Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

In the 50’s and 60’s, my European parents would sometimes talk about the powerful antifascist theme-especially timely and valuable in 1941-expressed in Frank Capra’s film of that year, Meet John Doe They used to, at the same time, lament the loss of the kind of America that produced such a picture. Barbara Stanwyck gives one of her most richly complicated performances, as personable as it is honest, as a success-hungry, outwardly cynical newspaper reporter who creates a fraudulent story about a would-be suicide-a protest against the iniquities of society-and then helps to cast her mock martyr with a washed-up all-American ball player, now a hobo, incarnated with completely guileless charm and complexity by Gary Cooper in one of his most engaged, archetypal appearances. Capra certainly had a way of getting persona-defining performances from star-actors, like James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) or Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934) or even Cooper himself five years earlier in the more popular but also more dated Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). The director was personally fond of Stanwyck, who had starred in some of his early 1930’s Columbia assignments, made before his ascension to the (then) low-budget studio’s resident Oscar-winning wonderboy genius with It Happened One Night , which won all the top four Academy Awards. His first independent production, Meet John Doe , had troubles resolving its ending and finally relied on the effective, deeply emotional fireworks Stanwyck is able to produce with her final speech. Similarly, Cooper’s unimpeachable believability gives total credence to the plot of a nation entranced with a regular Joe’s idealistic campaign. James Gleason as the newspaper editor, Edward Arnold as the main heavy, and Walter Brennan as Cooper’s antiestablishment pal (“Look out for the Hee-lots!”) are in the old Hollywood tradition of brilliant character support. Capra used to say that if you played scenes at life’s normal pace, they would seem slow; if you played them faster than normal, they would seem normal; if you played them faster than that, they would seem fast. Left over from his early comedy days, this maxim helps to keep his dramas fresh: He generally paced scenes fast. It is impossible to separate Capra from the Americana of the mid-30’s and early 40’s, and Meet John Doe , his darkest film, fatefully presages the dark war years ahead.