January 18, 2011
Two versions of the community-made man. Gary Cooper’s John Doe and Willem Dafoe’s Ray Ruby are nothing without their coterie of speech-writers, money-men and erotic dancers. Meet John Doe (1941) and Go Go Tales (2007) each speak to the anxieties of being propped up by the labor of others, with main characters haunted by the possibility of losing their support and having to go it alone. They are paeans to American industriousness, satires of American greed and excess, and hum with the patter of the American workplace. Meet John Doe was recently released on a disappointing DVD by VCI (DVD Beaver has the specs here) and Go Go Tales is currently screening at Anthology Film Archives in NYC. It’s also available on an Italian Region 2 DVD.
John Willoughboy (Cooper) is a burnt-out ex-ballplayer with a bum elbow, in the days before Tommy John surgery. Living the hobo life with The Colonel (a zealous Walter Brennan), he’s hoping to make a quick buck at a newspaper when he sees a lineup outside. What tabloid journalist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is after though, is a flesh and blood dope to embody the outraged John Doe whose letter of civil disobedience she forged in order to pump up circulation and save her job. Soon she builds up John into a folksy voice of the people, promoting neighborliness into a kind of small-town socialism. His immense popularity, represented in nationwide John Doe Clubs, is co-opted by his backer, millionaire D.B. Norton, in a scheme to install a pseudo-fascist state.
The film is strongest early-on, replete with Capra’s pungent dialogue and rich caricatures. The punchiness starts in the opening, with The Bulletin’s old motto, “A free press means a free people”, jackhammered off to make way for The New Bulletin’s tagline, “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.” This visual joke is more relevant than ever, and sets up the knockabout opening where a baby-faced, Mickey Rooney type axes the staff in pantomime, with gestural throat slashes underlined by whistles. Capra captures the impersonal devastation of this corporate takeover in a few flicks of the assistant’s wrists.
Ann, desperate to salvage her job, invents the John Doe letter, whose anti-government, DIY tone loosely echoes the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement (aside from the community organizing he supports). Soon Willoughby is speaking to millions of people around the country, as Ann hones Doe’s image around the philosophy of her late father. The political message Capra is trying to send gets increasingly slippery, as he is both satirizing the gullibility of the American people, who immediately believe in this rather dopey Doe, while still managing to lionize the work ethic and morality of those same citizens. The latter impulse drains the former of any impact. Capra had trouble reconciling these ideas, and filmed five separate endings, and was never satisfied with any of them. In his autobiography, he said:
For seven-eights of the film, Riskin [screenwriter Robert] and I felt we had made The Great American Motion Picture; but in the last eighth, it fizzled into The Great American Letdown.
Whether or not the film coheres thematically (I agree with Capra, it does not), the figure of Doe is surprisingly similar to the character of Ray Ruby in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales. Ruby is the proprietor of Ruby’s Paradise Lounge, a struggling NYC strip club facing massive debts and a restive work force. Ruby is the manic and disarmingly sensitive patriarch of this whirling world of sequins and exploding tanning beds. His wild hopes rest on the American standbys of gambling and conning: playing the lotto and convincing his brother to stay invested.
Doe and Ruby face similar threats, the hellish bureaucracy posed by The New Bulletin’s maxim is transposed by Go Go Tales into the screeching landlord’s (Sylvia Miles at her harpiest) gentrifying threat that she’ll sell Ruby’s building to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Both Doe and Ruby will themselves into believing that they are self-made and impervious to these deprivations, but they are heavily indebted to a web of investors, politicians and relatives to stay afloat. This denial also fuels their finest qualities, creating a naive, idealistic belief in the power of community. In Doe’s case it’s a nationwide mission of charity whose tenets he adopts for himself, and for Ruby it’s the idiosyncratic camaraderie of his Lounge’s denizens. There are his raspy host Bob Hoskins, berating the tourists who idly pass the door, his whimsical Irish accountant/partner-in-crime Jay (Roy Dotrice), and a web of bar squatting wiseguys who provide a never-ending squall of vulgar cracks. Near the end, as the strippers and bouncers put on their weekly talent show of Bronx-accented Shakespeare and interpretive dance, Ruby gives a rousing speech that exposes the philosopher inside the crabby capitalist, and is one that Capra could have used as the sixth ending to Meet John Doe:
Everyone in this room has a chance to become more than they think they are. Freedom of expression, creativity, passion, love for each other, that’s what this is all about.