During the 2011 holiday season, we’re a year further into a stalled economy but we’ve also witnessed the phenomenal rise of the populist Occupy Wall Street Movement and the death and legacy of a modern Einstein, Apple visionary Steve Jobs. It seems a good time to repeat a blog I wrote last year about the lessons for hard times we can learn from one of our greatest filmmakers, Frank Capra, a Sicilian immigrant who wrote several tributes to the “common man” (including the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946). Capra, who lived the American dream by putting himself through college with several jobs, was also fearless in the pursuit of his film career during the depression. He truly believed that the enemy was greed and that “Meet John Doe” was a script he needed to direct.
Frank Capra and “Meet John Doe”:
Despite his growing fame throughout the 1930s, the screwball comedy genius Frank Capra also wanted to establish himself as a serious filmmaker. Subsequent films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” with Jimmy Stewart, which he produced in 1939, still did not approach the success of “It Happened One Night,” a 1934 romantic comedy by screenwriter Robert Riskin that featured Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. “It Happened One Night” garnered all five top Oscars, including Best Picture – a feat that was not matched until 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and later in 1991 by “Silence of the Lambs.” Capra was determined to produce another script by Riskin with a populist theme that reflected his views on America and the fate of the common man during the depression; but to finance this one, Capra had to first mortgage his house. The film was “Meet John Doe” with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the starring roles, which premiered in 1941 and was an immediate hit. It also earned him another Academy Award nomination for best screenplay and has remained a highly regarded film.
As I watched it recently on PBS, I thought of the lingering hardships in this economic cycle and wondered how many brilliant works of art, new inventions or breakthrough ideas are out there waiting for the dreamer to take a huge economic risk in this stagnant economy.
I remain hopeful that the solution to our present malaise is a new wave of innovation, ready for launch, including creating new green products and industries to fight global warming – and new ideas for solving the lingering environmental impact of disasters like the BP Oil spill. I only hope those young innovators have the courage of Frank Capra.
There’s another message in this film. It was about a young woman reporter about to be fired by her editor as they streamline staff during hard times – she dreamed up a story about an angry common man threatening to jump off a building on Christmas eve and presented it to her editor as her parting shot. He loved it, even when she admitted that she had invented John Doe, but argued he would be easy to find – she was right. The movie’s ultimate theme was that people needed to reach out to their neighbors during the depression and help each other – and the result was a political movement of “John Doe” clubs, making sure no one was battling joblessness or foreclosure alone. It’s a message that is timeless and I wanted to share it again. Thank you, Frank Capra, for the courage to keep sharing your serious side.