The film begins with a sleazy corporate newspaper riling people up with a series of letters from John Doe. John Doe is fed up with immorality and he’s going to commit suicide on Christmas Eve in protest.
The column is such a hit that the newspaper has to find a hunky human face for John Doe.
They enlist John Willoughby (Gary Cooper): a washed-up minor league pitcher and unemployed drifter.
Yesterday he was on the street. Today he’s in a posh hotel and the newspaper is giving him wads of cash.
What a win! Not so fast … John’s hobo pal Colonel (Walter Brennan) warns John about the peril of luxury and money. “Beware of the helots,” he says.
What’s a helot?
Colonel: “All right: you’re walking along, not a nickel in your jeans, you’re free as the wind, nobody bothers ya’. Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business: shoes, hats, radios, everything, and they’re all nice, lovable people and they lets you alone.
Then you get a hold of some dough and what happens? All those nice sweet lovable people become helots, a lotta heels. They begin to creep up on ya, trying to sell ya something: they got long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya, and you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try to push them away but you haven’t got a chance. They gots ya.
First thing ya know you own things. A car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff: you get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fines and … a million and one other things.
What happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You need to have money to pay for all those things, so you go after what the other fella’s got. There you are, and you’re a helot yourself.”
This is the most subversive message I’ve ever seen put on film. Frank Capra (“It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) was one heck of an interesting director.
Frank Capra wasn’t the most talented or artful filmmaker. But he was the most passionate. Part of the unique magic of his movies is that his passionate ideas are contradictory.
Mr. Capra (born Francesco Capra in Sicily) was intensely patriotic. If America hadn’t accepted him, he would have been living in Mussolini’s Italy, and he was appropriately grateful.
But Capra was suspicious of power. The director was dubious of politicians, media moguls, and especially businessmen.
He was in love with the greatest capitalist country the world had ever seen. But that love was crashing head on into his sincere belief in literal Christianity.
Capra didn’t just believe in God; he believed in actual angels. He believed that the moral way to live was to be homeless and possessionless like the Disciples.
All of these beautiful, contradictory passions are on display in “Meet John Doe.”
This film is a reminder that the people who run our world are fine with you going to church. But if you have the temerity to follow The New Testament and drop out of commercial civilization, you are the most odious threat to their power. It’s a wonder that our corporate overlord Jeff Bezos allows “Meet John Doe” on Amazon Prime Video. I recommend that you call his bluff and watch it.