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Meet John Doe

Ring a Ding Ding

Meet John Doe (1941)

     Gary Cooper was a wonderfully diverse actor. He could just as easily play the confident and tough lawman, lover or soldier as he could let Director Frank Capra break him down into an apologetic everyman. That is how we find him in Meet John Doe, a movie that also presented me with the least sexual Barbara Stanwyck I have ever seen.

 
     Like the small-towner in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Cooper plays a nobody who becomes more than a somebody, which essentially makes this picture a combination of the aforementioned film with A Face in the Crowd. Like the former, our leading man is manipulated/discovered by a female reporter and like the latter the protagonist becomes a national symbol with masses of followers.
 
    When the wealthy B.D. Norton (Edward Arnold) purchases The Bulletin, Stanwyck’s Ann Mitchell finds herself fired like many others at the newspaper. She’s required to write one last column before she heads out, however, so she fabricates a letter from a reader who says he will jump off town hall on Christmas Eve because he is fed up with the ills of society. The item becomes a sensation and Ann and her editor Connell (James Gleason) are forced to find someone to act as this John Doe or be humiliated by a rival paper.
 
     In interviewing a host of down-and-out men who come forward claiming to be the letter’s author, Ann and Connell agree John Willoughby (Cooper), a former small-time baseball player, is the perfect fit. They put him up in a hotel and hide him from the world while Ann gets to work writing more of “his” letters about his outrage against society to run in the paper. John is eventually put on the radio, reading a speech Ann wrote using inspiration from her deceased father’s diary. The man is a sensation and John Doe Clubs start popping up around the nation.
 
     John is upset that the whole persona is a lie but he cannot deny the good it is doing through these clubs that involve neighbors accepting each other and working together for the common good. Publisher Norton is even sponsoring these clubs around the country, although it is easy to see he must have something sinister in mind.
 
     That something is a run for president, and Norton plans to have John endorse him at a big rally for the clubs. Ann writes the speech but is stuck in moral turmoil as her involvement in the ruse has brought her a significant increase in salary. John plan to reveal the whole scheme to the rally crowd, but Norton puts out papers revealing the fraud before he can speak, thus making him the object of the mass’ rage. Although he had never intended to jump from town hall as the fictional John Doe said he would, the real one sees it as a way to reunite his followers.
 
     Meet John Doe is not without its romance. Although Stanwyck’s character is solely career focused, John cannot help but be fascinated by the woman. She resists him until the end, all the while be showered with gifts from Norton’s nephew. Nevertheless it was strange to see Stanwyck in a role that was neither sweetly romantic nor severely seductive. This brunette version of the star does a fantastic job of pulling off a massive ruse all while convincing us she is a pure and admirable person.
 
     It goes without saying that Cooper is great. He had by this point in his career such a rugged face that he could be perfectly believable as the ragged, dirty bum we first meet and as handsome, romantic personality he becomes. UnlikeA Face in the Crowd, his character never becomes power crazed but instead fights the urge to run away from his new life, much like his Mr. Deeds character.
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Platinum Blonde

Gasser

Platinum Blonde (1931)

     Jean Harlow essentially perfected a character for herself, one that perhaps immoral by the standards of her day, was always endearing. She was the blonde, usually moderate- to low-income gal who would get her man by any means. She had sass and bared her sexuality shamelessly. In Platinum Blonde, however –a film that was literally named for her– Harlow takes on an entirely different role: the socialite.

     Newspaperman Stew Smith, played by Robert Williams, is assigned to interview a wealthy family –the Schuylers– about a breach of promise suit filed by a chorus girl against the son. He immediately makes eyes at Harlow’s daughter character, Ann, and enrages the family by refusing to take a bribe and running the story even after Ann flirtatious sidled up to the working man. Later, after interviewing the chorus girl, Stew returns to the Schuyler mansion with a stack of love letters the complainant was holding as further blackmail. He refuses a check from Ann and she softens to him.

     It is not long before Stew and Ann marry against her family’s wishes. This upsets fellow reporter Gallagher (Loretta Young) who has been pining for Stew. Thinking that he and his wife will take an apartment, Stew learns otherwise and is moved into a wing of the Schuyler mansion. He continues his job out of pride but is often ribbed by his coworkers who call him a bird in a “gilded cage” and “Ann Schuyler’s husband”.  The union is destined for failure if only because Stew’s disinterest in money has him as an outcast in his new setting.

     Platinum Blonde was originally titled “Gallagher”, but when Jean Harlow’s fame grew enormously during filming, thanks to films such as The Public Enemy, the producers saw fit to profit from her stardom. When watching, the film, however, one has to wonder if the script was also altered to feature Harlow more prominently. One hardly notices Young’s characters, so the “Gallagher” title makes little sense. Her role becomes more prominent in the end but she has maybe half the screen time Harlow does.

     In this sophisticated role, Harlow makes an effort to change her voice to one a bit softer and stick her nose up a bit more. Her clothes, though their usual silky style are more conservative and look less like they might slip off her shoulder at any moment. Williams gets the prize for performance, however. His witty dialogue and delivery of it put awkward dry laughs into the atmosphere of a snooty mansion, making us all feel at ease. Tragically, Williams died at age 34 of a ruptured appendix four days after Platinum Blonde premiered.

Source: Robert Osborne

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

Dullsville

The Bitter Tea of
General Yen (1933)

     I have mentioned before how casting westerners to play exotic and foreign roles was prevalent in early movies and fairly disgraceful, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen is another example. At least in this film only the male lead is a false “Chinaman” played by Nils Asther, a silent picture leading man of Denmark origin who played mostly side roles in talking films. He personifies a Chinese warlord who holds an American missionary captive while he tries to win her affection. Barbara Stanwyck plays the woman, who came to China to marry a childhood friend (also American) she had not seen in three years. General Yen rescues her from a mob scene and takes her to his palace.

     As I watched this mediocre flick, I felt as though this plot had been done before (or again, as the case may be), and in fact, it largely reflects Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (and possibly other incarnations, but that is the only version I know). An evil creature forces a woman to live in luxury while he tries to convince her to fall in love with him. She cannot leave and eventually succumbs to amorous feelings. Although Yen is not a beast, he is monstrous in his military tactics — executing lines of prisoners outside the woman’s window one morning.
     (SPOILER [although you shouldn’t care because this movie is lousy]) Unlike the beast in the animated film, Yen cannot magically become a normal human at film’s end. In fact, once Stanwyck’s Megan is offered her freedom (as happens in B&B), she declares in all her Stockholm Syndromed glory that she could never leave him now.  The thought is absurd given this man is a brutal killer and has never really shown himself to be romantically viable. Megan’s feeling seem to be based entirely on a dream she has early in the film where Yen as a Max Schreck-style vampire attacks her only to have another Yen rescue her. Luckily for all involved, Yen opts to permanently free Megan by doing himself in via poisoned tea, hence the title. (End SPOILER)
     The Bitter Tea of General Yen is surprisingly directed by Frank Capra, who gave us such memorable features as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Arsenic and Old Lace. He already had 21 films under his belt, but apparently this picture came early enough in his career that we cannot fault him. He would not make the Best Picture-winning It Happened One Night for another year. I also must make mention of the hilarious movie poster shown above. There is nothing remotely that racy going on at any juncture in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and I don’t think Stanwyck has ever been that well endowed. Nevertheless, perhaps it convinced audiences to flock to the theater on false pretenses. Surely they were disappointed.
  • The Bitter Tea of General Yen is set for noon ET Dec. 15 on TCM.
     
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