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There are certain movies that just resonate – that stay with you and keep giving no matter how often you watch them. One of those films I’ve come to treasure is Meet John Doe, directed and produced by Frank Capra, whose creative projects include It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra’s films tend to be populist in tone, favoring themes of integrity and responsibility to our fellow human beings. Meet John Doe is no exception.

The basic story focuses on John Willoughby, a former, and now homeless baseball player. He takes on the role of John Doe, a spokesman for the downtrodden, when he meets Ann Mitchell, a cynical reporter who becomes a believer in John Doe’s mission after being reminded by her mother of her deceased father’s compassion and optimism,

It all begins as the newspaper where Ann works has been bought by a media mogul, D B Norton, who is intent on remaking it. His emphasis on efficiency and profitability over integrity leads him to fire the entire staff. Ann’s last column concerns a fictional John Doe who threatens to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall tower on Christmas Eve because of the sorry state of the world. The letter has such a strong reaction from readers that Ann is retained by the paper and given the assignment of finding someone to play the role of John Doe. John Willoughby is selected, given celebrity treatment, and reads an inspiring speech on the radio written by Ann.

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 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.

Conflicted by the fact that he’s deceiving people – that he isn’t really the person he’s pretending to be-- John leaves abruptly, heads back out on the road and ends up in a small town where he’s recognized as John Doe. He meets with a group of town residents who’ve formed a John Doe Club to put the idealism of the speech they've heard into practice. They mention how they’ve all started talking to each other and helping each other, particularly those in need. John is so touched by this – and his feelings for Ann who is there in the town at the same time – that he agrees to return to his role as John Doe.

This is a key scene for me  I’ve lived in neighborhoods inhabited by a lot of people who are strangers to each other. Instead of realizing how terribly important the “guy next door” is, I’ve seen so many people, myself included, go about their lives missing opportunities for friendship and genuine connection.  There’s an inherent loneliness in this way of living. As the townspeople in the film discovered, there’s so much more to be gained by saying hello, talking to each other and addressing the needs of their community together. Recognizing the importance of our neighbors and the essential role we need to play in each other's lives – to provide support, compassion, friendship and love-- isn’t a new message, but it’s one that needs to be repeated over and over. I’ve been inspired by this to take the opportunity whenever I can to reach out and talk to the people I encounter and have found it a tremendously enriching experience.

At the heart of this quaint, little movie, a product of its time, is an undying truth that we ignore at our peril. We, each of us, should not feel we are alone. We don’t have to go it alone if we open ourselves to each other and have the courage and trust to share our lives.

Frank Capra presented us with a film that endures even though it may have been forgotten by so many. It’s one of those bright candles that can illuminate the night of the soul, giving us hope and inspiration. It can, I hope, help us live our lives more mindful of each other, becoming more willing and able to extend ourselves. It’s had that impact on me and I believe it can do the same for others.
If you’d like to watch Meet John Doe, here’s a link:
Meet John Doe

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