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Throughout the 1930s, America, alongside much of the rest of the world, struggled through the Great Depression. While much of Hollywood cinema appeared oblivious to the Depression, there was also a strong current of films that attempted to engage with economic and social injustice, including social realist films such as Our Daily Bread (1934), Black Fury (1935), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940); prison films like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) and You Only Live Once (1937); gangster films such as Little Caesar (1931), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939); as well as musicals, particularly the Busby Berkeley Gold Diggers series. Some of these films explicitly endorsed the new president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, begun in 1933, a social program aimed at tackling poverty. In the 1930s director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin brought us, alongside other films, two of the most quintessential of the ‘New Deal’ films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939.) In 1941 Meet John Doe followed, starring Gary Cooper as Long John Willoughby and Barbara Stanwyck as newspaper journalist Ann Mitchell, who puts ‘common man’ Willoughby in the public eye, under the name of John Doe, as a representative of ‘the people.’

This theme of the possibility of a symbiosis between a ‘common man’ and ‘the people’ was key to the ideology of Capra/Riskin’s 1930s ‘New Deal’ films. For example, in Mr Deeds Goes To Town a ‘common man’ inherits millions from a long lost relative but decides to give it all away to ‘the people’ in the form of aid to farmers dispossessed by the Great Depression, allowing them to buy the land back at whatever rate they can, with the money they make from farming. This appears to be an endorsement of the emphasis on aid to farmers within the Agricultural Adjustment Administration of Roosevelt’s New Deal, although admittedly asking for more than was being offered at the time. It particularly parallels with the Resettlement Administration instigated in April 1935, which resettled struggling farmers into communities in more productive areas and gave them low-interest loans to help pay for production expenses and basic living.

In Mr Smith Goes To Washington scheming businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) takes advantage of the popular intermeshing of the concepts of the ‘common man’ and ‘the people.’ Taylor manipulates naïve Scout Leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) into running for congress, aware that he will win votes but be likely to need ‘help’ with the use of the power given to him. Smith trumps Taylor, however, taking land Taylor intended to acquire for business purposes, to use instead in setting up a camp that would allow holidays for young Scouts. As ‘common man’ Smith succeeds in setting up this camp intended to inspire the young, who Smith specifically emphasises are ‘the people’ of tomorrow, the film nevertheless maintains the over-simplistic intermeshing of these two concepts.

By 1941 there were some that felt that the social agenda in Hollywood cinema was ripe for parody, critique and analytical scrutiny. Likewise some felt that Roosevelt’s New Deal had not been effective enough in its attempt to solve the country’s ills and that this movement deserved some criticism. In Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) we see an example of this parodic, critical sensibility as popular film director John L. Sullivan decides he wants to make a serious, social realist film and sets out on the road in search of ‘the people.’ Sullivan ends up on the chain gang and discovers that these ordinary people in fact want to see comic cartoons and so decides that his film should likewise be a comedy. Here Sturges implies that a large proportion of the social realist films of the 30s had failed, since they did not take into the wishes of ‘the people’ that they claim to be representing. Another example of this detachment from the social agenda can be seen in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) in which Kane uses the words of social progressivism merely in order to trick the people into voting for him.

In both Mr Smith Goes To Washington and Meet John Doe ‘the people’ are tricked into turning against our hero, the ‘common man’ who represents them, by being told that he is crooked. A crucial difference between the two films, however, is that Meet John Doe adds to the mixture an extended challenge on the notion that one individual can ever represent the ‘common man’ and also strongly undermines the popular intermeshing of the concepts of the ‘common man’ and ‘the people.’ Meet John Doe is hardly, however, an outright critique of the social agenda and the New Deal. Instead these areas are to some extent bypassed in favour of a complex debate on the subject of the mass media and of its manner of simplifying and unifying debates. The film shows in detail the way that the mass media has at once both enhanced the possibility for a ‘common man’ to speak for ‘the people’ in a positive way, since it can spread an individual’s messages out towards the populace, and destroyed this possibility, since the media ultimately becomes exploited by the wealthy for their own ends.

As we shall see this emphasis on the dangers of the mass media is greatly enhanced by the fact that ambiguity is raised to the level of being a central theme and style. I will suggest here that the ideological standpoint of Capra and Riskin’s ‘New Deal’ films are upset in Meet John Doe, which may be in part the result of a rising distrust of the social agenda in Hollywood. I focus, however, on the rise of Fascism in Germany and America and the ways in which this has also impacted upon the film’s representation of social issues. Ultimately it is proposed that neither Nazism nor the social agenda is the film’s central theme, which appears rather to be a fascinating and complex modernist challenge to simplistic ways of seeing the world. It should also be noted that Meet John Doe was the first (and only) film that Capra and Riskin fully-funded with their joint production company Frank Capra Productions, after leaving Columbia Pictures. As such, while the more radical elements of the film can certainly be related to their socio-historical context they can also be considered to point to previous restrictions upon the filmmakers’ artistry by the conventional Hollywood style.

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In Meet John Doe young journalist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is about to be fired from her job at ‘The Bulletin’, recently re-named ‘The New Bulletin’, for being old-fashioned and determines to get her job back by putting out a final column that will give the editor the “fireworks” that he wants.

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Mitchell’s column carries a letter that she has made up, in which a man states that he intends to jump from the Town Hall at midnight on Christmas Eve in protest against the “slimy politics” that he feels have kept him unemployed for four years. The letter has the town up in arms and Mitchell gets her job back by suggesting that the newspaper choose one man out of the hundreds that have turned up at their office in search of work to pretend to have written the letter and be the face for a series of articles in which Doe protests against social injustice.

From the outset then arguments made in earlier Capra/Riskin films against crooked politics and in favour of a true figurehead for ‘the people’ are problematised, as we are made aware of the often-dubious motives behind the representation of these issues within society. In this case, Mitchell and her editor’s primary motives are economic, not moral, since she wants her job back and he wants to boost the paper’s circulation. As the story progresses Doe, aided by the investment of businessman D. B. Norton who also owns the newspaper, becomes a national icon, with John Doe clubs being set up throughout the United States. Norton, however, intends to use Doe’s success as a means of tricking the public into voting him into the White House, by giving Doe a script for a speech that endorses a “third party”, suggestive of the Nazis’ ‘Third Reich’, to be led by Norton.

The film is particularly interesting in the way that it shows the filmmakers’ attempt to intertwine their continued interest in the subject of the New Deal and social inequity with a subject not obviously related to it, the growth of the Nazi Party in Germany and Nazi-affiliated organisations in America. Although not referred to directly the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which had instigated the Second World War, is key to the way in which these subjects intertwine.

As Saverio Giovacchini has impressively illustrated in Hollywood Modernism – Film and Politics in the Age of the New Deal (2001) the Nazi-Soviet Pact had a strong impact on the Hollywood community. For example, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League was broken apart due to the differences between the large proportion of hard-line Communists, who continued to back Russia, and those unwilling to accept Russia’s partnership with Germany. The HANL was an effective organisation with, as the FBI noted in the 1940s, a “membership at the peak of its influence [of] approximately four thousand” and whose “influence spread to many times that number” (83.) [1] It is even tempting to see in the manipulation and downfall of the socially-progressive John Doe Clubs by the Fascist businessman D. B. Norton a direct allegory of the destruction of the biggest Hollywood ‘Club’, the HANL. It can be argued that the influence of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the destruction of the HANL has impacted upon the film, making it more complex. The filmmakers find themselves no longer able to maintain the naïve ideological support of the left displayed in previous ‘New Deal’ films, since the left is now tainted by its association with Nazism.

The self-destruction of the HANL may also have seemed to some to be a sign marking the Hollywood community as weak. The film’s title Meet John Doe is suggestive of another of Hollywood’s failures as well as further reason for the filmmakers to be cautious about speaking in support of social reform. The title can be considered a direct reference to and challenge of the claim made in the title of the Hollywood Theatre Alliance’s extremely critically and commercially successful 1939 production Meet the People. Giovacchini notes that the title of this “autobiography of the Hollywood community”, Meet the People, summarises well this production’s “attempt to obviate one of its glaring shortcomings”.  He comments that the play reversed theatre’s “normal East-West trajectory and travel[led] to Broadway from Los Angeles” and that “For many 1930s intellectuals, a thriving theatre was evidence of a thriving intellectual life” (109.) Meet John Doe, however, puts the brakes on this hope that the Hollywood community might speak for ‘the people.’ The film, for example, slyly critiques Hollywood casting-practices as journalist Ann, casting for the role of ‘John Doe’ sees a number of characters played by unknown actors, but nevertheless picks John Willoughby, played by Gary Cooper. A similar point is being made here as in Sullivan’s Travels when the film director trying to escape Hollywood for the ‘real world’ continually finds himself returning to Hollywood against his own will. The implication in both cases is that there is something innate in Hollywood itself that makes it unable to relate with the real world and instead capable only of narcissistic self-reflexivity.

This challenge upon the Hollywood community’s abilities in effecting a symbiosis of the ‘common man’ and ‘the people’ is about more than the HANL, however, and rather can be considered as part of an extended challenge upon the mass media. Admittedly one element of the narrative of Meet John Doe suggests that the John Doe Clubs can exist beyond politics – emphasised particularly in Capra’s heavily Christianised conclusion. Nevertheless the overwhelming feeling of Meet John Doe is of a fallen world in which Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chat’ radio broadcasts and Hitler’s Nuremburg Rallies co-exist as media forces allowing those with wealth to attain power (both of these are parodied as means by which the John Doe Club grows in strength, allowing Norton power.)

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This challenging of Hollywood cinema as one aspect of the mass media even extends to an undercutting of the formal techniques of the Classical Hollywood style. This can be seen, for example, as a montage of the popularity of Doe’s “I Protest” column in the New Bulletin culminates in graphs showing boosts to the newspaper’s circulation. Likewise a montage showing the growth of the John Doe clubs is preceded and discoloured by Norton’s assertion that this is what he wants in order to take power.

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Ordinarily in Hollywood cinema a montage sequence is perhaps the least ambiguous element of the whole film, serving simply to convey progression through time by re-asserting a single point, perhaps a hero’s accumulation of success or various examples of a romantic couple falling in love. These montage sequences in Meet John Doe, however, clearly have a double-meaning and so imply a co-existence of good and evil, since the viewer is forced to recognise that he is at once glad that the John Doe idea is a success, since it brings happiness to many, yet anxious that it is being used for immoral purposes. The film as a whole can be said to have an overall style of ambiguity. As well as there being at times a multiplicity of meaning, at other times a cause can also have a multiplicity of effects. This can be seen, for example, in the contrasting reactions that the letter Mitchell publishes in The New Bulletin has on the Mayor, the Minister, Norton, an aristocratic woman, the general public and the poor of the city.

Meet John Doe was reported at the time, in what appears to be a promotional article from the film’s distributors Warner Bros. Pictures, to have used “over four thousand extras” [2] (the film’s trailer claims five thousand) [3.] The same review also comments, which seems just about possible, that the film has 137 speaking roles. The filmmakers’ aims then seem to be equally ambiguous: while the former statistic suggests that Capra and Riskin are earnest in their wish to speak for the masses of people living in poverty, the latter emphasises excessively the multiplicity of voices that compete with one another over this subject matter. This ambiguity in the film can be gauged in the reviewer’s somewhat confused language as he perceives the film to have “drawn attention to the human problem of the average man.” The film’s style of ambiguity follows in part from its theme of the complex, intertwining and inseparable nature of the relationship between the representation of a thing and the thing itself; in the film’s narrative John Doe represents the former and Long John Willoughby the latter.

Indeed this theme of ambiguity comes to a head as John recounts his dream to Mitchell, in which he sees himself as at once both himself (although he has actually taken to calling himself John Doe) and Mitchell’s father (who wrote the original material Mitchell uses for the Doe speeches.) In John’s fantasy he takes advantage of the ambiguity inherent in his unique situation of having a double-identity, watching Mitchell as she intends to marry another man and at the same time severely punishing her, in the role of her father, by smacking her. Far from being simply a comical aside this dream presents, as much as Hollywood will allow, the distortions to the human character that can happen when a person is given excessive amounts of power.

Rather than fantasize about marrying Mitchell himself John instead takes a perverse pleasure in his dual position of being able at once to dole out ‘justice’ to her while at the same time being able to claim a lack of responsibility, as a mere onlooker. This strange split mind is the result of his taking on the role of John Doe, the moral arbiter of ‘the people.’ John’s apparent inability or lack of will to intervene while watching as ‘John Doe’ in this dream is further a reflection on the cinematic viewer who hides himself away in a darkened room while watching films, allowing himself anonymity while playing out his own fantasies on the big screen. In this dream we can then also see that it is not simply the mass media that destroys the possibility of a positive symbiosis between the ‘common man’ and ‘the people’, but also something inherent in human nature.

In Freudian terms we can say that John Doe has become for ‘the people’ a ‘collective superego.’ The superego in an individual is the unconscious aspect that is to an extent detached from the ego (the ‘I’) and enforces regulations by which the ego must abide. As Mark Edmundson succinctly summarises in reference to Adolf Hitler, but which can also be considered representative of John Doe’s situation in the film:

What he offers to individuals is a new, psychological dispensation. Where the individual superego is inconsistent and often inaccessible because it is unconscious, the collective superego, the leader, is clear and absolute in his values. By promulgating one code — one fundamental way of being — he wipes away the differences between different people, with different codes and different values, which are a source of anxiety to the psyche. [4]

In his dream John finds psychological dispensation in the figure of Mitchell’s father, whose words, seeming to have come to speak for the people, serve as a ‘collective superego’ for him. For the populace the image of John Doe takes on the same ‘collective superego’ role that the father has for John, since they follow what Doe is telling them in a somewhat naïve fashion. In each case the ambiguity that exists as a result of the appearances of similarity between the real and its representation is presented as potentially dangerous.

This more sinister aspect of John’s character should not be overstated since the end of the film also directly links him with Christ who we are told was the first John Doe “2000 years ago.” Doe can thus equally be seen as a ‘good’ version of the subsuming of power to a collective superego (i.e. God) in contrast to the ‘bad’one (of the fascist D.B. Norton.) Nevertheless, the manner in which the film engages with class issues can be seen, in terms of the narrative structure, to undercut our identification with the character of Doe as much as Norton. For example, Norton owns a large mansion and we see him at one point on horseback in the grounds of the mansion, watching an intricate motorbike display put on for his purpose appearing as an aristocrat in control of the modern world. Later we see him with a map of the United States covered with pins showing where he has managed to have John Doe Clubs set up, seemingly controlling not only the political figureheads of the city that are in the room, but the nation itself.

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We can see here the central aspect of the film’s argument on class issues, which is that society is continually endangered by the possibility of a misbalance of power whereby one individual comes to represent ‘the people.’ But this individual could just as easily be ‘common man’ Doe as Norton. Meet John Doe is for this reason fundamentally different from, and arguably darker and more complex than, Capra and Riskin’s earlier ‘New Deal’ films, since it does not allow us a properly believable positive resolution to the class issues that it raises.

In its paralleling of its two key themes – class difference and the threat of Nazism – Meet John Doe presents each in a manner that is quite different to the way they appear in other films of the time. The model of absolute dictatorship in Nazi Germany comes to call into question the naivety of the hope in previous Capra/Riskin films for a ‘common man’ to emerge that would serve as the figurehead of ‘the people.’ Likewise the theme of Nazism is presented throughout the film as related to capitalism and the dangers of the modern world, since the businessman D. B. Norton’s motives seem to be at once for both money and absolute power and he uses the media for this effect. In spite of the fact that the film has to carry these two only partially-linked themes, however, the whole thing hangs together dramatically very well. This is perhaps because neither of these more obvious ‘issues’ dominates the film and another key theme – that of a modernist reaction against unified manners of thinking, of seeing the world and of acting within it – draws these together. Meet John Doe‘s theme and consequent style of ambiguity bring up questions about the ways in which one idea or action can have multiple, often contradictory, meanings and about the way that differences are often unnecessarily and dangerously elided. As a result Meet John Doe draws together the key ‘issues’ of the time, putting them within a critical context all too rarely seen in Hollywood cinema.

Ben Dooley.

[1] Saverio Giovacchini, Hollywood Modernism: Film and Politics in the Age of the New Deal (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.)

[2] Unnamed author, ‘West End News – New and Exciting Film Experience!’, Warnergram, 26 September 1941, available at the BFI Library.

[3] The trailer can be found at: http://www.tcm.com/video/videoPlayer/?cid=14267&titleId=3827

[4] Mark Edmundson, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/30/magazine/30wwln_lede.html, 30 April 2006.

Jean Renoir arrived in America for the first time on New Year’s Eve 1940 on an American liner sailing from Lisbon to New York. He swiftly left the Big Apple for Sunset Boulevard and by the middle of January had been signed to a contract with 20th Century-Fox. It wasn’t until the end of May however, after having had a series of ideas for stories rejected, that Renoir was able to begin on his first American film Swamp Water, scripted by Dudley Nichols and based on a novel by Vereen Bell.

Despite having been relatively forgotten even in relation to Renoir’s American oeuvre Swamp Water, while at times frustrating, is ultimately impressive. It tells of the vast Okeefenokee swampland of Georgia and focuses on young Ben Ragan’s (Dana Andrews) encounter with Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan) an accused murderer who has been hiding out in the swamp for years. Particularly strong is the film’s use of depth photography in its location shooting of Okeefenokee as well as in some key dramatic scenes.

Likewise of interest is the film’s attempt to get at the accent of the American South, which, while possibly not in itself immensely researched, nonetheless feels accurate, with performances aided by the script’s strong sense of linguistic authenticity. The script also contains some sharp comic moments, a good example being Ben Ragan and Keefer’s daughter Julie’s (Anne Baxter) first romantic encounter, in which Ben tells Julie that “You’re a heap prettier than Mabel is, if you was a little bigger” to which Julie responds, “I could grow more maybe!”

In this piece I will focus, however, on the film’s central story, which on the surface might appear fairly melodramatic and apolitical and has indeed generally been received this way. Although Swamp Water was assigned to Renoir, rather than chosen by him, it nevertheless was of interest to the director who commented that, “it is still something to be able to direct a film with a story that is not completely idiotic.” Screenwriter Dudley Nichols was an established figure and had worked throughout his career with such directors as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang. Renoir and Nichols got along very well, no doubt not in small part due to the fact that Nichols’ previous experience with these directors must have left him very open to possible revisions of his work. I will argue here that while on the surface Swamp Water appears to be an escapist drama, it has a political subtext that touches at once on issues both of the American South and of the Europe that Renoir had recently escaped.

A key example of a theme in Nichols’ script that appears to have been worked on by Renoir is that of humans as being not dissimilar to animals. For example, Ben like his dog is an adventurer who gets easily lost, while Julie like her kittens is small but bites when threatened.

There is nothing in the film’s narrative or script, however, that could be seen to have prompted the decision to have Tom Keefer horizontally creep up on Ben the first time we see him, paralleling him with the alligators that haunt the swamplands; this seems likely to be Renoir’s image.

And the choice that Julie remain silent for a long-time into the film (which incidentally is perfect for Baxter’s acting, which is of a high-emotional tenor) and have wild hair and a wide-eyed performance, all seem to extend her appearance as a cat beyond those expressed on the page.

These images of Ben and Julie are undoubtedly fairly romantic and arguably mildly condescending towards the real people of small-towns in America. Indeed Renoir was close friends with Robert Flaherty, who arranged for Renoir’s journey to America; and Flaherty had made the famously condescending ethnographic documentary of the Inuits, Nanook of the North (1922.) And Renoir said of Georgia that it was “an old country, very primitive, with peasants who remind me of the inhabitants of very isolated corners of Brittany” and that “the families have no idea of quitting their wooden farmhouses. The tree which shades the porch has been planted by some ancestor.” (1)

On closer inspection, however, this theme is a little more complex than it first appears, since beneath the surface of this more romantic animal imagery there is also the image of the hunt. The brutality of rabbit hunting had been central to Renoir’s previous film La Regle du Jeu (1939), a symbol of human brutality: as a man is killed we are shown a close up of a rabbit being shot. In both films the hunt is presented as a social convention upholding bourgeois society’s cruel and arbitrary rules. In Swamp Water the culmination of Ben’s ostracism from his community is represented in his no longer being allowed to hunt foxes alongside his neighbours. But the villagers’ hunt can also be paralleled to their blood-thirsty desire to catch Tom Keefer and have him hanged.

In this respect Swamp Water can be considered a film about the lynch-mob mentality, following on from Fritz Lang’s fairly recent film for MGM on the subject, equally with an all-white cast, Fury (1936.) Seen this way Swamp Water’s opening image of a skull sitting on the top of a cross in the centre of the river which is a marker to help guide people through the river, can also be considered as suggesting that the film can be read as a Christian allegory of Jesus’ unjust crucifixion.

Considering the setting of Georgia it is strange that this film has no black characters (and very few black extras.) It is possibly the case that, just as with Lang’s film, it was thought that too overt reference to race could be dangerous. (2)

Despite this, however, Tom’s daughter Julie, while literally white, could certainly pass symbolically as black. Indeed her reputation in the village has been blackened by her father’s name and she is treated as inferior, forced to take on the role of live-in maid, one that in Hollywood cinema is traditionally taken by a black character. Equally when Ben takes her to a ball the community are surprised and while she receives some compliments the family for which she works disapprove, which is certainly suggestive of the racial issue of segregation.

A final image that suggests the racial allegory in the film is the quite blatant fact that despite Ben’s dog having the name Trouble he actually does not get Ben directly into trouble. This red herring is similar to the paralleling of Tom with the alligator, whose viciousness turns out not to be in Tom’s nature. In each case there is an overturning of our perceptions of a dangerous “other.” Key here, however, is the fact that these quite central and obvious negations of the danger of “otherness” do not seem to have any direct reference to racism against black people, but are far broader. Clearly this more general space for considering the unfair victimization of some form of “other” makes the film, like Lang’s Fury, equally open to being read as an allegory about the victimization of Jews under the Nazis throughout Europe.

While Swamp Water contains various hints that it is intended as in part racial allegory, most viewers today will probably not notice this and indeed neither would have many at the time of the film’s release. The initial script of Swamp Water was greatly cut by the time the film came together: a memo from Darryl F. Zanuck to Renoir pressing him to hurry the production along notes that the script, “has been cut to 137 pages. Over 45 pages have been removed”. (3) Equally, a key scene that Renoir shot was cut and Zanuck constructed another scene to replace the gap that had now been made in the plot. (4) It seems likely that a closer look at all the elements that didn’t make it into the film’s final cut, if available, along with the various discussions amongst the filmmakers involved in Swamp Water’s production might well yield further political aspects of the film. Nevertheless I would say that something of a political perspective remains in this film, if only in its overt argument against the victimization of an “other” that may well have been recognized by some viewers at the time, if on an unconscious rather than conscious level, as a reflection on the dangers of fascism.

Ben Dooley.

 

(1) Sesonske, Alexander, ‘Discovering America: Jean Renoir 1941’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1981, pp. 256-261.

(2) Eisner, Lotte H., Fritz Lang, Da Capo, 1988, p. 164.

(3) Vitanza, Elizabeth, ‘Another Grand Illusion: Jean Renoir’s First Year in America’, The Film Journal, http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue12/renoir.html

(4) Sesonske.