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Gary Cooper Does Frank Capra: Meet John Doe, American

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I notice the great American movie Meet John Doe is coming around next week, and heartily recommend it. Its one of Frank Capra's finest, a little bit of the Christmas spirit of Wonderful Life, with a dose of politics similar to Mr. Smith, and like Capra's great works, timeless and very relevant today.

Wont give away the ending, John Doe was a hobo who was talked into a little scheme by young reporter Barbara Stanwyck. The idea was that Doe, played by Gary Cooper, was going to jump off a building to his death because he didn't like the way the world was headed.

The Depression was everywhere, brownshirts were moving across Europe, things were great at the top but tough at the bottom, and everywhere else.

In his autobiography Capra, discussing the film, commented that around that time, there all kinds of bigots in the land, dressed in the red, white and blue. He wanted to a make film for a hurting nation. about the people who are the real red, white and blue. When Capra asked, Gary Cooper took the part without even reading a script. So did the other stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Brennan, Edward Arnold, James Gleason, Spring Byington.

Those were the days, and remember, in those days, it was not clear when the Great Depression would ever end, or how far the Swastika flag would fly.

So, Barbara Stanwyck and her crusty old newspaper editor talked Cooper into playing along with the hoax, and she wrote for him a speech about the John Does of America, the guys and gals who are the heartbeat of the nation. Funny thing happened, Americans from all over started to rally around the cause of the John and Jane Does. He became a national phenomenon, clubs started to form, people joined each other in local meetings, neighbors who barely knew each other said hello, and found out these strangers were really human beings, and became friends.

Of course, the Mr. Potter-like politician tried to exploit and hijack the movement for his own greedy goals. I wont write what happened, so those who haven't seen the movie can enjoy and see themselves. But one funny thing did happen. Gary Cooper's John Doe came to believe the thing, it started out a hoax but John Doe became real, alive, and moving to a whole country that was hurting and looking for things to believe in.

It's so true, that what makes America America is that we really are a nation of John Does and Jane Does. The average guys and gals who believe in the Golden Rule, who believe our word is our bond, who always try to tell the truth, who know that America is a nation of neighbors, who come from places far apart but share mortgages, frustrations, ambitions and dreams and a love for an America that makes everything possible.

As you'll see in the movie, the John Does can be frightened by the appeal to fear and distrust and can be bullied into the rule of the mob at times. But there is an innate goodness and decency to the Does, like America, the John Does have their internal self-correcting clocks, when they go wrong, their basic goodness ultimately sets things right.

The John Does don't get invited to the fancy party by the pool, where the important and the self-important kiss face with the stars. They don't get invited to the secret White House meetings, they don't hustle for the special privileges or have the vanity to worry about what Page Six says about them, or whether they are on a first name basis with the politicians who pretend to be their friend.

The John Does are the guys and gals who heard Paul Revere riding and came out at Lexington and Concord, the quiet heroes who believe in right and wrong. The John Does are the folks who don't have much, but put a little in the collection box on Friday night or Sunday, and when they watch the news, they often shake their heads, and talk quietly among themselves about how to set things right.

Sometimes the John and Jane Does are fooled by the voices of hatred or fear, usually from those who wave their false flags of red, white and blue but always, in the end, in our America, the real America, truth will out, and the John Does and Jane Does come through with the flying colors of the true red, white and blue.

When called to service, they don't find the slick way out, they answer the call. When the see hunger in the community, they quietly man the soup kitchens, or give a little, even if they dont have much, themselves

Gary Cooper was always one of my favorites. He embodied the kind of old fashioned, good natured Americanism. He was a little bit conservative and he did testify before the un-American Activities Committee, but never gave away a name, betrayed a friend, or sold out the truth for convenience or opportunism,

One of Cooper's best friends was Hemingway, and his favorite words came from the original John Donne poem that become the title of Hemingway's great novel: For Whom The Bell Tolls, also the movie Cooper starred in as well. According to his daughter, Gary Cooper's favorite words, from that poem, were these: "no man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main".

This was the Frank Capra spirit, the timeless Americanism of film, when film captures the spirit of the country.

Mr. Smith has indeed left Washington, and the American people want him back. George Bailey is still out there somewhere, building dreams for the John Does, fighting Mr. Potter, who is also still around, though in the end no match for George Bailey, trusting in the good nature of the John and Jane Does of a great country.

I know, I know, its a lot more fun to glory in Rush LImbaugh's troubles, to not know what emotion to feel from the death of Ken Lay, to say how much we dislike Joe Lieberman, or to tell each other about the lowness of Ann Coulter. All of which is therapeutic, some of which is right, most of which is understandable, part of which is sad and wrong, and I am not immune, any more than the John Does, to travelling these roads myself, at times.

I know, its corny, but we should remember, when the moviemakers make movies, when the politicians seek votes, when the singers sing songs, and the writers write, and there is trouble in the land: it is the John Does who will set things right, because they comprise, and at our best we comprise, the true continent that embodies the best of the American idea.

So I offer a toast to the John and Jane Does: it really is a great country, isn't it?