Along with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe is one the most powerful political statements by director Frank Capra, and a work that seems sadly prescient today. Although in many of his films Capra expressed his undying faith in the intrinsic goodness and decency of his fellow Americans, Meet John Doe exposes what could be called the dark side of “people power.”
Born in Italy, Capra had seen how his native country—as well as many others in Europe—had in those years succumbed to a kind of naïve, and as it turned out, dangerous populism: appeals to the “common man,” to all those who the system theoretically had left out, were a staple of political discourse. In the complex, rapidly changing societies of the twentieth century, it was never too hard to find large groups proclaiming a desire to take revenge against a nation, a government or an economy that had failed them. Once this group had been identified, it was often all too easy to manipulate, as seen in the rise of Mussolini, Hitler and their cohorts. Those looking for contemporary analogies won’t have to search too far.
This week’s question: What’s your favorite pre-World War 2 political film?
Although some describe Hollywood films as all glamour and fluff, especially in the politically charged atmosphere of the 1930s, there were a number of remarkably hard-hitting films that took on a range of social and political issues. Capra’s work is of course exemplary in this mode, but there are lots of other films from which to choose. If you’ve never seen Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel Over the White House, in which an American president played by Walter Huston has a vision and becomes a kind of fascist dictator, you really should.