With the month of December here, it is time for one of the rituals of Christmas – watching a Frank Capra movie. No, I’m not talking about “It’s A Wonderful Life,” but the criminally underrated “Meet John Doe,” one of my top 10 films of all time. With the recent troubles at Hostess, continued high unemployment, and political fights about the “fiscal cliff,” Meet John Doe is just as fitting today as it was in 1941 … And it airs on Turner Classic Movies at 7am on December 24th, by the way.
A quick plot setup: Columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) faces layoff in her job at a newspaper. Criticized that her writing style lacks bite, she writes a scathing letter from the fictional, unemployed “John Doe” who details societal ills, and threatens to thrown himself off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve.
The resulting letter sparks an outpouring of concern from government leaders, as the rival newspaper that believes the letter is fiction to spark sales, and the public concerned with John Doe’s plight. Given the publicity, the new editor-in-chief keeps Ann on to run with the story. They audition indigent men to play the role and enter “Long John Willoughby,” a former baseball pitcher (Gary Cooper) looking to repair his injured arm . He becomes an instant celebrity, as the public sees him (through the articles and speeches written by Ann) as a symbol for honesty and integrity. Moved by his actions, “John Doe” clubs soon spring up around the country promoting being a good neighbor. However, trouble looms in the form of financier D.B. Norton who wants to exploit the success of the clubs for his own political ambition.
So, what can we learn from “Meet John Doe?”
The rise of the John Doe clubs focus on transcending politics and government with a greater focus on concern for one’s neighbor. When John Doe address a meeting of the clubs, he says,
“I know a lot of you are saying, ‘What can I do? I’m just a little punk. I don’t count. Well, you’re dead wrong. The little punks have always counted because in the long run, the character of a country is the sum total of the character of its little punks.
But we’ve all got to get in there and pitch. We can’t win the old ball game unless we have teamwork. And that’s where every John Doe comes in. It’s up to him to get together with his teammate, and your teammate, my friends, is the guy next door to ya. Your neighbor – he’s a terribly important guy, that guy next door. You’re gonna need him and he’s gonna need you, so look him up. If he’s sick, call on him. If he’s hungry, feed him. If he’s out of a job, find him one. To most of you, your neighbor is a stranger, a guy with a barkin’ dog and a high fence around him. Now you can’t be a stranger to any guy that’s on your own team. So tear down the fence that separates you. Tear down the fence and you’ll tear down a lot of hates and prejudices. Tear down all the fences in the country and you’ll really have teamwork.
I know a lot of you are saying to yourselves: ‘He’s askin’ for a miracle to happen. He’s expecting people to change all of a sudden.’ Well, you’re wrong. It’s no miracle. It’s no miracle because I see it happen once every year and so do you at Christmastime. There’s something swell about the spirit of Christmas, to see what it does to people, all kinds of people. Now why can’t that spirit, that same warm Christmas spirit last the whole year round? Gosh, if it ever did, if each and every John Doe would make that spirit last 365 days out of the year – we’d develop such a strength, we’d create such a tidal wave of good will that no human force could stand against it. Yes sir, my friends, the meek can only inherit the earth when the John Does start loving their neighbors. You’d better start right now. Don’t wait till the game is called on account of darkness. Wake up, John Doe, you’re the hope of the world.”
In an era of tough economic times, reliance on each other is ever more critical.
Another of the great speeches in the wonderful script by Robert Riskin is given by Long John’s friend, the Colonel on the worship of money:
All right. You’re walking along, not a nickel in your jeans, your free as the wind, nobody bothers ya. Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business: shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, everything, and there all nice lovable people and they lets you alone, is that right? Then you get a hold of some dough and what happens, all those nice sweet lovable people become helots, a lotta heels. They begin to creep up on ya, trying to sell ya something: they get long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya, and you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try to push them away but you haven’t got the chance. They gots ya. First thing ya know you own things, a car for instance, now your whole life is messed up with alot 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 tickets and courtrooms and lawyers and fines and… a million and one other things. What happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You need to have money to pay for all those things, so you go after what the other fellas got. There you are, you’re a helot yourself
Laurie Ruettiman recently wrote “8 Ways to Save Money and Change Jobs”, with suggestions on how to prepare for a new position. How much of our lives are driven by the Colonel’s words that keep us dependent on the employer we have?
As a leader of an organization, one needs to be aware of how one’s words directly and indirectly impact others. Similarly, as citizens we need to be less accepting and more critical of what our leaders have to say.
Today’s post was written by Matthew Stollak. Matt is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Saint Norbert College in De Pere, WI. He also serves as chapter advisor for the Saint Norbert College student SHRM organization. You can check him out on Twitter at @akaBruno or at his True Faith HR blog at truefaithhr.blogspot.com.