Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Meet John Doe: The American Dream in the Media Age

by Meg Sonata

This famous film leaps across decades to explain America to itself. The hero, a stalwart Gary Cooper, plays a nonexistent character in a media drama. The heroine, the beguiling Barbara Stanwyck, discovers the secret to creating a media sensation. Politicians hide behind the curtain of good intentions, fiddling with the cords of manipulation. Like the Wizard of Oz, Meet John Doe rips away the facade of ideals, leaving an expose in their place.

How do perfectly honest souls end up conspiring to fool their fellow citizens? This question reverberates through every scene of this troubling movie, which begets quandaries faster than a hunting dog can find fleas. Cooper's face becomes the icon it already is here. Stanwyck's face, too, bespeaks eternal adoration. So, an innocent public falls for anything their idols say. But what kind of plot is this, when the stars set out to imitate John Q Public?

Released in 1941, the plot tracks the transformation of a Mr. Nobody into a character who unwittingly launches thousands to do his bidding. From start to finish, the John Doe played by Gary Cooper never manages to know exactly who he is, for he progresses toward the realization of a columnist's memory. Her father gave her the words which she places in John Doe's/Gary Cooper's mouth, to fantastical effect. Voila! Daddy rises from the grave!

Yet who is really the reporter's father in this film? His words endorse a Good Neighbor policy, domestically practiced in the USA. In the background of memory, however, lurks that biblical indictment: Just who is my neighbor? Is he the criminal hanging on the cross next to Christ's? Or is she the beautiful scoundrel whose face launches ships for a hellacious war? Do my neighbors include pally pols who would do anything but die for my vote?

The film's famous director, Frank Capra, pivots the action toward a single choice: Gary Cooper must become the fictional character he has pretended to be, in order to win mass acclaim. Finally, he must decide if he is up for committing suicide on Christmas Eve, the threat written into the plot handed to him by his own personal Eve. For dramatic tension, this film is hard to beat. What does it mean to say: "Never say die"? See the movie, and see! 

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