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Frank Capra and the Gospel according to John Doe

The movie ′Meet John Doe′ (1941) was for many years the one that everybody watched in the United States of America on Christmas. Its entire plot is built on a lie. That lie acts as the common foundation, where all the characters contribute their grain of sand while pursuing their own interests, often clearly in conflict with the interests of their neighbors. Barbara Stanwyck aka Ann Mitchell, is the journalist who has the original idea but is followed by everyone else including bosses, politicians, trade unionists, the rich, the poor, ... they all follow the same selfish farce that eventually leads to a death foretold, to the white snow of a dark Christmas day and to the humanistic speech of Gary Cooper′s character aka John Doe, who is clearly a figure of Christ.

Article by Pablo Fernández from Barcelona on Wednesday, December 22nd 2021 ·.·★ Reading takes 12 minutes or 2312 words.


Francesco Rosario Capra was born in 1897 in the city of Palermo, Sicily. The mafia then emerged precisely in that southern Italian city, strewn for centuries with monumental Catholic churches. Police reports from Palermo already registered in 1900 the identification of at least six hundred and seventy members grouped into eight clans of that crime syndicate. Salvatore Capra, his father, was a farmer and must not look at this terrifying sight with good eyes. Frank was the last of seven siblings and when he was five years old, his family emigrated to the city of Los Angeles, California.

The exodus from Italy

Frank would always remember his father pointing to the Statue of Liberty from the ship when he arrived in New York and saying, “Ciccio, look! check it out! That is the greatest light that has existed since the star of Bethlehem! It is the star of freedom! Remember it′. John Doe is the name given to a person in the New World to indicate that there is nothing special and different from others in him; It is the name of a anyone or a nobody with whom Frank Capra could be identified. In another time he was for many little more than just another poor emigrant.

Frank Capra started out working selling newspapers like the ones often featured in the film and had twenty cents in his pocket when he responded satisfactorily to an ad that included a job offer as a film director. During the 1920s he was key in the creation of the comic character of Harry Langdon, which he himself defined as ′the boy-man whose only ally was God.′ His film ′It Happened One Night′ (1934) won the top five Oscars, launching him first to the peak of popularity and soon after into the pit of despair of an artistic crisis.

Inspired then by the words of an anonymous who encouraged him to give his talents to God and humanity, Frank Capra underwent a conversion similar to that of many of his characters. Later he accompanied his wife Lucille Reyburn when they visited the church and said of himself that he was ′a Catholic in spirit, someone who firmly believes that the immoral, the wise men and the gangsters can destroy religion but can never conquer the cross.′ / p>

The Promised Land in Egypt

Frank Capra′s career coincides with the golden age of Hollywood and forty years after starting it he embodied in great detail the example of the American dream fulfilled. His own vision of his dream in ′Meet John Doe′ (1941), however, is downright threatening. From Frank Capra′s perspective, in these later stories, the promised land turned out to be Egypt′s; and the big bunches of grapes turned out to be bundles of dirty money. Being at the top of his career as a director, there were still journalists who remembered him for his emigrant status and referred to him as “the little spaghetti”.

The traditional image of Christmas usually shows a single particularly distinguished child. The child is shown newborn and marked by a huge star, an army of angels flying around him, a crowd of bowing shepherds and even three wise men dressed as kings offering him gifts. Frank Capra does not start this Christmas story naturally like that and, in fact, instead uses as the opening scene for ′Meet John Doe′ (1941), an uncountable number of newborn babies, arranged in series and without adding the slightest distinction. each other. The protagonist John Doe is, from the beginning and in this sense, at the opposite pole of Christ.

The film historian Neal Gabler calls the cinema of this time ′the new civic religion′, based on his manifest effort to unify a fragmented country. Far from the hostile attitude to the cinema of the white Anglo-Saxon and Protestant population, which was then the most fundamentalist sector of Christianity, a good number of Catholic professionals had occupied the Hollywood industry. Not only was there a great representation of Catholic actors like John Wayne, Gregory Peck or Jack Lennon; Catholic directors such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra also dominated the sector.

Frank Capra in particular was the most important film director in the world when he planned to make ′Juan Nobody′ or ′Meet John Doe′ (1941). His name was already a guarantee for the viewer and the cover of TIME from August 1938 showed him smiling as he bite hard on his pipe. The promotion of the films he directed featured his own name as the main claim, yes, but that was not enough for Frank Capra!

The fight for lost causes

Frank Capra then had in mind the ideas that stand out most in the story of Don Quixote de la Mancha by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. ′The only causes worth fighting for are the lost causes,′ says James Stewart alias Mr. Smith in his film ′Knight without a sword′ or ′Mr. Smith Goes to Washington′ (1939). Several members of Congress found this film too subversive and even John F. Kennedy′s own father tried to prevent it from being shown in Europe.

Europe however then had more pressing problems to worry about. Ernest Hemingway himself published that year from Cuba the memoirs of him as a journalist of the Spanish civil war in his novel ′For whom the bell tolls′ or ′Whom the Bell Tolls′ (1940); He did it while in Poland the construction of Auschwitz, the famous Nazi concentration camp, began. Several American politicians publicly supported Adolf Hitler and freedom was seriously threatened, especially in Germany. In fact, it is in Germany that the local head of Warner Bros, the Jewish finance company that was to distribute Frank Capra′s next work, was assassinated among many others.

Frank Capra′s context then is convulsive and insecure despite the fact that there is hardly any explicit reference in the film. The first scene of ′Juan Nadie′ or ′Meet John Doe′ (1941), for example, is an exception and shows an anonymous worker destroying the letters of an evocative word carved in high relief on stone, the word ′free.′ Having worked on twenty-five commercial productions for Columbia Pictures, at the peak of his career, Frank Capra uses his own money to fund this first entirely personal work, for which he relied on a short story by Richard Connell.

The absence of cause, effect and conclusion

The journalist Richard Connell had fought in the First World War and will write throughout his life around three hundred short stories, among which was ′A Reputation′ (1922), the story that inspired Robert′s final script. Riskin and that was ultimately the reason for the Oscar nomination. ′Meet John Doe′ (1941) is a very pessimistic and dark film despite the few jokes at the beginning. Frank Capra lashes out at all academic, political, social or revolutionary idealism by exposing to the viewer a multitude of seemingly unsolvable human problems.

Many may regret in the film the absence of clear conclusions about what position we should take in one or the other conflicts, but the truth is that if we are honest, the present is always made up of unresolved unknowns and doubts. We can fool ourselves and build a closed story where cause, effect and conclusion are clearly identified for the viewer′s use and consumption, but this approach was then far from what Frank Capra wanted for “Meet John Doe” (1941).

The production team came up with at least five alternate endings, some were sadder, some were happier, and some were halfway between the two. None of the proposals from the external experts, hired specifically to solve this problem of the script, came to satisfy everyone. Not in vain this will be the last film in which Robert Riskin and Frank Capra will work together. The only thing left was to record them all and test them in different theaters, but once this was done, all of them failed miserably and this, for a reason that years later Frank Capra himself could not understand.

The mystery of the unsolved ending

′The mystery of the unsolved ending′, which is how they called this problem of the script at that time, led Frank Capra to consider ′Meet John Doe′ (1941) an unfinished film. Life does not wait for us to clear up. The United States of America joined the Allies in their fight against the Japanese and the Germans during Christmas of that same year 1941. Frank was then called upon to direct seven military propaganda films under the title ′Why We Fight′ or ′ Why We Fight ”; And it is not until the end of World War II that Capra can continue his professional work.

Frank Capra returns to his professional career with nothing more and nothing less than with another Christmas story: ′How beautiful it is to live′ or ′It′s a wonderful life′ (1947). Today this is considered one of the ten best films of all time by AFI or Channel 4 but at the box office RKO suffered losses of $ 525,000 for it. The director himself, was also gradually losing the interest that he had characterized in the past. Frank Capra spent most of his later years writing short stories as well as songs that he later played on his guitar and he died of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of 94.

′The greatest emotion that drives us is love,′ says Frank Capra in the series now on Netflix titled ′Five Came Back′ (2017). ′The world is not exclusively bad. Yes, of course we suffer nightmares, but we also have dreams. We experience harassment but also great compassion. There are also good things in the world and these are wonderful.′ ′My films explore the heart not through logic but compassion,′ he writes in his autobiography entitled ′The man above the title′ (1971). ′I deal with the small doubts of men, their difficulties, their loss of confidence in themselves, their neighbors, their God. And also the overcoming of doubts, the courage to renew faith and the final conviction that they must survive and remain being free ′.

Humanity and the cross of Christ

Frank Capra defended values ​​but was far from making explicit propaganda of Christianity in his films; We can conclude that especially if we take into account that hardly anyone in the history of cinema who is not religious has identified him as a religious director. He perhaps he had understood that there is a sufficiently delimited area of ​​knowledge for cinema, politics and religion that is really very outside of Christ. The character of John Doe is only a type of Christ such as Jacob, Samson or Jonah. They are characters who share their humanity with Christ but for practical purposes are practically opposed to him. It does not matter too much if it is with good or bad intentions: when we approach morality or religion we are still far from being able to really approach the cross of Christ.

The cross of Christ is much more than a symbol adaptable to the service of one side or the other. At home we can more or less easily choose which party to vote for or which soccer team to follow, but the cross of Christ remains throughout the centuries as a proactive initiative of God, seeking from the outside to rescue precisely those who were his enemies and who they are precisely on both sides. We, being enemies, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, but in any case enemies, are rescued from that other side of knowledge that, according to Frank Capra′s own words, is not vulnerable to the ′immoral, wise and gangsters′ .

We employees, bosses, politicians, trade unionists, the rich, the poor, ... are all rescued by God, also, regardless of whether we have been able to solve the great unknowns of life. God rescues, yes, people of flesh and blood. According to the Gospels, Jesus does not rescue values, ideas or spirits but lives full of humanity, particular, ordinary, vulnerable, community and, despite everything, certainly wonderful; It is precisely on this area of ​​knowledge that this great film director now remembered as Frank Capra did well to focus. Thank goodness for his talent!


This is an short translation of the original article published in Spanish by Entrelíneas: Revista de Arte as Frank Capra y el Evangelio según Juan Nadie


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