The Hope of the World
On Meet John Doe and how the West lost its faith
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It’s a classic Frank Capra scene. A good man is on the brink, ready to end it all. He’s thought it through, and he’s decided he’s worth more dead than alive. And worst of all, it’s Christmas.
I’m speaking, of course, about the film Meet John Doe.
Gary Cooper stars as “Long John” Willoughby, a penniless drifter caught up in an elaborate scheme to save a failing newspaper. If you don’t know the premise, it all starts when an ambitious young newspaperwoman (Barbara Stanwyck) plants a fake suicide note, by a desperate “John Doe” threatening to jump off of City Hall on Christmas Eve. He represents the forgotten man, the little guy down on his luck, failing to find a friend in life and hoping someone might notice him in death. The fake-a-roo becomes a hit, with heartfelt letters pouring in asking “John Doe” not to do such a thing, so our heroine fast-talks the head of the paper into keeping the fake-a-roo going. But to do that, they’ll need someone who can play the part. Soon, our hero shows up, conveniently looking just like Gary Cooper, and agrees to be that desperate man, up to but not including Christmas Eve. By then, he’ll be gone, and well compensated too.
The plan goes well. Too well. So well that John Doe isn’t just a name anymore. It becomes a Movement. He goes on the air and reads a speech he didn’t write (also written by our heroine), but it touches him so much he delivers it like he did. Good, salt-of-the-earth men and women line up just to shake his hand and say thank you. A humble soda jerk named Bert tells a long story about how he and his wife were inspired to reach out to their old neighbor, and what might this sad old world look like if we all did that? All the John Does, in spite of all the world’s sadness and injustice, coming together to save it, one act of neighbor love at a time?
Of course, this being a Frank Capra movie, there’s a corrupt establishment machine busily working to turn the John Doe story to its own dastardly ends. (In an extra subtle touch, these particular baddies even wear uniforms with vaguely Nazi-like insignias.) And by the finale, this being a Frank Capra movie finale, that machine threatens to crush our lovable hero under its cold establishment wheels.
Spoilers ahead, for those who don’t know the movie and would like to discover it for themselves. Though I trust it won’t shock you to know that in the end all is well, and nobody actually jumps off of City Hall on Christmas Eve. Still, it’s an awfully close shave. I can still be moved to tears by the heartbreaking third act, even though I know how it all ends. Perhaps this is because Capra isn’t just telling the story of a little guy named John Doe. He’s telling the story of how the West lost its faith.
In the beginning, poor John is a cheerful, simple soul who doesn’t set out to “protest” anything. He’s just doing what he’s told, hoping the easy cash might help him fix a bum arm so he can pitch a little baseball again. But as he starts to get into the swing of things, as he meets all those lovely sincere people, he gets caught up in the Movement himself. He wants to be the man they all think he is, somehow. Which makes it all the more devastating when the villain exposes the fake-a-roo in front of the crowd, shattering their delusions, leaving John to take the full force of their angry hurt. Says one fellow, “Just another racket!” Says another, “We’ve been fed baloney so long we’re getting used to it!” Desperately, John tries to explain everything as the rain falls, as the wires to his microphone are cut. Sure, the suicide letter might have been a fake, sure he’s a fake, in a way, but this Movement is bigger than him, bigger than whether John Doe is a fake. Isn’t it?
In the crowd, he meets Bert again—sweet, gentle Bert the soda jerk. But Bert isn’t sweet and gentle anymore. “You believe me, don’t you?” John asks him. “Sure,” Bert says, with the bitterness of a thousand deconverts, “I believe ya.” He holds up a large, crumpled piece of paper, a petition full of signatures he’d collected to change John’s mind about committing suicide. “Walkin’ my legs off, pickin’ up 5,000 signatures for a phony. Well there you are, Mr. Doe, 5,000 names askin’ you not to jump off any roof.” With that, Bert flings the petition in John’s face and walks away. A friend stops him, saying, “It makes no difference, Bert! The idea is still good, we don’t have to give up our club!” “Yeah, well, you can have it.”
Again, John vainly tries to be heard, begging the crowd not to give up their John Doe clubs, not to stop doing all the good they were planning to do. “The idea is still good!” he pleads, like Bert’s friend. “Believe me, folks! Listen John Does, you’re the hope of the world!”
Meanwhile, listening to the crowd on the radio, our heroine bursts into tears. By now, she realizes too late that her vain little scheme was only playing into the villains’ hands all along. “They’re crucifying him!” she sobs. And in case you needed another hint, when it’s all said and done and the radio is turned off, the head of the paper gives a sad sigh and pronounces, “Well, you can chalk another one up to the Pontius Pilates.”
Is the idea still good? Isn’t it bigger than whether John Doe is a fake? These questions are, of course, reflections of the big Questions, the ones that so many real Berts in the real world had asked themselves as they watched the tide go out on their own sea of faith.
The film was released in 1941, the same decade as Miracle on 34th Street. While the latter is much inferior (arguably the most overrated Christmas movie ever), both spring from the same mid-20th-century liberal milieu. In this world, it had long been decided that reasoned faith was an oxymoron, but faith in general was still good for people, good for the nation, good for the world. Hollywood had an interest—perhaps a duty even, in their minds—to encourage the public to keep that faith alive. This meant encouraging people to follow their hearts, not their heads. The mother in Miracle on 34th Street is an extreme rationalist caricature, denying her little girl all forms of make-believe play, relentlessly disenchanting their world. For true reenchantment to happen, she must give up on Reason and embrace Faith. Is Santa Claus a big fake? Or should we even ask the question? As Keats wrote, “Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” That cold philosophy that will clip an angel’s wings, unweave a rainbow, tear the fake beard off Kris Kringle’s jolly face.
Kris’s final “miracle” is (like his other “miracles”) not literally miraculous, only pointing the way for the young lawyer who loves the mother to find her dream house. I’m reminded of how the atheist writer Michael Ruse frames Christ’s miracle of the loaves and fishes—that most likely the true “miracle” was not that Jesus literally multiplied the food, which would be the crudest form of jiggery-pokery, but that he inspired the crowds to bring out and share what they had with each other. In the same way, the makers of Miracle on 34th Street seem to want to avoid directly ascribing miraculous power to Kris, emphasizing that human love and brotherhood is the real reason for the season. Kris Kringle is a Christ figure, but only according to a watered-down modernist vision of Christ—Christ by way of Tübingen. Let people have Christ, we’re being gently urged, just as we let the children have Santa. As John Doe would say, the idea is still good.
To make assurance doubly sure that we don’t miss the point of John Doe’s story, our distraught heroine catches up with him on the roof of City Hall and launches into a breathless, hysterical monologue all about “the first John Doe.” Poor John doesn’t have to die to keep the John Doe idea alive. Doesn’t he know, “Someone already died for that once.” And that John Doe has “kept that idea alive for nearly 2000 years…and he’ll go on keeping it alive forever and always. For every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born.” As the bells conveniently begin ringing, she tumbles on, in tears, “That’s why those bells are ringing, John. They’re calling to us. Not to give up, but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching! Oh, don’t you see, darling?”
This is, of course, your classic 20th-century liberal reinvention of Jesus—the man who “died for an idea,” the man who was so kind and good they had to kill him. But they couldn’t kill the idea. Don’t you see? Oh, don’t you see, darling?
It was a last gasp, one could say in hindsight, a last valiant attempt to keep the Berts of the West from bitterly walking away.
But sadly, as Paul Kingsnorth traces in his new Christmas essay for Unherd, bitterness would take the West over. In the post-Christian UK of the 80s and 90s, young Paul grew up learning to have contempt for faith and all who practiced it. “We were with Nietzsche, we moderns: we knew the God stuff was self-deluding balls, and soon enough the apostles of the New Atheism would be along to rub it in for us.”
Yet this would not be the end of young Paul’s story. That boy would grow up to be a man, a man who increasingly couldn’t shake the sense that an all too real Christ was making an all too inescapable approach. Not the Christ of mid-20th-century reimagining, but the Christ of the gospels. The Christ who came to seek and save that which was lost, who even now is making all things new, far as the curse is found.
Indeed, the bells are ringing. Not for an idea, but for a proclamation, loud and deep: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.