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Meet Jane Doe

October 11, 2009

[Note added Dec. 13, 2009: This thing was written before the airing of the actual Dollhouse episode of this name, with which it turns out to have nothing to do. Just didn’t want anyone to think it’s a review.]

V. excited that an upcoming episode of Dollhouse is called “Meet Jane Doe.”

I think its name comes from Meet John Doe, a Frank Capra movie. Capra-spoilers and possible concept spoilers (hey, you never know) for the upcoming episodes of Dollhouse follow.

First off: Don’t read this. Rent and watch Meet John Doe. It’s the first movie I bought on VHS.

(Days pass. You watch Meet John Doe, are intrigued, and return here.)

I love Frank Capra, think he was a real artist. I love best the ones everyone loves best: “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I think the latter is a great American tragedy turned into a comedy by a Deus Ex Machina that truly deserves the name–and, unlike the classic Deus Ex Machina that is a narrative flaw, the one in “It’s a Wonderful Life” actually heightens the tragedy and the comedy, because its presence in the narrative is the measure of how great George Bailey’s problems, and his solution, are.

See what happens when I don’t spend time honing sentences? They embiggen. Also, I type “it’s” when I mean”its.”

In the midst of all this commercial and artistic success, Capra made Meet John Doe, which is insufficiently watched and loved today for some of the same reasons Dollhouse is insufficiently watched and loved. To sum up, it’s dark and difficult and doesn’t make you feel totesome about yourself, like classic Little Red Riding Hood.

Viewed one way, Meet John Doe looks like it was made by someone who hates Frank Capra and set out to subvert everything he stands for. Instead of the good-hearted, small town American Mr. Deedsmith going to the corrupt big city to restore it to virtue, the central character of Meet John Doe is a fraud. Actually, central characters. Barbara Stanwyck plays one of those cynical 1930s lady reporters (were they dame reporters? Broad reporters? Strong woman journalists?) who, when she’s fired due to Great Depression, takes her revenge by writing a parting column about a (fake) suicide note she got in the mail (made up herself) from a “John Doe” who says he’s going to take his life on . . . dang, I can’t remember if it was Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, but it was one of them Eves. In protest of man’s inhumanity to man and the general badness.

Naturally, said column is HUGE, biggest ever, the whole town is up in arms, the newspaper editor calls in the fired Stanwyck who tells him . . . he’s going to have to run a front-page apology for publishing a fraudulent column unless he gives her back her job. They hire a John Doe to front the columns she writes in his made-up, archetypal name. Naturally, they hire a drifter who looks just like Gary Cooper. (Baseball player with a bum arm who takes the job in return for getting his arm fixed by Bonesetter Brown [with a name like Bonesetter, you know his preferred anesthetic is a baseball bat] and a oneway ticket out of town come Something Eve.)

Anyhoo, this John Doe column takes off, especially when Babs start cribbing inspirational sections from the diary of her late father, who I gather cribbed them from The Reader’s Digest, inspiring folks to be good and kind to one another and start up John Doe Clubs all across the land. Everyone’s inspired like they’d sat through a Frank Capra marathon film fest. Can you overdose on inspiration? Idealism sets in, making Gary and Barbara feel darn good about themselves. It might be love. In love with each other or themselves or their fabricated images of themselves, it’s not so clear, but it’s hard not to hope for some redemption for these two. Cuz: Gary Cooper + Barbara Stanwyck.

Enter evil in a suit, Lionel Barrymore as C.B. Bigstuff, owner of the newspaper that’s publishing the John Doe columns, and an image of American proto-fascism with his own private uniformed police force that parades in formation on motorcycle for him as he plots his rise to political power. This is 1941, when fascism of the non-proto sort reigned in Europe and its colonies, so the idea of a wealthy industrialist posing as the voice of the people was, shall we say, richly metaphorical. C.B. wants “John Doe” to endorse him for president and, this being a movie, the endorsement would mean that It Will Happen Here.

So, yeah, Meet John Doe is about cynical people creating a phony avatar of homespun American values to advance their careers–characters who are nightmare versions of the man who created Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith.

Except Gary and Barbara don’t really want to be part of the rise of American fascism. They start making choices that sacrifice their own personal interests for the greater good. Those roles they adopted cynically–that role they jointly created–they start to earn it.

The rally in the rain gets praised for wrong reasons. It’s not a technical marvel–it’s a bunch of people standing in the rain. It’s a dramatic marvel. The moment when Gary Cooper becomes John Doe, becomes the defender of American democratic virtue by turning against his puppet master, is the moment when his puppet master publicly denounces him (here’s the great drama of it) (wait for it) (OK, now) in terms that are more or less accurate. C.B. calls him a fraud, and he is. Reveals that John Doe is the creation of a cynical reporter. And he is. The mob, robbed of its illusion, turns against Gary Cooper. And the mob has a point. Gary Cooper has stymied C.B., but at the loss of his public identity. It’s marvelously complex moment. John has started earning his integrity, but is paying the price of his past lack of integrity. The mob is freed of one illusion–by a man who had hoped to use that illusion for his own purposes–only to embrace another illusion, switching from foolish adoration of The Good in Us Incarnate to just as foolish hatred of Bad Incarnate. John stands revealed, but defaced. He’s never been better or looked worse. And yes, buckets and buckets of rain and so many black umbrellas and who cares–it all comes down to a close up of Gary Cooper and the empathy you feel for him, in all his guilt and nascent nobility.

Capra famously did not know how to end the movie. Should Gary Cooper follow through on “John Doe’s” suicide threat? Should “the people” save him? He’s supposed to have made the wrong choice, but it works for me. The problem with Meet John Doe is like the problem with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, another work focused on political immorality. There’s too much tragedy in it for a comic ending to work. But there’s also too much comedy in it for a tragic ending to work. Sure, ending Meet John Doe with Gary Cooper’s death would have been a braver commercial choice, but artistically, it would have been just as unsatisfying as his last-minute rescue. IMSolitaryO. (The conventional wisdom is that Capra should have gone dark. But the film is not a noir. It has heavy, beautifully done, noir elements, but also some hard-earned, or at least hard-suffered, redemption. It’s not black and white, and it’s not gray–it’s high-contrast, intricate chiaroscuro, a dramatic arrangement of contrasting elements.)

Notional Dollhouse spoilers:

Remember how quickly Echo told the serial killer’s victims to kill him/her in Tim Minear‘s awesome “Belle Chose”? Maybe they’re laying the groundwork for Echo to make a Jane Doe choice at the climax of this season. If the Dollhouse uses her to create the perfect political candidate, how can she save America from herself? By taking her own life? By going public with the existence of the Dollhouse? As Angelus Angelo put it in Measure for Measure, “Who will believe thee?”

  1. October 15, 2009 5:34 pm

    Pointy, I really enjoy your analysis. I found your site because of a link from Whedonesque a while back to one of your Dollhouse analyses. I want to add something more substantive but am at a loss, but I feel apalled that no one has yet congratulated you. I’m a Capra fan (I was on the edge of my seat during Mr. Smith, consider It’s a Wonderful Life a yearly tradition) saw Meet John Doe a few years ago and came away mildly impressed but not floored; this essay makes me want to revisit it. Your reviews of DH are also spot-on and among the best writing that I’ve read on the show. I do wish you would continue with your “Omega” review as I have several problems with that episode and I’m curious whether your review would help me work through them–but I digress! Great job.

    Regarding your speculation about Echo later in the season: from “Epitaph One” it seems as if that the Dollhouse is not common knowledge in the future, but the blindness of people at large even to openly revealed facts runs throughout Whedon’s work, most obviously in the common blindness to vampires et al. in the Buffyverse but also Mal’s insistence in Serenity (admittedly not in the final cut of the film) that the people will soon forget about the government’s role in Miranda. If Echo does try to come forward, we can be fairly sure she will not be successful; but how close could she get?

  2. Pointy permalink*
    October 15, 2009 7:35 pm

    Thank you very kindly, William B! I was starting to think that no one was interested in a review of a show whose reviewer who hasn’t seen it and whose published plot description is like . . . none of the above. Odd, isn’t it?

    I had a college Capra obsession. I want to multi-part review Omega, too, thank you for your kind encouragement, but I am currently putting all writing energies into a large long-term project that needs them. Omega does serve up some of the juiciest, pan-seared problems, so naturally I desire to return to it.

    Now you’re making me think of Dollhouse Season Two finale scenes! 😀

  3. October 18, 2009 6:05 am

    Yum. I watched the movie yesterday.

  4. Pointy permalink*
    October 18, 2009 9:58 am

    Which reminds me: Barbara Stanwyck is to die for!

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