Meet John Doe, directed by Frank Capra, was a jewel in the careers of Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. It was filmed in 1941, just as WW 2 was repairing the financial ruin that defined the 30s, and the general population was reeling from hunger and hopelessness. Stanwyck plays a newspaper reporter, Ann Mitchell, who is about to lose her job. Her father has died, and she is the sole supporter for her and her mother. Out of desperation and using her father's populist writings, she submits a fictitious letter from a down-and-out man, a hobo, and it saves her job. It also launches a series of events that cannot be corked, even by a power-hungry man with political aspirations.
Here is the letter that sets up the story:
Dear Miss Mitchell:In setting out to find an actual John Doe, an Everyman to fill the shoes of the letter writer, Mitchell unearths Long John Willoughby (Cooper), a washed up baseball player who travels by box car with The Colonel (Walter Brennan). She is smitten, and the crew is catapulted into a web of deceit that captivates the nation. The new John Doe spreads the word of neighborly love and kindness, the need for hopeful living and generosity despite empty cupboards. John Doe Societies are spontaneously formed across the nation, and stories of neighbor helping neighbor are told in every coffee shop and every market where people gather. It's a movement Mitchell and her newspaper publishers never predicted.
Four years ago, I was fired out of my job. Since then, I haven't been able to get another one. At first, I was sore at the state administration because it's on account of the slimy politics here. We have all this unemployment. But in looking around, it seems the whole world is goin' to pot. So in protest, I'm goin' to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof.
Signed, a disgusted American citizen. John Doe.
Long John is along for the ride, all the while believing in the principles he has come to represent, but The Colonel is skeptical and launches into one of the most memorable speeches in movie history:
Eventually the truth, comes out and the gig is up. But the spirit of the John Doe Society has been released on the needy population and cannot be taken back. It thrives, and when Long John, as his fictitious letter promised, attempts to jump from a building on Christmas Eve, wrong is made right, and the Everyman gains the power by right and sheer will.
All those nice, sweet, lovable people become heelots. A lotta heels! They begin creepin' up on ya, tryin' to sell ya something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya and ya squirm and ya duck and ya holler and ya try to push 'em away, but you haven't got a chance. They've got ya. The first thing you know, you own things - a car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fines - and a million and one other things! And what happens? You're not the free and happy guy you used to be. You've gotta have money to pay for all those things. So you go after what the other fella's got. And there you are - you're a heelot yourself.
If you're thinking this kind of selflessness could never happen spontaneously today, here is a story from my local newspaper about this very kind of thing--neighbor helping neighbor. No government program started it. No government program funds it. It's just the Everyman helping the Everyman. It's people who resist the urge to become "heelots" by sacrificing their excess to balance the loss of a neighbor.