Stories have great power in our lives.
For as long as human beings have had language and the cognitive ability to express thoughts and ideas—whether those thoughts were written or spoken or drawn on a cave wall--stories have played a role in shaping who we are as individuals and as part of a larger whole. And, occasionally, a truly profound story—especially one told by a gifted storyteller—will come along that causes us to question our world and, sometimes, to even seek answers to the questions those stories have posed.
Frank Capra was a man who understood these things. The name may be vaguely familiar to those of us who…ahem…have been around for a while as he was quite famous in his day for the films that he made. Given that his day was in the late 1930s and early 1940s, it’s a pretty good bet that the name isn’t ringing any bells for those who are on the younger side. But, his work—the extraordinary films he directed—might be a little more familiar, most notably around Christmas time. Titles include “It’s a Wonderful Life” (with Jimmy Stewart), “It Happened One Night” (with Clark Gable), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (again, Stewart), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (not the remake with Adam Sandler, thank God), “You Can’t Take It With You” and…of course…”Meet John Doe”.
But we’ll get to John Doe later.
Right about now, I would suspect that there is at least one person somewhere who’s reading this and wondering what the heck movies made by some film director three quarters of a century ago has to do with the Independent, “Long Time Gone”, Kiowa County or life in 2017. Right? Well, it’s a good question. Glad you asked, whoever you are.
And the answer is…everything. Capra’s films have everything to do with life in 2017. In fact, if his films were ever relevant, 2017 would be the year.
Born to an impoverished family from a very poor town in Italy, Capra immigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 5, and from the first moment they sailed into New York harbor, he was in love with his new country. Seventy-five years later, he still recalled in an interview the exact words his father said to him upon seeing the Statue of Liberty.
“Ciccio, look! Look at that!” his father had said. “That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That's the light of freedom! Remember that. Freedom.”
Remember is exactly what he did. Growing up in Chinatown in a neighborhood he later described as “an Italian ghetto”, his father picking fruit to support the family while Capra sold newspapers every single day of his life from the age of 7 until he graduated from high school 11 years later, the deep love Capra held in his heart for the ideals represented by America never dimmed.
Capra, determined to pursue an education, then worked his way through college pulling shifts in the laundry, playing the banjo in bars for tips, waiting tables and cleaning engines at a power plant. However, after graduating with a degree in engineering, he still found himself continuing to drift from job to job, part of a “cultured” class with whom he could not connect or relate, seeking direction in his life that, despite his best efforts, continued to be elusive.
Lost about what to do or where, Capra began to travel the country, hopping from one train to another, leaving New York City far behind as he discovered and re-discovered the nation he loved so much, not just in the small towns that were little more than spots on the wide sweeping lands he traveled but in the lives of the people he met along the way.
He had been on the road for just a short time when the economy collapsed, the Great Depression hit and the Dust Bowl blew in. Suddenly, Capra found himself in the company of hundreds of men who, just like himself, had nowhere to go and all day to get there.
Despite the harshness of the life he and others were living, he met countless men who were gentle, “honest and forthright fellows”—confused, at times, maybe even inconsistent but always sincere—who believed in the basic goodness of others and had the courage to fight for their principles. It wasn’t long before Capra’s love for the country was matched only by a deep abiding love for its citizens.
On those same travels, Capra witnessed the political corruption that was rampant in parts of the country at the time. It was while watching that struggle—the battle between “little” people of great principle and those forces far richer and more powerful than they could ever hope to be—that Capra’s true patriotism was born, ultimately fashioning an unshakeable belief in a democracy he’d seen tested by the fires of personal ambition and greed. That time was also when the seeds of great storytelling were planted within, and the harvest would be some of the greatest films to ever come out of the film industry, then or since.
How Capra fell into filmmaking is irrelevant to the purposes of this story. All that matters is that he did, and the first movie to put him on the map was “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, a film about Jefferson Smith, a young and naive man who is appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate. Smith’s plans promptly collide with the political corruption of Senators he’d previously admired, but he refuses to back down, even in the face of large, almost overwhelming power.
In an almost bizarre twist of fate, the film was released in the second half of 1939, a few short months after Hitler had invaded Poland, was preparing to invade the Soviet Union and France and Britain had declared war on Germany. Tremendous pressure was put on Capra to not release the film. There were fears that people in the U.S. and around the world would then view the country as being ripe with corruption, but Capra—although concerned about releasing a satire about Washington at that particular time—released the movie, nonetheless.
Capra made the following statement to the press the night the film premiered. “The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America's democratic ideals. The soul of our film would be anchored in Lincoln. Our Jefferson Smith would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter's simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor, and unswerving moral courage under pressure.” He later said that the character of Smith—and the film, itself—was inspired by those men he’d met along the road.
The film received rave reviews and was described as a “smash patriotic hit” that had audiences leaving with “an enthusiasm for democracy” and “in a glow of patriotism”. Capra had discovered how to make a movie that sent a message to the public that the public could hear and understand.
In 1941, just as Hitler was marching across Europe and it appeared that dictatorial fascism might—unbelievably so—be victorious, Capra released “Meet John Doe”, starring Gary Cooper. This film is described by many as Capra’s most controversial work.
It tells the story of a young man—a genial, gentle and directionless tramp—who is hoaxed into playing the role of “John Doe”, a cynical social agitator, for the sake of a newspaper stunt. At first, John revels in luxury as articles “ag’in this and ag’in that” are ghostwritten and printed on the pages of the tabloid. Then, under the pleasantly romantic influence of his beautiful ghostwriter, he goes on the radio with a stirring and inspiring appeal to the “little man” for brotherly love and democratic goodwill.
Almost immediately, largely because of his simple and sincere address, John becomes a national hero, the messiah for little people everywhere. John Doe Clubs are formed all across the country, based on the notion that fences need to be torn down. Common ground needs to be found. We are all the everyman, all “John Doe”s, and no difference is so great that one person is irrevocably alienated from another at the cost of compassion and basic kindness. There are only two rules to the club: love thy neighbor and no politicians allowed.
But then, the guiding hand behind the whole set up appears: the owner of the paper, a Napoleonic industrialist, reveals his intention of using the voting strength of the clubs to force his way into power.
At this point, John Doe—finally understanding the truth in the message he’s known for spreading—takes the bit in his teeth and gives courageous battle. The outcome is not resolved; in the end, John Doe is almost licked. But, so, too, is his opponent, and an ideal has been preserved.
So…what relevance does this tale have to life in 2017? What message were Capra and the “Coop” trying to convey almost 76 years ago that could be of value today? What warning—or, perhaps, what promise of delivery—can be found in the lessons of those very human, very flawed but, at the same time, very heroic and courageous lives that interact and intertwine on the silver screen?
Well, that’s the beauty of a good story: it’s up to the listener to decide.