How do you follow up a run like It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? With Meet John Doe, it seems. In this path to It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe is more proto-Capra than all the rest. It Happened One Night tops them all in my book, but it’s not really part of Wonderful’s foundations in the way the others are. Lost Horizon is a side-step into adventure but it does have that same wide-eyed and earnest message of hope – that the honest can stand up to the ills of any era if people pull together and do it. While Deeds, Take It and Smith built on each other, John Doe is, in many ways, lazy (lazier?).
In a desperate attempt to sell papers and keep her job, a journalist fabricates a letter from a man who’s tired of the lack of decency in today’s world. This man threatens to commit suicide. The premise is just plain silly. Journalists have been making up stories since before the profession existed. Breathless drivel like this wouldn’t inspire a nation, especially where cynicism is its ailment! Selling papers and propaganda has always been common in the news media be you The Bulletin, The New Bulletin, The Irish Times or whatever else. To give the film some leeway, The Bulletin is under new management and their ethos isn’t about a free press but feeding the public a message. There’s danger when “The Paper of Record”, the one that some might be inclined to trust, becomes a tool for somebody’s agenda (The Irish Times again…).
Out of this lie, a national, non-political movement to be decent to each other springs up. As it becomes influential with all of the little people, it’s no surprise that someone would try and twist it for personal gain. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again – the message to treat others with respect and decency is a good one but many groups built on this don’t consider internal corruption a possibility. The cause or ideology becomes more important than the message it should serve. Righteous “good” causes come and go but what’s really important isn’t singling out those who don’t follow the dogma du jour, but in being decent to others ourselves. It’s easy to rationalise anything that suits us. Lying to or messing around those we see as not worthy of common decency? Maybe spreading unsubstantiated rumours (“..but they come from someone I trust…”)? It’s where all these Capra films fall down – the little people, just like the big ones, simply aren’t basically decent. I like these films, though. They usually do show that there is a personal choice to hold ourselves to some standard of behaviour when it comes to our dealings with others. If we all did this the world would be a much better place, whether we like each other or not!
I don’t think Meet John Doe is as worthwhile as the other, similar Capra films. Once you’ve seen them, it’s definitely worth a look, however. In ways, the plot of 1976’s Network is so similar that it feels like it was lifted straight from here. I prefer the Capra version, though. As cynical as I can be, we didn’t get where we are today by throwing in the towel. Life is full of all sorts of joys and sorrows but no amount of misery should be enough to stop us from going out there and striving to be the best person we can be.