle.            
The opening scenes of Meet John Doe reveal a good deal about Frank Capra’s ambition here, which is a worthy one—the study of the collective American psyche.  What are we all about?  The montage of American scenes during the opening credits shows a wide variety of images from daily American life.  The footage reveals Americans doing what they do every day, at work and at leisure.  The ordinary crowds, the convergence of the American masses, are the subject of this film, and Capra is artfully blurring the lines of non-fiction and his fictional story with the footage.  Or more precisely, Meet John Doe has the feel of a documentary about the United States in its inception.  This movie is going to be about real Americans, and what makes them tick.  The nation is vital and growing, but undefined.  America is unfinished, and will remain so.  Great masses of people are living their lives together, going to work and raising their kids.  But somehow the flowing images don’t categorize or define America; there is a kind of neutrality about the playing scenes by Capra.   What America really is becomes elusive.  The marching West Point cadets could be either a source of national pride or concern—an image of precise discipline or blind conformity, or a troubling combination of both.  Should we be worried about them or proud of them?  Soon they will be at war.  But there is no judgment from Capra.  Should we be worried about America or proud of her?  Where have we been?  Where are we going in the next few years?  People going to baseball games seem to be having a good time, but what really brings all of these people together?  What do they have in common?  What does it mean to be an American?  Capra is asking all of these questions before his story even begins, but he isn’t answering them, not yet.  In none of the scenes is there a famous person or recognizable politician.  This movie is going to be about ordinary Americans, the average person, Capra is telling us in one of his most unusual openings to a film.  This advent of images works very effectively in Meet John Doe.  The last scene in the montage is a nursery with babies.  The movie is ready to explore where Americans get their identity, and where we learn who we are.  Capra begins his film ready to explore the touchstone cultural elements that unite, or potentially divide, the American people.  The image of the babies as a culmination of the montage highlights the inexorable reality of change.  America is always changing, and always searching for the constants in our midst.  Where we find them is the problem that Meet John Doe intends to explore.          
As if to answer, in preliminary fashion, his implicit question about how the American identity is formed, the story begins with the sign outside the local newspaper, The Bulletin.  The setting is unnamed.  It is not a small town, but it is not one of our familiar big cities either.  We are somewhere in between, and the unnamed metropolis is growing up, getting bigger every day.  Americans are getting their identities from newspapers, for better or worse, and significant change is in the air at the start of the story.  The times are changing.  The stone sign, an ostensible landmark of cultural permanence, is being erased by a jackhammer.  These are the first real sounds of the film.  It doesn’t take long for everything that seemed to be permanent to change in America.  Without a word of dialogue, or an introduction to the characters, we learn that nothing is forever.  Our own current environment of sagging media profits and closing newspapers is an even greater atmosphere of change.  Meet John Doe is absolutely relevant to Americans today with our medium of the Internet.  What will the increasingly sensational media do to spark interest and create profits now?  How will it affect American political life?   
Everything changes in the afternoon with the arrival of the new managing editor, the hardboiled Henry Connell, and the sign symbolism of change is doubled with Beany comically attempting to change the name on Connell’s new office door.  Connell is the hatchet man of the mysterious D.B. Norton, the wealthy oil man who has bought a newspaper.  Heads are falling at the local paper.  American historical figures like William Randolph Hearst, or today’s Rupert Murdoch, are invoked by the ambiguous and shadowy character of Norton.  A wealthy and powerful man is going to make newspapers turn a profit for a change, but something more sinister seems to be afoot in the local news room.  The casualties of the change are mounting.  The documentary style beginning of Meet John Doe and the subject of American journalism are evocative of Citizen Kane, which also had a mixed reaction in the same year as Capra’s offering.  Both films were ahead of their time, and Welles’ status as a novice might have helped him paradoxically.  In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was much more unorthodox and less willing to follow the rules of film making at the time.  Capra is also clearly exploring new territory, but as a veteran film maker with established and successful formulas.  He tries to use his old techniques of emotional reassurance about American values despite the darker message and subject of Meet John Doe in comparison with his earlier films.  Meet John Doe should not be a movie of reassurance fundamentally.  But then Capra likely would have been accused of being unpatriotic, which was an issue he was very sensitive about.  In Meet John Doe, Capra pulls his punches.    
The darkness of subject and the wonderful lightness of Capra’s comic touches are present in the very first scene.  Both are present in the news room firings.  Capra makes us wait to understand D.B. Norton’s motive for buying a newspaper, though his name is in the air before his arrival.  But we get to meet the characters who make The Bulletin every day—or used to make The Bulletin, before this black afternoon.  The first thing we see is the personal cost of people losing their jobs.  A young boy whistles to indicate the people who are getting the ax, and those who will live to work another day.  The scene is heartless, but it also cut down to size by the mere child, though certainly not an innocent, giving the throat cutting gesture as he reads the names of the paper’s employees.  The scene isn’t as menacing as it could be.  As mentioned, the entire first scene is also a comic gag for Beany working on the editor’s door during all the activity.  Any movie, or newspaper, that can have a clown like Beany around can’t be all that scary.  There is a vigorous and engaging mixture of tone, both dark and lightly comic, and the slapstick element is stronger than the sinister house cleaning.  Henry Connell is formidable in the brave world of The New Bulletin, but you can also talk back to him, tell him off, vandalize his new door, and then manipulate him with a great idea (while Beany has to get an entire new pane of glass).  All of this Ann Mitchell does in the first scene.
Meet Ann Mitchell: Where the Problems Begin
                This movie is really about Ann Mitchell, more so than John Doe or the ardent followers of his pseudo Christian populism.  You can’t take your eyes off the sultry Stanwyck, the creative genius behind the central hoax of the film.  The audience and the male characters are drawn towards her—both her intelligence and the good looks.  Both are in ample supply in such a skinny package.   She also doesn’t have any rivals on the screen.  There really are no other female characters in the film, which seems like an obvious point.  Yet Stanwyck’s Mitchell has so much energy and sex appeal that she never seems outnumbered.  With all of the talk about the so-called average man in this movie, Capra slyly presents the audience with his strongest and most disturbing female character to date.   She changes the air around her, electrically.  There is a disturbance in the force.  Ann Mitchell becomes a woman on the make, a talented opportunist.  But that’s not what she is in the beginning.  Mitchell starts as an ordinary girl Friday that is losing her job, just like the other folks at the paper.  She is no different, and there is the implication that her column was rather dull and pedestrian before the crisis—that it had no “fireworks.”  In the newsroom scene, Capra has us witness several very important things about Ann Mitchell (besides the fact that she is really hot).  First, the audience is aware of the absolute clarity and rightness of her initial motivation to not take her firing lying down.  She has a mother and two little sisters to support.  There is nothing immoral about her initial motive, and she is admirable in her gutsiness.  We are the witnesses to where and when the lie of John Doe begins; the audience approves of her at the beginning of the film, without any reservation.  The audience can’t help but admire her creative desperation, and wily improvisation, as she writes “the old fakeroo,” the suicide letter by John Doe.  If you’re going to get fired, you might as well go out with a bang.  An intelligent woman simply makes up a man, on the spot, who gathers a nation’s attention.  She dashes off her last column, and it is a short and succinct work of genius.  But we also see a second and softer side to her character; we see her comfort old Joe, the printer who has also lost his job.  Mitchell is initially presented as a humane and sympathetic figure in these early sides to her character. 
But from the very beginning, Ann Mitchell is set aside as smarter than the men around her.  This display of versatile and quick intelligence in a female reporter, the ability to think on one’s feet, was also present in Gallagher from Platinum Blonde, and certainly Babe Bennett in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  But Loretta Young and Jean Arthur are wholesome and reassuring female figures in the work place.  They are better suited to Capra’s style, especially the way he builds up the romantic hopes of an audience for his main characters despite their many obstacles and differences.  Though Bennett’s and Gallagher’s intelligence may range creatively over new possibilities and storylines in their work, they know their place in the world of men.   They don’t rock the boat.  They are independent when they can get away with it, but subordinate when they need to be.   They are smart.  They are both very attractive, but not disturbingly so.  On a different level for a Capra woman, Stanwyck seizes control from the men around her.  Her fast head and sexy body work together, seamlessly, as a most formidable tandem in motion.  Barbara Stanwyck has a far different effect in the movie than Arthur or Young in theirs with Capra.  Stanwyck has a far different effect on the male characters of Meet John Doe.  She calls Connell a “lunkhead” in the newsroom, which also serves to humanize the editor—to bring him down to size.  His humanity becomes very important as the film progresses, so it serves two purposes early on.  If Connell really wants “fireworks,” just let this vixen loose on the world, which he does against his better judgment.  Ann Mitchell is uppity, but, more importantly, she provides a sexy sizzle in all of her scenes.  Saying yes to her, against one’s better judgment, has something to do with a stronger charge, registering in a nether region that the male brain cannot control rationally.  Mitchell sits languorously in Connell’s office, even slouches in just the mere hint of the horizontal option, as she gets him to do exactly what she wants.  This is not the last time she will use her slinky slouch when she is alone with an important man who has the keys to the kingdom.  She gets all of the men to do exactly what she wants, and John Doe is the most smitten of all, but also the least equipped to understand her rationally—what she is all about.  Her degree of sex appeal and her cleverness are a new combination for Capra.  As Gary Cooper himself says to Stanwyck in the movie Ball of Fire, the problem of her effect on others is that her intelligent brain is attached to a “very disturbing body.” 
Capra has created a femme fatale, one who produces a disturbing unrest around her.  The director doesn’t know quite what to do with her as the movie progresses, as Pandora’s Box is opened.  This said, she is also the most compelling character in the film.  In one of the mysteries of womanhood and sexuality, Ann Mitchell is a reminder that you can be attracted sexually to the person you actively dislike personally, and both feelings can increase the other.  You can’t treat Barbara Stanwyck like a sweet, wholesome girl next door who just happens to be in love with her dead father.  It doesn’t matter how much she tickles her sweet sisters in their pajamas.  It doesn’t matter how cute her little dog is.  Ann Mitchell is a dangerous character, and she becomes the shameless author of a propaganda campaign.  Even though Connell is unable to figure out what Norton is up to in buying the newspaper, Mitchell says, early in the film, that Norton wants to “crash national politics.”  This is not a complex idea; it is no great mystery.  Mitchell reads the tea leaves from the beginning.  Ann Mitchell and the audience thus move into this propaganda role for her with wide open eyes.  This is what it means to sell out.  Only Capra seems to close his own eyes as the director, and to not recognize that our emotional needs for this character may preclude a happy romantic union at the end.  We may not need the Christmas bells and sentimental religion which are better reserved for George and Mary Bailey. 
Putting the final and explicit Christian message of the film’s poor ending on Mitchell’s lips shows a lack of awareness by the director, one which makes for a highly flawed conclusion to a powerful film.  Putting a head covering on Ann Mitchell (instead of the fancy, expensive hats) and throwing in the requisite Christmas carols does not suddenly make her into the Virgin Mary, or even a penitent Mary Magdalene.  Playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for a third time isn’t going to work either.  Despite the clarity of her incipient motivation for her family, and the fact that she has a nice and sweet mother, Ann Mitchell goes over to the dark side, and Capra doesn’t realistically bring her back.  Capra presents her progress, or rather moral regress towards power and money, but he doesn’t track its full significance in what the audience might want from her character.  Without effectively showing her conversion in his confused closing scenes, Capra assumes we want romance out of a movie that has dealt with much more troubling themes than romantic love.  The boy and the girl don’t have to get together.  The emotional needs of the audience might even want the suicide of John Doe, though more explicit Christology from the director is not an appetizing idea.  The buildup of “crucifixion” talk in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington becomes tiresome and is overly simplistic.  In a more successful decision a few scenes earlier, Capra rightly predicts that we don’t want Gary Cooper to open the car door for Ann Mitchell, as she tells him lies about what she didn’t know (she did).  “I had no idea what was going on,” she tries to tell John.  Though Mitchell is possibly unaware of the scheduled meeting of political leaders during the convention, she has already been established as too intelligent a character not to guess what her benefactor is up to.  Her conversion is incomplete and inauthentic, even as she goes home for the implied heart to heart with her mother, and more time with the little dog and pajama sisters.  There is no personal accounting, or real moral reckoning, for what her thirst for money and power has done to her.  It is also never effectively clarified whether she is in love with her father, the John Doe she made up (with the help of her dead father), or John Willoughby the actual person.  Has it really been established that she is love with anyone?    
As mentioned in an earlier paper, in a truly unfortunate aside, it was said that Jean Arthur could make Eva Braun seem wholesome, and even sympathetic.  With Ann Mitchell’s character and D.B. Norton’s obvious proto-fascism, Capra has moved, quite clearly, into the territory of Leni Riefenstahl, the brilliant propagandist and film maker for Adolf Hitler.  Mitchell is not a sympathetic character with these overtones, but Capra proceeds as if she were one.  To compare her to Nazis may seem, at first inspection, to be radically unfair as an observation.  Yet it is an obvious intimation in the film, one that Capra himself stirs, suggestively, in the implied leaps of logic.  If D.B. Norton is a fascist, then what, or who, would his right hand “man” be?  Only a fascist would have motorcycle cops and use a whistle when he needs them (why not just use flying monkeys and be absolutely clear?).  His John Doe plan of non-political populism is a Trojan Horse of “iron hand” oligarchy, and Ann Mitchell is complicit, and aware, of what he is doing, even if she is not privy to the actual details until the dining room scene.  She knew exactly why he was interested in the newspaper business.  When questioned by Norton in his office about what she wanted, Mitchell responded, “Make money.”  This is a kind of duplication of the scene with Connell at the beginning, but the stakes are higher, the moral implications much stronger and darker.  The original motives for Mitchell are more distant.  Again, Capra gives her a kind of reclining power by seating her, seductively.  Norton is standing, and then sitting on his desk, casually.  There is a sexual undercurrent in the scene, and Norton is both using it and being used by it.  When told, near the film’s climax, that she has to write a speech for John Doe announcing Norton’s third party candidacy, she responds with a “Wow,” then writes the speech.  She doesn’t excuse herself for reason of conscience, or moral principle.  Mitchell is seated, and Norton is standing, but now they have an audience of the most powerful men in America.  Mitchell gets it, and she looks fabulous in her new diamond bracelet.  Only a fool, like John Doe, would see the John Doe convention as something other than a political opportunity.  Everything about the rainy scene looks just like a political convention.    Mitchell isn’t upset about the unveiling of the oligarch’s master plan until her stooge crashes the party, and she finally sees herself through his eyes.  All of this needs much more work.    
Ann Mitchell is absolutely morally compromised as a character.  If D.B. Norton is a bad guy, she might be worse because she uses what is most sacred to her for his ends.  She’s the one who makes the propaganda for the man who would be king.  While her intelligence has been duly praised here, it also must not be exaggerated.  Though she is an opportunist who uses her sexy guile relentlessly, she is, apparently, not that good as a speech writer.  When it comes to encouraging the cult like human behavior of the creepy John Doe movement, she can’t find the right message on her own.  So, what she can’t think up on her own she plagiarizes from her father’s diary.  She doesn’t hesitate to turn to the “cliff notes” of Christianity, even as she is the person most aware of the true intentions of D.B. Norton.
It is hard to know what to do with Ann Mitchell, but John Doe explicitly clarifies what she needs, as if reading our minds.  So, what does she really need?  The most interesting scene of the film between Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck is when he relates his recent dream to her.  He is seated in her hotel room, but she has the authority, for now, and she often turns her back on John to pack her suitcase as he tells her the strange dream.  The dream shows both his love and his confusion, both physical and mental.  The dream is convoluted and yet crystal clear in its central action: John Willoughby wants to spank Ann Mitchell.  Who doesn’t?  He doesn’t have a clue who Leni Riefenstahl is, and he doesn’t care.  The dream is told, without explanation or interpretation, because it doesn’t need it.  The dream spills forth from John in seemingly irrational segments--of a chase that eventually ends up at a church altar.  In the dream, John is nearly interchangeable with her father, but he also plays the part of minister at her wedding.  This is all before he starts whacking the minx where she needs it the most.  The mixture of sexual attraction and anger, both real and comic, is pitch perfect.   Capra lets the scene roll, and wander, in a fascinating freedom that is unlike any scene in any movie so far.  It is almost uncomfortably long, and John’s desire has no real resolution in the film, except in the verbal expression alone.  This is one of the many moments where Gary Cooper is a perfect cast in his simplicity, clumsily moving towards the sophistication he will need to survive the day.  A male counterpart to Stanwyck played by a Cary Grant would have been able to understand, and penetrate, the sassy and sexy mystery of Ann Mitchell with just a single urbane glance.  He would have put her in her place.  The charming man of the world would have already known a black book full of women like Ann Mitchell.  But Cooper is wonderfully out of his element—they are never equals, not even close.  Capra uses this to comic effect continually, while showing the genuine, serious moral confusion in his male character at the same time.  John Willoughby wants what he can’t understand, and the audience doesn’t want her to become more psychologically manageable for him either.  It’s too rich the way it is.  If Mitchell were tamed, she wouldn’t be as interesting.   It is a compelling dilemma, with an unconvincing resolution.              
There can be no doubt that Capra has created interesting, and very memorable, characters in Meet John Doe, a movie that lingers in mind’s eye long after viewing it.  This is especially true when it comes to Gary Cooper’s portrayal of John Willoughby.  John Doe and the other male characters are necessary to balance the electric energy of Ann Mitchell.  The moral confusion is powerful in Cooper, and the early climax of his reasonable fears and doubts is the speech given over the radio.  A moral, likeable, and wholesome character is asked to be part of a hoax, a fraud on an increasingly large scale.   What he’s doing isn’t right, and he knows it.  Initially in the newsroom, his moral reservations are overcome by hunger.  He literally faints in his anointing scene as John Doe.  Who could blame him for going forward with the plan?  It’s either that or starvation.  Before and during the speech, the camera searches the face of John Willoughby for his true feelings, which are highly conflicted.  He is rightly nervous, but there is also genuine terror in his face.  Only the Colonel (and the audience) really understands the degree of his conflict.  John is in genuine pain; the moral conflict is an almost physical agony.  He is ready to take $5000 from The Chronicle by telling the truth about who he is.  Or is that selling out at this point?  After a painfully slow beginning with the microphone and his frayed nerves, John Doe begins to read his text.  Capra’s creation of the collective audience is even more advanced here than the courtroom scenes of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  The addition of a national radio audience, through the technology that is unwieldy for Doe as he delivers the speech, is symbolized by seeing Norton’s rapt servants listen to the radio and the new gospel of the common man.  Norton sees what we see, and his mind is swiftly turning.  Whatever reservations the audience might have had about the hoax early on, they are now likely rooting for John, even as the movie audience is initially skeptical about what this nerve wracked man will possibly say.  Despite the moral division of John Willoughby, something happens during the speech that changes him.  He really becomes John Doe.  He becomes the new champion of the common man.  It is a kind of religious conversion that is both powerful and disturbing in its energy of growing conviction.  He believes what he is reading.  How can a lie be so truthful?  This is the central paradox of the movie.  The long silence after the speech is quite effective; the several beat delay of reaction--as everyone is fully digesting the first radio message by the man in the papers.  The message resonates powerfully with American hearts, and minds.  When the applause finally comes, it is a waterfall of affirmation.  John Doe is a real man now, even as he runs for the door.  Frankenstein’s monster is alive.  Even though John thinks that he’s done with the world after the speech, the world isn’t done with him.  The glorious fraud is just getting started.      
The deep affirmation of the John Doe myth is not limited to the applause in the studio.  As John and the Colonel hit the hobo trail again, the new man of the people cannot escape what has been let loose on the radio.  From the diner to the town hall in Millville, Capra explores that fame cannot be escaped, or walked back, once it has been let loose in the national media.  The collective applause moves on to individual testimony by Burt Hanson (and other new disciples) who tells John Doe: “You’re a wonderful man.”  Cooper’s silent reactions to the testimony are probed by the camera, and the range of emotions that cross his face are extraordinary.  Cooper’s face shows the doubts and guilt about his role in the hoax with the portraits of Lincoln and Washington looming in the background.  The legitimate doubts of Doe are overcome by the growing testimony that his gospel of the average man is literally changing lives in their community.  The only doubting Thomas is still the Colonel.  Though the Colonel’s anger at human behavior, materialism, and hypocrisy are righteous and correct most of the time, it is also hard to take him seriously, which is Capra’s intention.  He doesn’t want his doubting Thomas to be too effective, but he wants the doubts to be expressed and registered.  Even as he gives voice to the doubts of the audience, Capra relegates the Colonel  to role of the sidekick clown in his paranoid ravings about “Heelots.”     
                The comedy of the film also helps to make John Willoughby an even more sympathetic and compelling character, even as the film explores his serious moral crisis.  The comic scenes are highly effective in presenting whimsy and imagination in the character of John Doe.  His puzzled response to the nude statue in his hotel room is a quirky and funny early moment, one which invokes the sexual confusion of Doe.  Capra does this without even placing Mitchell in the room, and without Cooper saying a word.  Is it wrong to fondle a naked female statue?  Cooper extends just a finger in a tentative exploration.  It is a moral puzzle on a small level, but it underscores his other sources of confusion on a much larger scale, and eventually a national stage.  But here Capra’s touch is light as a feather, as it is in the imaginary baseball scene.  It takes a few throws to realize that the baseball players don’t even have a ball.  They are just pretending.  This is the moment when Capra, perhaps ironically and ever so lightly, is touching upon his own role as a film maker, the invisible man who directs our minds and emotions through the medium of film.  What does it mean to pretend long enough that a movie becomes a reality?  The director, like John Doe in the hotel room, makes a story become a real and living thing where people can laugh and cry, get upset, and be exalted, sometimes more powerfully than they do at life itself.  In this way a director is like God.  Capra had to be aware of the irony of manipulating the audience in a movie about manipulating the American people.  The baseball game comes closest to showing Capra’s wry amusement about his own medium. 
Mass Manipulation Includes Patriotism, Religion, and Film Making
Meet John Doe is a complex study of the media and how Americans can be manipulated through sensational journalism, in print, on the radio, and potentially through television.  Despite the complexity of the study of mass manipulation, the film also presents a simplistic view of the world where politics and politicians are tainted or just plain foolish.  Mayor Lovett, with his paranoia about seagulls, and the Mayor of Millville are comic characters; they are figures of folly.  Journalists can be hardboiled, and clearly unethical in the All American pursuit of profit, but politicians are either devils or fools (with the exception of Jefferson Smith).  Because the John Doe movement purports to be non-political, it is somehow purified in its growing power to manipulate human behavior because it is bringing people together, seemingly without an agenda. 
The world view of Meet John Doe is clearly one where politics is corrupt, but religion and patriotism somehow are not.  This is an important distinction because these are the two areas which Capra most directly uses to manipulate his own audience.  There is a lack of awareness by the director in how religion and narratives of nationalism are used to influence and manipulate human beings, just as he is using them in the film with his invisible guidance of the audience.  The fullest declaration of patriotism comes from Henry Connell, at the bar on the night of the convention.   Because he’s drunk, there is a comic element to the scene (the cigarette gag), one which potentially might make us question how seriously we’re supposed to take what Connell has to say.  But this doesn’t seem to be Capra’s intention.   Connell shares how deeply he loves his country, and how powerfully just the national anthem affects him emotionally.  Perhaps there is ambivalence in Cooper’s wry response that the anthem hits him in the neck (a pain in the neck?).  So patriotism is pure to Connell and Capra, and the cribbed Christian platitudes of the John Doe movement are likewise a noble and sacred stirring within the human breast.  The cult like behavior of the John Doe clubs seems to have the blessing of the director.  The mixture of patriotism and religion then builds to uneasy levels of propaganda with the American audience, growing upon the explicit manipulation of the American characters within the story.  Meet John Doe becomes a caricature of itself, a propagandistic film about propaganda, and thus a noble failure.   At its best, Meet John Doe produces a detachment and skepticism in the audience.  Having successfully aroused the skepticism necessary for survival in the modern world, Capra then tries to tame his chilling message with a happy ending.  Capra is afraid of the full implications of the film.  His facile attempt to separate patriotism and religion (and film itself as a medium) from the dangers of propaganda becomes insincere, and truly incomplete.  In Meet John Doe, the skeptical head triumphs over the emotional needs of the heart, engendering an inquiring skepticism in the viewer that must then question all forms of meaning making, including nationalism and the director’s own sentimental theology.  Is it Christmas or Good Friday?  The inarticulate atonement theology about what Jesus’ death accomplished is truly absurd coming from Ann Mitchell’s character.  Patriotism and religion shouldn’t flow easily together.  Capra is unable to let go of the John Doe movement on the rooftop, even though it has been so thoroughly compromised.  With enough Christmas carols, he believes he can have any happy ending he wants.  If he had let go of the John Doe messianism and his need for happy endings, he might have been able to salvage the interesting characters and his powerful message.  In this film, he lost both in the end.   

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