“Why can’t that spirit, that warm Christmas spirit, last all year long?”
It’s kind of a Christmas film, it talks about Christmas a lot…it’s more an anti-fascist film (which in 1940—and 2011—is a relevant issue)…although I’m not a fan of Capra’s preference for socialism, not that there is any difference between the two systems other than PR (Capra’s understanding of politics was infantile at best, but after all I’m talk about a man who adds a scene into Lost Horizon that praises pacifism and appeasement as the only way for society to move forward…which for a movie made in 1937 comes off as first rate thinking…I wonder how that policy would have turned out if put into practice?)
After being fired from her job at a paper Barbara Stanwyck writes a fake letter about someone so upset with the state of the world during the depression that he will jump off city hall at Christmas in protest, signed John Doe…just when printed it will embarrass the idiot who didn’t check before publishing. But rather than embarrassing them, it generates a massive amount of interest…so much that the paper has to hire Stanwyck back to make sure she keeps her mouth shut…and the paper decides to hire a man to pretend to be John Doe. Enter Gary Cooper.
Now the paper that is running this story is led by a wealthy businessman who Capra has an American stand-in for Hitler/Tojo/Mussolini/ Franco. And as they publish Gary Cooper’s picture they publish it next to an article protesting the sorry state of the world. Capra is clever enough to put it with sometimes valid complaints but he chooses the same complaints that Hitler and Goebbels used to gain populist support in Germany:
Against businesses owning politicians, against entitlement programs not providing enough, against there not being enough free health care to the poor, that the rich had too much, that they’re not paying their fair share (I know Capra chose this list of complaints because it’s what the Nazi’s used…but it sounds very familiar, I just can’t place it, I’ll have to let it Occupy my thought for a while and maybe I’ll realize where I’ve heard this list before) until mobs of people join in protest. Anyway let’s leave the politics behind because they quickly become a secondary theme.
In trying to get away from the pessimism of the initial campaign Stanwyck writes a speech for Cooper that deals with the positive in life. And when drafts that rely on meaningless platitudes don’t work (although in reality just uttering meaningless phrases tends to work for a while)she decides to write a speech about caring for each other and helping each other and seeing the best in ourselves and others…and uses as its key point that this behavior is evident at Christmas.
(Notice how there is no mention of government in this speech).
The movie continues with Cooper’s character realizing he is being used for something evil. He ends up feeling that the only way to prove that the words he said in that speech were true is by fulfilling the original John Doe letter by jumping off the building. At the last minute he is talked out of it by Stanwyck telling him that he can recover his faith and credibility:
Please don’t give up. We’ll start all over again. Just you and I. It isn’t too late. The John Doe movement isn’t dead yet. You see, John, it isn’t dead or they wouldn’t be here. It’s alive in them. They kept it alive by being afraid. That’s why they came up here. Oh, darling!… We can start clean now. Just you and I. It’ll grow John, and it’ll grow big because it’ll be honest this time. Oh, John, if it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for. Oh please, John… You wanna be honest, don’t ya? Well, you don’t have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that ideal alive for nearly 2,000 years. It was He who kept it alive in them. And He’ll go on keeping it alive for ever and always – for every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born. That’s why those bells are ringing, John. They’re calling to us, not to give up but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching. Oh, don’t you see darling? This is no time to give up.
Honestly this movie has a lot more flaws than most on this list (the heavy handed politics borders on farce at times, but I’ll admit Capra had an enemy to deal with where subtlety was not called for). But if you ignore those weaker aspects of the movie and focus on Stanwyck and Cooper it is a very moving and powerful tale.