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Michael Bettencourt
Meeting John Doe

December 2012

I have always been a fan of Frank Capra's 1941 movie Meet John Doe, a tale about a media-created celebrity co-opted for political gain by his creators.  It's something of a third part of a trilogy of movies, the other two being Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  Each of these movies falls victim to Capra's tendency to substitute sentimental notions about the goodness of American character and democratic values for a more incisive look into the situations his narratives raise about class inequality and economic insecurity (what critics of Capra called "Capra-corn").

Meet John Doe is no different.  It includes things like a paean by the grizzled newspaper editor to Lincoln and Jefferson being "lighthouses in a foggy world," John Doe's speech about the "little punks" pulling together to create a tidal wave of good will, a feel-good ending that contravenes the arc of the story that precedes it (with which Robert Riskin, the screenwriter, disagreed strongly).

What draws me to the movie is the seventy-year old story underneath the Capra-corn that is as fresh as the election held last month because we live in a celebrity-confected age where there is no levee between politics and entertainment and where our democracy should be more properly called a "participatory fascism."  (D.B. Norton, the newspaper owner who authorizes the creation of "John Doe," wants to use the enthusiasm of Doe's followers to form a political party that will impose obedience and authority on the American people.  He is our homegrown Mussolini who believes democracy has lost its voltage because it's made too many concessions to the wrong kind of people.  Sound familiar, i.e., Romney's 47%?)

In 1941, the Screen Guild Theater did a radio play version, and there is a musical theater adaptation as well.  But there's never been a dramatic stage version created. Until now.

On October 9, 2012, the company I co-founded, Block & Tackle Productions, put on a reading of Meet John Doe, adapted from the Robert Riskin screenplay for the stage.  The adaptation, from shooting script to stage script, went quite easily, once I had figured out stage equivalents for what Capra did with the camera.  Here's a list of the decisions I made concerning the stagecraft:

    Characters: Of course Capra could job in any number of actors (such as the rogues' gallery of bums who offer to be John Doe).  What I did was have two actors (male and female) play utility roles (e.g., the editor's secretary, John Doe's bodyguard) as a way to present a cavalcade of characters without breaking the budget.

    Scene Changes and Sets: I hate it when plays becomes about the set changes between scenes, so I like to build in fluid shifts, where characters can walk out of one space into another in two seconds flat.  To allow for this, I've created the minimum needed to set a scene, which can be moved on by stagehands or (I prefer) the actors themselves. It's something of the equivalent of the fade out/fade in that film can do.

    Projections and Sound Design:  To streamline things further, I've built in a strong projection and sound scheme, even to using clips from the original movie.

All of that technical finagling is engaging, but the more challenging work comes in making the story dramatically interesting.  Not that Riskin's story isn't.  Here's a thumbnail description of the plot:

    In 1941, a newspaper wanting to increase its circulation runs a scam when it creates a fictional John Doe, an Everyman who has threatened to jump off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve to protest the injustices of the world. They then hire a man needing money to impersonate this John Doe, as they call him, with the stipulation that on Christmas Day, he disappears with his payment in hand.  However, his "protest" catches the attention of the nation, and an inadvertent political movement begins, co-opted by the owner of the newspaper for his own political ends.  It all concludes on the rooftop of City Hall on Christmas Eve.

But its rendering on the page and screen has a 1941 feel to it, and Riskin was working under Capra's direction, so (as I'll explain in a moment) it couldn't take a direction Riskin might have wanted to take.

So the challenge to me was to keep some of its "1941-ness" (especially in terms of the dialogue's pace) while making it also feel contemporary without necessarily "contemporizing" it by updating it.  I did this in a couple of ways.

First, wherever possible, I kept Riskin's original words, but when they felt too cornpone or folksy or just too un-modern, I "hardened" them by stripping them of various locutions (such as using "well, okay" to preface a statement that John Doe makes) and keeping the conversation line as clean and direct as possible.  And where something that Riskin used didn't fit my story idea, I changed it to what I wanted to hear.

Second, I also wanted my story idea to be "harder" than the story that comes out in the screenplay.  In Riskin's work, John Doe (whose real name was John Willoughby, played by Gary Cooper) and Ann Mitchell, the originator of the scam (played by Barbara Stanwyck), sort-of stumble into the evils they perpetrate. Doe is shown as a basically decent man who becomes fooled by the wolves of the world, while Mitchell suffers a crisis of conscience about how she's let herself be used to create the fiction and aches for redemption.

I wanted them both to be more active in the decision they make to go ahead with what they know is a dishonest scheme, so I made them both more decisive about the course they choose to follow, in part to cleanse them of the kind of sentimentality that people use to excuse others from being held responsible for their actions.  Both John and Ann know what they're setting up, and even if events pretty quickly get out of their hands, they know full well what deals with the devil they have made.

Finally, I wanted the end of the story to be "harder" than the one Capra settled on -- I wanted the ending to be the one that Riskin argued for but didn't get.  Capra wanted uplift at the end, but Riskin argued that the only course of action, given the story they'd set up, was to have John Wiiloughby take the jump John Doe had promised to take, now that everything had been lost and Willoughby's life had become a sham.  I sided with Riskin in my version.

So, there it is, a fresh-minted renewal of an old movie that keeps the feel of the original without getting mired in nostalgia while freshening it up without obliterating the original by making it completely contemporary.

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©2012 Michael Bettencourt
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

Read his theatre reviews in Scene4's Qreviews
For more of his Scene4 columns and articles, check the Archives
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