Frank Capra’s Forgotten Christmas Classic

“Meet John Doe” is surprisingly current, even timeless, in its examination of ambition, identity, and repentance
Patrick Coffin

Bring to mind a scene from a Frank Capra movie: a good man stricken with despair stands at a great height pondering suicide; the snow falls softly all around; it’s Christmas Eve.

No, not It’s a Wonderful Life.

I mean the other Capra movie involving the contemplation of suicide on Christmas Eve: the unsung 1941 classic Meet John Doe, that lesser-known of Capra’s odes to Everyman.

Meet John Doe is a story of careers lost, ambitions thwarted, and love unrequited. Well, not quite. In today’s parlance, it’s complicated. Feisty reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) has been fired from her gig at the newspaper. When told she owes her boss one last column, she bangs off an angry letter to the editor, “a protest against man’s inhumanity to man and the state of the world.” The last line is a threat to jump off City Hall at midnight on Christmas Eve. And she signs it “John Doe,” an imaginary character who channels her resentment at being let go by her new boss, Mr. Cannell (James Gleason).

That last column generates so much interest in the readers that Cannell decides to put an ad out for ne’re-do-wells who’d like to make some money posing for photos as an angry John Doe. They want a human tabula rasa, a willing candidate for an extreme media makeover.

After an amusing audition montage, who ambles in but a rugged, half-starved bush league pitcher named Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper at his understated best). Lanky Long John has fallen on hard times and is now accompanied by his rail-riding pal, the Colonel (Walter Brennan), a confirmed hobo and anti-establishment sage. The Colonel smells corruption everywhere and he spends the rest of the movie trying to pull his boxcar buddy away from the “heelots.” Screenwriter Robert Riskin put together one of filmdom’s great comedy speeches, which is worth quoting at some length:

All those nice, sweet, lovable people become heelots. A lotta heels. They begin creeping up on you—trying to sell you something. They’ve got long claws and they get a stranglehold on you—and you squirm—and duck and holler—and you try to push ’em away—but you haven’t got a chance—they’ve got you! First thing you know, you own things. A car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with more stuff—license fees—and number plates—and gas and oil—and taxes and insurance—and identification cards—and letters—and bills—and flat tires—and dents—and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and court rooms—and lawyers—and fines, and a million and one other things. And what happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You gotta have money to pay for all those things—so you go after what the other feller’s got. And there you are—you’re a heelot yourself!

Despite the warning Long John agrees to go along, having been promised that the injured arm that killed his big league ambitions would be repaired. Slowly accepting his new John Doe identity, he indeed becomes a heelot.

Angus McPhail, a friend of Alfred Hitchcock, is credited with coining the term “MacGuffin” to mean any object, person or objective that drives a story’s plot. It could be uranium in wine bottles (Notorious), the way home (ET), or the ark of the covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark). It doesn’t really matter. But for Long John Willoughby, his MacGuffin is his true identity.

Meet John Doe is an extended exploration of the structures of identity. Not only about who John Willoughby is, but what America is, what kind of politicians should govern her, and why. Willoughby had already implicitly agreed to be defined by the Long John moniker by the baseball fans who anointed him with it. As John ruefully admits to Ann, the fans only represented bodies in the bleachers who were there to watch him pitch. His identity was a high-functioning right arm, a small part of his whole. Take that away and you’ve taken away his Self, as he comes to see late in the story.

Also arriving late is the antagonist. He is D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), an evil Daddy Warbucks-type publisher (sans the tender heart underneath) who has bought the newspaper that (re)hired Ann Mitchell. He embodies Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: he knows price of everything and the value of nothing.

As the Doe/Miller columns generate a massive amount of interest and as circulation rates skyrocket, three complications ensue. First, John Willoughby begins to fall in love with Ann, the brains behind his newfound fame. Second, Ann herself falls for the hero of her making—the John Doe of her speeches, chiefly because they instantiate her late beloved father. Finally, Norton sees in the spread of a national network of John Doe Clubs (which arise to nurture and spread Doe’s simple message of the Golden Rule, apple pie, and loving thy neighbor) a chance to form a third political party, with—guess who?—D.B. Norton as the natural candidate for president of the United States.

Long John’s discovery that he’s allowed himself to be molded into a useful idiot in a ruthless politico’s scheme triggers a deep interior crisis. Again, this crisis is fundamentally about identity. He has sold and resold himself and he knows it. And with the prospect of love betrayed—by the woman whose speeches he has earnestly spouted Cyrano de Bergerac-style—he decides to leap off the very City Hall and at the exact time promised in Ann’s first column. Irony.

Crowds play a vital role in Capra’s films. He frequently explored the ways in which institutions and organizations impinge upon and shape the destinies of individuals and families. Crowds function almost as a single character, with collective moods, inflections, and shifting biases. It’s the throng of bank customers in American Madness (1932), the neighborhood in You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and the Senate in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939).

In Meet John Doe, D.B. Norton represents the manipulation of crowds for political, and patently narcissistic, ends. Norton’s tactics, indeed, include courting and paying off of “labor,” and Riskin includes a reference in the same scene to Norton’s “ruling with an iron hand” a la Stalin (a Russian handle meaning “man of steel” adopted by Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili in his 30s). I argue that the convention scene that brings Willoughby to the slippery edge of despair uncannily anticipates the tactics taught in the Saul Alinksy manual Rules For Radicals. Which is why critics who identify D.B. Norton’s politics with fascism or right-wing ideology are, like Bogart in Casablanca, misinformed.

Norton stands in the story at one end of a personal and political spectrum with his cynicism, greed, and embodiment of a corrupt political system. At the other end stands the Colonel, with his own brand of anti-greed cynicism and an anarchical rejection of all monetary and political systems. They are two sides of the same coin, with “Doe” and Mitchell living on the coin’s edge.

The final scenes atop City Hall are a tribute to cinematographer George Barnes, who bathes the final tense moments in unearthly light: a moody cityscape gently covered at midnight by outsized snowflakes falling with infinite softness. The last ten minutes depict the melancholia that can sometimes suffuse the Christmas spirit.

Here a repentant Ann, weak with fever, delivers an impassioned speech to the resolutely suicidal John that invokes Jesus Christ. “John, look at me,” she insists. “You want to be honest, don’t you? Well, you don’t have to die to keep the John Doe idea alive! Someone already died for that once! The first John Doe. And He’s kept that idea alive for nearly two thousand years.” This bit of dialogue is almost certainly the uncredited work of screenwriter Miles Connolly, sometime collaborator and close friend of Frank and Lu Capra’s.

Is so explicit a Christian reference imaginable in the Hollywood of today? In the golden age of American cinema, filmmakers were attuned to the worldviews and beliefs of their audiences. So a Jewish Riskin, a lapsed Catholic Capra, and a fervently (“violently” is Capra’s adjective in his 1971 autobiography The Name Above the Title) Catholic Connolly together could adapt an earlier treatment by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, and, along the way, snagged the film’s only Academy Award nomination (for Best Original Story). Creative ecumenism at its best.

Meet John Doe places you under its spell for a long patch afterward. The Capraesque theme of the power of the common man overcoming absurdly bad odds is there, but this time in much darker hues than the other films in the Capra canon.

As mentioned, comparisons to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) are inevitable. While Meet John Doe is not the same kind of direct homage to the tinsel-bedecked hope of Christmas, its premise yet centers upon the victory of life over death and builds to a Christmassy climax of its own.

This article was first published for Catholic World Report

The Unbearable Frightness of Being

The Exorcist turns 40.
Patrick Coffin

The shaking bed. The frantic mother. The faithless priest duking it out with the demon upstairs—and oh, that spinning head. These and other iconic images from The Exorcist (1973) are burned into our collective movie-going consciousness.

The film is reckoned invariably as the scariest film ever made and the first of the horror genre to be nominated for Best Picture. Directed by William Friedkin based on William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of his own hair-raising novel, The Exorcist:

  • Opened the day after Christmas 1973 to mixed reviews and long, snaking queues to became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, hauling in over $441 million worldwide.
  • Laid intelligence into a genre that, with the possible exception of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), had drifted into the campier territory of Britain’s Hammer Films and low budget American sci-fi B movies.
  • Kick started the Evil Kid sub-genre, typified by The Omen(s), the Child’s Play/Chucky franchise, Children of the Corn(s), Pet Sematary, and Orphan.

There have been many subsequent attempts at imitation, but none really compares to The Exorcist, the Platonic ideal of them all. How to account for the enduring popularity of a film that features blasphemy, profanity, and scenes that still shock viewers 40 years later?

The first and most important reason why the film is etched into the canon of classics is that it’s a ripping good yarn. As stories go, The Exorcist is stripped down to the barest of bones: Good vs Evil, Heaven vs Hell going mano a mano in the soul of an innocent young girl.

Apart from its technical and artistic merits (discussion of which follows below), The Exorcist is provocative in a double sense. First, in the everyday sense of shocking. But also in the sense that it provokes the viewer, grabs him by the label, demanding answers: Do you believe in God and the devil, or not? Can science and medicine account for the mystery of evil? Is this life all there is?

And like all good stories, the good guys start off weak as kittens while the enemy starts strong and grows stronger. Our introduction to Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) at an archeological dig in Northern Iraq shows him popping nitroglycerin pills to ward off some cardiac condition. The ancient Merrin could almost pass for one of the artifacts he dusts off. Merrin is enlisted by Church authorities to mentor the movie’s titular exorcist, Georgetown psychiatrist priest Damian Karras, SJ, (Jason Miller). Karras himself is slowly sliding down a well of despair and the total loss of his faith.

The invisible antagonist, although not named in the film version, is the demon Pazuzu. By means of a basement Ouija board, Pazuzu infiltrates the mind and soul of an apple-cheeked, dew-eyed 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). The Exorcist, to borrow from Bl. Mother Teresa, is about the unmasking of the devil of his distressing disguise of the purest of the pure.

The drama unfolds amid the dueling agnosticisms of the girl’s mother, movie actress Chris (Ellen Burstyn), and of Father Karras, who is plagued by guilt-tinged nightmares related to neglect of his terminally ill mother. The film’s central irony is that an unbelieving mother (staunchly atheist in Blatty’s novel) jolts a doubting Jesuit into accepting that his role as a priest—his office—is the only answer to the entity that has overtaken her daughter.

For Chris sees what we see: the futility of the phalanx of doctors and psychiatrists with their Ritalin and their frightening array of medical tests. The dreaded arteriogram scene is a wince-fest if there ever was one.

No, for secular Chris, Holy Orders “takes.” And at her maternal urging, ex-boxer Karras is able to go the distance in the epic battle upstairs and finally learns at the elbow of Father Merrin that it’s not “the power of Karras that compels” the demon—but Christ.

The triad comes full circle. Chris MacNeil is a surrogate mother to the motherless Karras who, in turn, is a surrogate father to Regan, whose biological father has abandoned mother and child. Indeed, The Exorcist suggests that the trauma of divorce has intensified Regan’s vulnerability to the demon’s ministrations. In recovering his sacerdotal footing, Father Karras is not only present to a child he has never met, but he “loves her to the end” (Jn. 13:1).

In a fascinating commentary accompanying the DVD, director Friedkin admits the story is, very consciously, a parable of Christianity. He doesn’t hide his great admiration for the doctrine of transubstantiation and for the Catholic priesthood. Each entrance of Father Karras is shot as a rising—a walking up into frame, presaging his own rising from the dead at the end. Give Hollywood credit. When the devil shows up, no one calls the local mega-church pastor. The big guns always wear Roman collars.

The other Oscar win was for Best Sound, and for good reason. There is some controversy over how much subliminal sound layering went into the production. There are, for instance, almost no purely silent scenes. An eerie low-level buzz (enraged bees? screeching pigs?) pervades just beneath the surface, producing a sense of uneasy anticipation.

The Exorcist is often identified with the creepy Tubular Bells setting by Mike Oldfield. But the bulk of the soundtrack is the work of Krzysztof Penderecki, hailed by The Guardian as “the greatest living Polish composer.” Penderecki’s contribution gives the body of the film its atmospheric, ethereal soul.

Speaking of sound, the vocal performance of Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the demon is a much under-appreciated contribution to the visceral impact of the film. The smoky-voiced McCambridge was a successful radio actress who eventually won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for All the Kings’ Men (1949). Very few actors can combine rage, irony—even levity, as when Pazuzu taunts Karras, “What an excellent day for an exorcism.”

Which brings us to that magical elixir known as casting. Ponder how different a film it would have been had the following real-life casting considerations come about: Marlon Brando as Father Lankester Merrin. How about Stacy Keach or Jack Nicholson as Karras? But when Friedkin caught Jason Miller on Broadway in Miller’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning play That Championship Season, he gave him the part—Miller’s first film role. It’s hard to imagine any other actor than the flash-eyed, smoldering presence of Miller bringing to life the doubting Jesuit.

Ellen Burstyn’s tour de force performance as Chris visits the extremities of maternal tenderness, angst, and fury, and earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. We’ll never know whether Shirley Maclean, Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft or Jane Fonda would have brought the same fire to the role.

Everyone remembers Max Von Sydow’s elderly, dignified Father Merrin, but almost no one knows he was only 44-years old at the time—thanks to the work of make up artist Dick Smith, who also created the effects for Regan’s demonic transformation.

The event that inspired Blatty’s novel was the 1949 exorcism of 14-year-old boy from a Lutheran family who turned to some St. Louis Jesuits to perform the Rituale Romanum. Known in the literature as Roland Doe, he is still alive although has no memory of the events that led eventually to the film.

Storied Italian exorcist Father Gabriel Amorth has said that The Exorcist is his favorite movie. So how close is The Exorcist to a real exorcism? According to Father Gary Thomas, pretty close. Father Thomas is the mandated exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, CA, and the real life priest behind the Anthony Hopkins movie The Rite. “It’s all there, the basic tools, the prayers of the Roman Rite,” he told Catholic World Report. “I suppose the pea soup and head-spinning are required for Hollywood’s needs, but many of the other elements depicted are in line with an actual exorcism, absolutely.”

The fright effect is there, to say the least. What about the faith effect? I asked novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty whether anyone ever contacted him with evidence that his film evangelized them. “A few times directly and very many times indirectly,” the spritely 85-year-old Oscar winner says. “For example, Billy Friedkin tells me that after release of the film he went to his favorite barber shop where he found Jimmy Cagney seated beside him. Recognizing him, Cagney said the equivalent of, ‘You dirty rat! You’re the guy who caused me to lose my favorite barber. He saw that movie and decided to become a priest!’”

Unlike the schlock and awe of its legion of imitators, The Exorcist defined the careers of all the lead actors. Created before the rise of computer generated images (CGI), the film still stands up. It may not be everyone’s cuppa, but an example of a more explicitly pro-faith, pro-priesthood film is, like a good man, hard to find.

This article was first published for Catholic World Report