During the Fourth of July I try to recount some of the things that I love about this country. One of the things that I love about this country are the great movies of populist filmmaker Frank Capra of the 1930s and 1940s.
When I first watched Frank Capra’s movies, I had initially assumed that he was a New Deal liberal because his movies had such sympathy for the common man. When I read Joseph McBride’s book “Frank Capra: Castastrophe of Success”, I was surprised to learn that Capra was a conservative Republican. Capra, however, was an open minded man in the 1930s and 1940s and he collaborated with progressive screenwriters on his best films. Robert Riskin, the screenwriter of “It Happened One Night”, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town”, and “Meet John Doe”, was a New Deal liberal. Sid Buchman, the screenwriter of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was an American communist. So Capra’s films were a mix of progressive and conservative views.
During the late 1930s to early 1940s, Frank Capra and his progressive screenwriters made a trilogy of films that explored the viability of the American democratic republic in the face of a Great Depression, the growing threat of authoritarianism in Germany, Italy and Japan, and the internal threats of demagogues like Father Coughlin and Huey Long. “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” explores the responsibility of the community to help those struggling economically through the Great Depression. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” explored the struggles of reformers fighting against the collusion of political machines, big corporations and big government. “Meet John Doe” explores the vulnerability of desperate people to the lure of demagogues and fascist movements.
Here is the 1941 movie “Meet John Doe”, Frank Capra’s last collaboration with screenwriter Robert Riskin. “Meet John Doe” dealt with the ease that a populace can fall for a demagogue and a fascist movement. It warns viewers to fight threats to the free press.
There is a pivotal scene in the movie where the main character, John Willoughby, tries to warn a large audience in a political rally of the dangers of a fascist movement but is drowned out. I have a theory that this scene was inspired by a Nazi rally that took place on February 20, 1939 in Madison Square Garden in New York City that was attended by 20,000 people. In the middle of the rally, Isadore Greenbaum tried to rush the stage to interrupt the speakers, but was beaten up by Nazi members. Both the conservative Capra and the liberal Riskin were horrified by the Nazi rally and I deduce that this inspired a similar scene in “Meet John Doe”.