Monday, April 28, 2008

Fredric March - Footprints at Grauman's

The strong signature of Fredric March scrawled across the wet cement, accompanied by imprints of the hands and shoes, was made at Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater a week before “A Star in Born” was released.

Mr. March’s career did not echo the infamous Norman Maine’s tragic demise of that film. He and his actress wife, Florence Eldridge, enjoyed long, successful careers on stage and screen. March won the Academy Award, and a couple of Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, appeared on television and worked several decades at a craft at which he was particularly good.

From matinee idol to aging character actor, he could play the charming hero, the menacing heavy, the miserable wretch of uncertain mind and dubious morals. He played men of the Elizabethan age with a flourish, and modern men in Greek tragedies. His presence on screen was as strong and as certain as his masterful signature.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Now Playing 1944

This magazine ad for “Days of Glory” (1944) was published on this day, April 24, 1944, though the film would not be released until June. Ballerina Tamara Toumanova and Gregory Peck are guerillas fighting off the Nazis in Russia.

Not mentioned in the ad is Alan Reed, who played Sasha, in his first screen appearance. Mr. Reed would later become famous for voicing Fred Flintstone. It’s interesting that he did not have an unusual voice in terms of sound or quirky characteristics, but his voice effusively indicated a larger than life personality, so much so that his fame was based on it, and not on his on-screen work.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Bunker Hill Bunny (1950)

For those of you in the State of Maine and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, today is Patriot’s Day. Actually, the 19th was Patriot’s Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but with our penchant for Monday holidays, today is the official day off.

When it comes to dramatizations of American history, we clearly have an authority in Bugs Bunny, whose “Bunker Hill Bunny” (1950) shows us the American Revolution in all its inspiration and political fervor. As Bugs himself says so poignantly, “This happens to be me native soil, and I like it.”

Yosemite Sam plays a Hessian mercenary who fires cannon upon Bug’s log stockade from his own stone fort in what is depicted as the Battle of Bagel Heights. There are gags about very large cannon, playing baseball with a cannonball, and running around with one’s pants full of gunpowder. As a child, I learned a lot about history from Warner Bros. cartoons. Unfortunately, as an adult I had to un-learn everything. Apparently, Hessians did not go around saying things like: “Say your prayers you flea-bitten varmint! I’m a-gonna blow you to smithereenies.” We’re still waiting for a ruling by David McCullough.

The Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place on Breed’s Hill, and the Americans actually lost. I was also informed that Bugs Bunny did not in fact win the Revolutionary War for the American side. Many others were involved. This, however, must be an urban myth, because of course Bugs won the war. He’s the star. Smug revisionists.

Have a look for yourself at “Bunker Hill Bunny” on YouTube. For those of you in Maine and Massachusetts, Happy Patriot’s Day. Everybody else, get back to work.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Seven Chances (1925)

“Seven Chances” (1925) is remembered for one of Buster Keaton’s most elaborate ending chase scenes, which includes paper-maiche boulders and a sea of angry women.

This is a modern piece, and Keaton plays that ultimate 1920s hero, the stockbroker, but despite his elegant three-piece suit and country club surroundings, the film does not have the same kind of 1920s stamp on it that a Harold Lloyd film does. Buster’s gags are more timeless, his character less witty and flippant. Keaton’s dead-pan character, suffering slings and arrows and circumstances, could exist in any era. It is our good fortune that he existed in the era of silent films, as that is where he thrived best.

Jean Arthur’s era was sound films, which is why when she appears briefly as the telephone switchboard operator, with her short dark bob, we have no idea it is the same comedienne with the sweet squeaky voice of “The Devil and Miss Jones”, etc. Here, unfortunately, she has no voice.

She is one of the many young ladies Mr. Keaton, whose shyness prevents him from proposing so long to his girlfriend, must now rashly give out emergency proposals of marriage to keep the inheritance his grandfather left him. He must marry by the end of this day or lose millions.

A misunderstanding with his longtime girlfriend forces him to propose to anybody for the time being, and he is roundly rejected by the smart set at his country club, who all laugh at him and take him for a loony. One scene has him proposing on the grounds outside, only to have a group of golfers for an audience, who stop their game to watch him. He is continually embarrassed, and no one will accept him. His business partner desperately tries to find more women for him, and his lawyer, played with good humor by Snitz Edwards, who you may remember as Florine Papillion in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), and who evidently had no problem exploiting and making fun of his less-than-matinee-idol looks.

“Who bats next?” Buster asks his partner with the list of ladies, but none will have him. Finally Buster takes to the streets, proposing in his open roadster to a lady driver in the car next to his, only to drive into a tree. His girlfriend, who really does want to marry him, sends a note by their handy man, played by Jules Cowles. One wonders at the choice of having him play in blackface, which by the late 1920s should have gone out with D. W. Griffith, especially when there are other African-American actors in the film. One man dressed in a suit at the country club bumps into Buster. Later, Buster chases a woman down the street with the intention of proposing, to discover she is a black lady. Later she will turn up as one of the countless throng of women who show up, demanding to be his bride.

One girl to whom he proposes does not understand him, and then continues reading her newspaper printed in Hebrew. Another woman, a stage actress, turns out to be Julian Eltinge, who was at that time a famous female impersonator.

Finally, Buster’s partner gets a newspaper story printed announcing his desperate plight, and hundreds of women, young and old, show up at the church for a chance to marry a millionaire. One can pick out many examples of days-gone-bye props in this film, from the candlestick telephones to the trolley cars, but how interesting that one must include the afternoon paper as one of them. Fewer afternoon editions are printed anymore, as most of the large newspapers in the US these days are morning papers.

When the brides show up, they arrive by car, trolley, and roller skates. When Buster tries to run away, they chase him, a massive throng of women in makeshift bridal veils made from ripped up sheets and towels to what look like tablecloths. They spill out of side streets and chase him down the main thoroughfares. Mr. Keaton shows his impressive athletic ability by hanging from the hook suspended off the end of a crane, by leaping, falling, and always running at breakneck speed. He runs through rail yards and cornfields, and marshland, where after a swim across a river, a turtle attaches himself to Buster’s tie.

We follow him out to hill country, where he leaps over a gorge, and tumbles down a sand embankment like an Olympic gymnast, only he doesn’t stick the landing. Then the famous scene with the avalanche of rocks. Reportedly, a preview audience laughed when he kicked some stones inadvertently and they tumbled after him. Buster went back and embellished the scene by having boulders of various sizes chase him down the hill.

The film is less sophisticated than some others of the era, including his own, but for a breathtaking and funny chase, this is one of the best.

It may be that we are less sympathetic with Buster in this one because he is already a well-dress stockbroker and will be wealthy if gets married in time, so there is less pathos. We inevitably feel for the underdog more than the lucky stiff.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sidewalk Elevators

Readers of this blog are by now aware of my unfortunate fascination with the mundane. Today the topic is sidewalk elevators. Never have I stepped over an iron plate embedded in a sidewalk without anxiously anticipating the moment it would spring up with something or someone on it, yet I confess this has never happened. It happens constantly in old movies.

One example would be during the song “I’m Just Fella with an Umbrella” in “Easter Parade” (1948). After Peter Lawford leads us into the song, Judy Garland takes a verse as they stroll along the city street. They nearly fall into an open sidewalk elevator, which closes a split second before they walk over it. They turn and look incredulously back at it, never missing a beat, and continue with the verse. There was nothing on the elevator, so there is no explanation as to who was using it or why.

In “Date to Skate” (1938), one of the funniest Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons, Popeye takes Olive Oyl roller-skating. The gags fly fast and furious as Olive loses control and speeds out of the roller skating rink and onto the street. For once our hero must save her not from Bluto, but from herself. At one point she flies over a sidewalk elevator that is just beginning to open. There are sacks of flour and boxes on the elevator platform, so at least this one is being used for some purpose.

In “Mutts to You” (1938) The Three Stooges operate a dog washing business, and when they come across a baby they believe has been abandoned, a chase scene involves several innocent bystanders on a city street. The boys run from a stereotyped Irish cop by dressing as stereotyped Chinese laundrymen, (except for Curly, who pretends to be a buxom Yiddish-speaking Irish lass) and emerge from a street elevator in costume with a laundry cart. For them the mysterious sidewalk elevator is not a nuisance or a waiting trap, but a necessary part of their escape.

I have never seen any carts or boxes or sacks of flower, or escaping people emerge from the iron plates in the sidewalk that I may happen to see downtown in cities. But I’m not taking my eye off them. You never know.

Any other films you can think of with sidewalk elevators?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

“Maybe I’m just a dame and didn’t know it.” Okay, okay, let’s just get that line out of the way right now so we can discuss “The File on Thelma Jordon” (1950). I recall Walter Matthau’s quoting that line during what I think was the AFI Tribute to Barbara Stanwyck back in 1987 (why don’t they ever show those things again?), to which he said something about being surprised Wendell Corey could have that affect on a woman.

We spend the first half of the film believing Miss Stanwyck is not just a dame, and the second half of the film not really sure, and the last bit of it knowing for sure, but still fascinated that that’s not all she is. The film noir master Robert Siodmak directed this interesting, if at times uneven story with interesting and off balance characters. Barbara Stanwyck plays the protective niece of the town rich lady, who comes to the police station to report attempted robberies. She mistakes assistant DA Wendell Corey for the police inspector, and begins a relationship with him that is the core of the film and the engine of the plot.

Mr. Corey begins the film drunk, resentfully unburdening himself to his pal the inspector about his overbearing father-in-law and his wife being a daddy’s girl. He suggests that his father-in-law, a retired judge, even got him his job with the DA’s office. He is trapped and humiliated by his family ties, which we need to remember if only to keep ourselves from writing off his character as a self-pitying jerk, a bad husband and father, whose neglect of his mousey wife borders on cruelty, and who flirts with the first woman he meets. His pal calls him a dog, and so far we have no reason to doubt it.

The charwoman who silently screws up her face in annoyance at Corey, who keeps her from doing her work, is Mary Gordon, a character actor in close to 300 films, many of them charwomen and landladies. Her eloquent look of disgust is priceless. She has no lines; she doesn’t need any. You many remember her from several “Sherlock Holmes” movies where she played Mrs. Hudson.

All Miss Stanwyck says is “Excuse me” in a doorway and her entrance is stunning, demonstrating her remarkable command of the screen. Her character is likeable and sassy, deflecting his flirtations in a non-judgmental and deft, even comic manner. Their first scene together, because Corey is such a cute and funny drunk, might make us think we are in the early stages of a romantic comedy, not usually how film noir starts out.

He is a playful pest, and to get rid of him, she agrees to have a drink with him, which later results in some front seat passion in her big old sedan with the wood trim and elaborate luggage rack on top, and the famous line about not knowing she was just a dame.

It’s only 1950, but we are worlds away from her Ann Mitchell character discussed last week in “Meet John Doe,” who likewise is sassy and affable and hard as nails with few illusions, willing to cheat a little to get what she wants. Ann has ideals and struggles through the course of the movie to find them again. Comparisons are usually made to the Phyllis Dietrichson character in “Double Indemnity,” but Phyllis leaves us no doubt from the very beginning of the film that she is as evil as the day is long. Her role as Thelma Jordon is really in between these two other types, but what is intriguing is that at first we really don’t know what she is. Her line delivery is cleverly ambiguous.

Wendell Corey is comparable to the Fred MacMurray character in “Double Indemnity” in that they are both as much willing accomplices as dupes in the intrigue to come, and both risk a great deal, but Corey’s character also walks a line between victim and victimizer. MacMurray is careening towards trouble from the beginning of the film, but Corey perhaps not so. He does not seem as easily taken in. Maybe because he doesn’t really know what he wants. His vacillating in his personal life makes us undecided as to whether to believe him.

But this is 1950, we are out of the 1940s, out of the era of easily identifiable good people and bad people, and this is one of the sublime aspects of film noir: everybody’s got a little of both in them.

The next morning, Miss Stanwyck parks in front of Corey’s office in her wood-paneled family car with an enormous sheep dog sharing the front seat, charming and friendly, though we recognize that she is now chasing Corey. His greeting is typical morning after hangover awkward embarrassment. With grace and good humor, she senses his discomfort and lets him off the hook, “My crystal ball was right. You’re married.” But it is said without bitterness or challenge, seemingly willing to let their kissing the night before just be one of those things.

Setting him free is what makes him her slave. His wife takes the kids to shore for the summer, and Corey takes Stanwyck out for drinks and the story of her life. She relates a pathetic job history of being a hotel hostess, with self-depreciating humor but with a tinge of sadness about always being “on the outside looking in.” Weeks pass, their affair continues, yet they continue to be the two most unhappy people in town, ducking in dark shadows to avoid being seen. When Tony shows up, a domineering man from her past, her coolness towards him does not tip us off that they may be partners in crime, only that a thug has her in his power. She confesses to Corey she was once married, which, though he is married himself, makes him shocked and jealous.

When her old aunt, with whom she has a brief homey, cute scene reading aloud to her in a very loud voice, is murdered, the plot is stepped up, and the two characters seem also to solidify rather than to unravel. Stanwyck calls Corey to the aunt’s mansion because she has found the body, and in a fast-paced and rather madcap scene, he tries to undo the damage she did by messing with the crime scene, barking at her to put back her fingerprints where she has rubbed them off. The more tampering they do with the crime scene, the more they mess it up and finally are interrupted by the butler, who sees a man (who happens to be Corey) running from the house.

Corey’s wife confronts him about having an affair, and he appears annoyed but without guilt, cold even in the face of her begging him not to leave when he is summoned by the police to the crime scene.

Stanwyck is accused of the murder. We begin to see another face of Stanwyck’s character when she begs Corey to protect her. More responsive to Stanwyck than to his wife, he pays for her defense, and by turn of events, becomes the prosecuting attorney.

Stanwyck’s own attorney is crafty and indifferent to her innocence or guilt, “I don’t want to know. That’s how I work.”

While Wendell Corey shows us an example of how to throw a trial on purpose, Miss Stanwyck refuses to tell who the unknown man was running from the house, Mr. X. They cover for each other, but Corey believes in her innocence, or at least like her attorney, he doesn’t want to know. He manipulates the jury, and but we are never sure if Stanwyck is manipulating him, so subtle is her performance.

There is an unusual procession when the jury returns from deliberation, where Stanwyck is brought from the adjacent jail to the courthouse for the verdict. She leads the way down the halls, down stairs, outside, across the street with a policewoman behind her, a couple of male cops. No handcuffs, no prison jumpsuit; she leads like a queen. The journalists and public throng the sidewalks, and finally she is joined by her attorney who escorts her, like a prince consort, into the courtroom.

Found innocent, we see her next packing in the mansion, with the thug Tony back because she has inherited auntie’s money. It is not until the very end of the film we learn for certain that she is part of a scam, but by now she has also really fallen in love with Corey, and so confesses this all to him freely when he arrives at the mansion, that he was the fall guy.

“You must have known,” she tells him, “You didn’t want to know.”

He didn’t want to know. Except for his brilliant and energetic manipulation of the trial to get her free, his main sin has been one of apathy, over the truth, over his marriage, over his career.

Stanwyck, hardly apathetic, shows us what not to do with a dashboard cigarette lighter, which apparently in the wrong hands is even more dangerous in traffic accidents than the use of cell phones. But such a shadowy, subtle film evidently is not allowed to merely end with a shadowy, subtle ending. The standard-issue deathbed confession (where, despite being in a car wreck, Miss Stanwyck looks as if she’s just been made up by Wally Westmore), brings the film down to a slushy tearjerker. Stanwyck bitterly complains of the good and the bad always struggling within her, and wonders on her hospital gurney, “You don’t suppose they could just let half of me die?”

And Corey, his career in law over, his marriage over, walks away better off than Fred MacMurray. Had her character lived, one may believe Stanwyck might have changed her life. One senses Corey’s character will not.

“The File on Thelma Jordon” will be shown this weekend on TCM, so here’s a chance to have a look if you’ve not yet seen it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Charlton Heston

Known as much for the collection of historical figures he played on film, as for his public stance on various issues of Conservative politics, to others Charlton Heston will always be the lost astronaut tyrannized by talking apes. He was also a stage actor, a Shakespearean actor, and one of the pioneer actors of early television.

Less colorful and majestic of his later roles, his part as the manager in “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), his third film demonstrates Heston’s film presence. Playing opposite a basket of big-name stars and real circus professionals, all his character is, really, is just an administrator. He does not perform the stunts. He did not catch all the wild animals. But with his leather jacket and his fedora, he looks like an early Indiana Jones, striding from one trailer to another, too busy to romance Betty Hutton because the circus is in the blood and he has sawdust in his veins.

The Internet Movie Database website relates the story that the film’s director, Cecil B. DeMille spotted Heston on the studio lot, not knowing who he was. But when Heston waved to him, something in Heston’s personality made Mr. DeMille consider the young actor for the part of the circus manager.

Film stars have a curious, even dubious immortality. On the one hand, they are frozen in time, their abilities never diminished. But the films that keep them alive can also turn them into clichés. For a man with such varied film and stage experience, who also wrote about his career, who collected memorabilia from his films, one wonders at the irony that at the time of life when memories of his career should have been his comfort, he was likely stripped of most of them due to a wasting disease. When he announced his Alzheimer’s a few years ago, he rejected pity. How can one not pity?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe (1941) is one of the most emotional exercises in flag waving ever produced by Hollywood, and yet still manages to contain a wry skepticism about Americans in a manner that is both supremely democratic and unapologetically nationalistic.

Director Frank Capra, often accused of producing work that was called “Capra-corn” because of its jingoistic nature, nevertheless displayed a genuine love of his adopted country which he later backed up by joining the armed forces in World War  I and World War II. John Wayne, despite his later Congressional Gold Medal and his Medal of Freedom, awarded posthumously, chose the deferment he was entitled to as a husband and father. Capra wore his heart on his sleeve, but he also put his money where his mouth was.

Meet John Doe involves some of the most time-honored American practices, including the common man prevailing over evil forces. That the evil forces in this case happens to come from political corruption within his own sainted Republic makes the film much more testy than most of the patriotic films made in the war years to come.

The film’s opening sequence with the old stone nameplate of the newspaper being pounded off by a jackhammer and replaced with a new metal plaque of a new “streamlined paper for a streamlined era” reminds me of that sequence in the Warner Bros. cartoon One Froggy Evening when the construction guy blasts away a 1890s cornerstone and finds the frog in the strong box. Something sad and nostalgic we are destroying with our own hands for the sake of progress and a better world. Always a gamble.

No singing frog in this movie, though. Barbara Stanwyck, at top form, plays a newspaper columnist, one of many being laid-off under new management. Even today we can identify with the blunt way she and several of her co-workers are given the ax, especially the older men and women who we know will have a tougher time finding another job. A nice bit of comic relief is Stanwyck’s interfering with the sign painter who attempts to put new lettering on the office door window of the new editor. After messing up his work by barging in and out of the office, she later chucks an object through the glass in anger.

But there are no security guards to escort the banished workers out of the building as so many corporations do today. No need to fear they will steal computer files, because there are no computers, only Stanwyck’s clunky manual typewriter, on which she bangs out her last column, a hoax letter full of fire. These days a vengeful ex-employ might shoot up the office, but Stanwyck is more humane and ten times more crafty than that. Her revenge has substance. She passes off her copy to the old linotype operator, carrying galley sheets. We can imagine old Joe is really going to have a tough time finding a new job. Another frog in a strongbox, a man from another era.

Her tirade creates a fictional John Doe character who complains about the state of the country and threatens to jump off the roof of the city hall at midnight on Christmas Eve in protest. When the letter is printed, fireworks occurs. The community calls for action from its officials, and the new editor, hard-boiled but with a soft heart played by the wonderful James Gleason, wants to quash the embarrassment of the phony letter as quickly as possible. Miss Stanwyck convinces him that he could get a lot of mileage out of the hoax by hiring someone to actually be John Doe. She has a great monologue delivered all at once, ending with “On Christmas Eve, hot or cold, he goes!”

She plays what she plays so well, and that is a person with less than honorable motives who eventually undergoes a change of heart. The sole support of her widowed mother, played by Spring Byington, and two kid sisters, Stanwyck is the epitome of someone who was forced into the position of responsibility at a young age. She is the head of her family, and as such hasn’t the luxury to be softhearted. That falls to Mother Byington, whose sweetness of temper is possibly the result of never having to worry about paying the bills because her husband did it for years, and then her daughter took over. Miss Stanwyck’s character is hard-edged because she has been forced to be so to survive and to care for the weaker and younger members of her family. Her remorseless, cagey, determined focus on the prize reminds me a bit of the Faye Dunaway character in Network.

When she meets the man behind the new political machine operating the newspaper, played terrifically by Edward Arnold, he asks of her what she wants. When she replies “Money,” he responds, “I’m glad to hear someone admit it.”

The newspaper puts out a “search” for John Doe, and several scruffy types answer the call. Capra makes good use of close-ups in this film, on the hoboes, later on townspeople, to great effect. I love the lingering shot of “no-account Gruber” that allows us to explore his worth as a man by exploring his face.

Gary Cooper shows up, and Stanwyck and Gleason see, and we see at once, how perfect he is for the job. His rugged yet oddly angelic face is a combination of Young Mr. Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Christ. In tow with him is his pal played by Walter Brennan, whose sarcasm for the whole deal and for people in general and the American democracy at large keeps the film from getting too sappy.

But his dismal outlook is no more skewed than Barbara Stanwyck’s blatant exploitation of American public opinion, sometimes in cold ways, sometimes in quite comic ways. When they clean Cooper up and he is about to have his first pictures taken, she stops a photographer from taking an undignified shot.

“No, this man’s going to jump off a roof. Wait, let me comb your hair.”

There is a great scene when she is alone with Mr. Arnold, the American-style fascist, a big oil man in charge of the purse strings who secretly harbors political ambitions. He speaks softly, without a trace of bluster. His very self control is sinister and all the more powerful than if he ranted. He promises her a truckload of money to take Cooper as John Doe on speaking tours and radio programs, and from now on she is to report directly to him. Stanwyck plays this scene not as a conspirator, which is what she has become, but as someone who is delighted to find her personal small-scale power play for more money achieve success. We see the first twist in her character development. She is not as smart as she thinks she is.

Stumped with coming up with a radio speech, Mother Byington gives Stanwyck the late sainted doctor father’s diary, in which he espouses ideals of brotherhood and democracy. We hear Stephen Foster’s beautiful and emblematic song “Hard Times” over this exchange with her mother. The film is peppered with American standards, including a liberal dose of other Stephen Foster songs like “Oh, Susanna” and “Some Folks.” Odd that it would end with Beethoven’s Ninth, but then we Americans freely adopt from other countries anyway.

Miss Stanwyck, throwing herself into the speech, confesses of the John Doe character she has created, “I’ve actually fallen in love with him.” Tough for Mr. Cooper, who likewise falls for her, to live up to this ideal. There is a melding of her admiration for her late father and Cooper. Father images seem to be very important to this film. Walter Brennan’s much older character could be seen as a father figure to Cooper. James Gleason gives a very affecting speech about his father, who was killed before his eyes in World War I when they served in the Army together. A father provides protection and guidance, and the loss of a father means one may be without protection or guidance. This could turn one into a hard-edge woman forced to prostitute her ideals for money to care for her mother and siblings. This could turn a young man, cheated out of his baseball career by an injury, into an aimless wanderer. This could turn a hard-bitten editor into secretly searching for the ideals he once had as a boy, almost as if to retrieve his lost boyhood.

An opposing newspaper tries to prove that John Doe is a hoax, and offers Cooper money to admit as such. He is warned that he might never get to play baseball again, because of the scandal, and how kids look up to ballplayers as role models. Looking at this film with modern eyes, this bit is probably the most hokey, and most sad, of the film. If they only knew how low baseball would sink.

The scene where Mr. Cooper gives his first radio speech is stunning. At first he is nearly sick with nerves. Eventually, Stanwyck’s homespun typewritten speech gets to him, and to the tough editor, and to the people. Edward Arnold, in his mansion, notices his servants in the kitchen glued to the radio, and we have another impressive close-up, this time of his expression as he turns away from the swinging kitchen door and we see the wheels turning in his mind. It is the beginning of his political campaign.

John Doe clubs are formed, and though Cooper, scared to death by this time, tries to run out on the whole mess, a committee from one such John Doe Club begs him not to jump off the city hall roof at Christmas and encourages him to remain with the movement. It’s an interesting scene, where a small-town soda jerk played by Regis Toomey gets quite a long speech describing how his community’s John Doe Club was formed. (Here is a previous post on Mr. Toomey.) He is soft spoken and slow-talking, but all attention is on him. We have shots of the stars of the film, Cooper and Stanwyck, and Arnold, all watching him, their attention diverted respectfully to him, this minor character actor, as he continues. It is broken up, and again, made less sappy, only by occasional shots of Walter Brennan’s silent expression of boredom and annoyance. In era of fast-talking speeches, when stars seldom acquiesced to sharing screen time with lesser mortals, the scene is remarkable.

The brief scene with old Mr. and Mrs. Delaney are referred to in these previous blog posts on Emma Tansey and Lafe McKee .

Then a montage of train rides across the country (where we have more cliché American songs - “California Here I Come” and the inevitable “Sidewalks of New York” among them) and Miss Stanwyck furiously typing more speeches. John Doe Clubs spring up as flags on the evil Mr. Arnold’s map, and the government gets suspicious, as one director of relief wails, “People are going off relief. I’ll be out of a job!” A nation as idealistic as ours is also filled alternately with a degree of healthy skepticism, and surely must have been for the government in general after a weary decade of Depression.

Then Mr. Arnold’s elegant self control becomes more down to earth as he huffs on his pince-nez glasses and tells Miss Stanwyck to write a speech in which John Doe will form a third party and name Arnold himself as candidate for President. She sits there in his presents to her of a fur coat and jewelry like a well-decked out Judas, sucker-punched right in the ideals.

The rally is to be held, fittingly for Cooper and for America, in a ballpark, and John B. Hughes, an actual radio announcer of the day for the Mutual network, is one of those broadcasting the event. This film, especially this scene with its radio broadcasts and shouting newsboys, illustrates just how powerful were the tools of radio and newspapers at that time, and how pervasive in society. One wonders if a similar film were made today, how they would use the Internet for manipulation and gossip instead? Radio and newspapers haven’t yet gone the way of the linotype, but newspapers especially have a decreased importance for a younger generation that does not read them.

While Stanwyck is struggling with her principles and the Frankenstein monster she has created, Editor Gleason sets Mr. Cooper straight on what has been happening in a funny and emotional drunk scene. He uses the same expression to describe the Founding Fathers as “lighthouses in a foggy world” that Capra will use again in his narration for the “Why We Fight” series, in the first short called Prelude to War.

“I’m a sucker for this country,” Gleason tells us, “I like what we got here.” When Stanwyck recants, and Gleason protests, they are kept hostage by Mr. Arnold’s people until Mr. Cooper makes the fateful speech which will turn the course of this nation into a fascist country.

But wait, Gary Cooper changes his mind, tries to warn the public, an impressive and enormous crowd scene in the rain. Unlike these days of CGI, where a small group can be duplicated on film to appear as thousands, this huge crowd was comprised of a lot of individuals who got a few dollars that day. That, too, is impressive. There is another great close-up of raindrops glistening on the uncovered head of the minister as he leads the crowd in silent prayer.

But evil Mr. Arnold interrupts Cooper’s attempt to set things right and accuses him of being a fake. Which, of course, he is. In case we miss the implication that this is a crucifixion scene when the crowd gets ugly and turns on Mr. Cooper, Miss Stanwyck, listening to the action over the radio in horror cries, “They’re crucifying him!” and Mr. Gleason, held captive by her side, glumly announces, “Chalk up another one for the Pontius Pilates.”

With another montage of headlines and jeers, the tormented Cooper heads for the city hall roof at midnight on Christmas Eve to make a gesture which he feels will make amends for the public relations disaster.

Interestingly, Mr. Arnold and his henchmen, as well as the John Doe Club led by the soda jerk, and the newspaper editor, Walter Brennan, and a Barbara Stanwyck sick with fever show up, too. Everyone wants to stop his suicide, except for Mr. Arnold, who only wants to cover it up.

Stanwyck gets another impassioned speech begging Mr. Cooper, who with tears in his eyes tells Arnold, “Take a good look, Mr. Norton.” And proceeds to throw himself off the roof. But Miss Stanwyck prevails, “If it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for.” She describes Christ as the first John Doe, right before she faints.

Mr. Cooper carries Miss Stanwyck off the roof in his arms to the triumphant strains of Beethoven’s Ninth. The alternate ending, in which Cooper did dive off the roof, was nixed by the preview audience.

But the final word goes to Editor Gleason, now sober, who gloats in the evil Mr. Arnold’s face and says, “There y’are Norton, the people. Try and lick that!”

We like to think that. It is as American as baseball. It is what made us Americans in the first place, defying a superior political and military power. The people. We the people. But it was another man of a couple generations later, President Abraham Lincoln, who suggested that a foreign power could never take us over, that if we were to fail in our democracy, it would be at our own hands.

This is the message of Meet John Doe. The most remarkable thing about it, I think, is that this message was delivered at a time when there were plenty of foreign bad guys towards which to direct our suspicion, and soon would at the of this year of 1941. It is truly the sign of a great nation that can criticize itself, to be on guard against its own failings in the face of outside threats in such a troubled and chaotic world.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

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