Meet Another Capra Underdog, John Doe

Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for the Times Orange County Edition

Beware of the "heelots." They can make a mess of you, and quick.

A heelot, as Walter Brennan explains in "Meet John Doe," is "a lot of heels." In other words, someone who's greedy, tends to run things, and wants to take advantage of all those decent people out there. Big businessmen can be heelots. So can TV preachers. Politicians, now they make perfect heelots.

The heelots are at the center of the predicament facing Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) in Frank Capra's 1941 sentimental favorite, a mix of mawkish chutzpah and anti-fascist purity, which screens Friday afternoon in a free presentation at the Cypress Senior Citizen Center. Long John's buddy, the Colonel (Brennan), keeps telling him that, but he just doesn't get it, not until he's completely ensnared in their plot to control the hearts and minds of every adult and child from star-spangled coast to star-spangled coast.


It all starts when Ann, an ambitious newspaper columnist played by Barbara Stanwyck, tells her corrupt publisher, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), that she's received a letter from a "John Doe" claiming he plans to jump from the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve to protest how lousy the world is.

Norton, seeing a political opportunity of countrywide proportions in the phony note, agrees to find a bum to impersonate John Doe, then turn him into a national hero primed for a run at the presidency. Pick a dufus, then pull the strings once he's elected, that's the plan. Enter Long John . . . and Capra's customary blend of moral decay, moral indecision and, ultimately, rousing moral redemption.

A big part of this is Ann, who first exploits Long John and the power of the John Doe movement but later is swayed by its goodness. Long John isn't above using the situation, either. A bush-league pitcher with an injured arm, he's ready to be the bad guys' poster boy as long as they finance his operation. He comes around, though, when he sees what the John Doe ideal inspires in all those "little people."

From there, Capra pits these two underdogs against the impossibly rich and influential villains, a familiar move for the director, one that he first introduced in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936 and also starring Cooper) and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939).

We know who's going to triumph by the hokey, tearful conclusion, but that doesn't blunt the satisfaction. Capra goes over the top with "Meet John Doe's" ending, even throwing in biblical references to prime the populist pump, but he makes up for it earlier, when his attack on authoritarian ideology seeps through all the homilies. Hitler was on the move in Europe when the picture was being made, and it clearly influenced Capra.

Besides, Stanwyck is wonderfully excitable (even her cornball love scenes have a spirited abandon) and Cooper is the handsome dumbbell who surprises; we know there's integrity in those watery eyes and sturdy jaw, but the intelligence that comes out later is unexpected.

But what really gives "Meet John Doe" some gas is Brennan. Every time things get too sappy, there he is, stepping on it. His wild-eyed, desperately iconoclastic Colonel speeds us through all the bull, both in the story and in the film.

* What: Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe."

* When: Friday, July 29, at 12:45 p.m.

* Where: Cypress Senior Citizen Center, 9031 Grindlay St., Cypress.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway to Lincoln Avenue and head east to Grindlay Street, then go right.

* Wherewithal: FREE.

* Where to call: (714) 229-6776.

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