Meet John Doe (1941) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • A penniless drifter (Gary Cooper) is recruited by an ambitious columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) to impersonate a non-existent person who said he'd be committing suicide as a protest, and a social movement begins.

  • As a parting shot, fired reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) prints a fake letter from unemployed "John Doe," who threatens suicide in protest of social ills. The paper is forced to rehire Ann and hires John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to impersonate "Doe." Ann and her bosses cynically milk the story for all it's worth, until the made-up "John Doe" philosophy starts a whole social movement. At last everyone, even Ann, takes her creation seriously...but publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) has a secret plan.

  • A down-on-his-luck homeless man (Gary Cooper) is hired by a major newspaper to be the voice behind a fictional protest letter about society's ills and in the process a nationwide social movement is begun that culminates with the threat of a leap from the roof of City Hall on a cold Christmas Eve night.

  • Columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) has just been made redundant by her newspaper. She has one more column to write and in a fit of pique her final column is a fake letter from a John Doe, saying that, due to the state of society, he intends committing suicide on Christmas Eve. The column sparks an immediate backlash, with local politicians claiming it is a hoax letter aimed at them. With the publicity, Ms Mitchell sees an opportunity and convinces the newspaper to take her back, turning the John Doe story into a series of articles. To convince the public that John Doe is real, she finds a down-and-out drifter (Gary Cooper) to play him. The owner of the newspaper, media tycoon DB Norton (Edward Arnold), gets behind the idea, resulting in John Doe becoming a household name and starting a social revolution.

  • Mad with anger for having to compose one last article after being fired, the calculating columnist, Anne Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), pens a flaming but utterly fictitious letter by the fictional author, "John Doe", who protests against the world's perpetual injustices. Threatening to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, John's desperate manifesto strikes a chord with an army of captivated readers all over America, and as a result, the newspaper decides to embody the ultimatum's spirit in the person of the down-at-the-heels vagabond and former pitcher, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper)--the nation's next-door hero. Now, as Ann's creation and the unstoppable "John Doe Movement" take the country by surprise, artful manipulation, rampant corruption, and above all, corporate greed, threaten to put a premature end to the noble idea. Will the world ever find out the truth?


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • When reporter ANN MITCHELL (Barbara Stanwyck) is laid off by managing editor HENRY CONNELL (James Gleason) because of streamlining, she begs to stay on since she's supporting her MOTHER (Spring Byington) and TWO SISTERS (Tina Thayer and Carlotta Jelm), but it's no use. Angry, she gathers up her belongings but then, as a parting shot, types up a fake letter from "John Doe" stating that he's so downtrodden by the unfairness of things that he intends jumping off the building on Christmas Eve.

    The paper prints the letter and it causes a sensation. Everyone relates to and wants to help John Doe. Connell, desperate to get hold of the original letter is shocked when Ann tells him there was no letter. Connell, angry, is ready to print a retraction but Ann suggests that they hire a "fake John Doe" to embody the pathos of the letter. She gets her job back along with a lucrative fee and contract.

    Several desperate MEN line up claiming to have written the letter, so Ann and Connell must now pick the one. When handsome JOHN WILLOUGHBY (Gary Cooper) walks in, Ann's clearly smitten. A likable, quiet baseball pitcher who's fallen on bad times, John's the one who will become "John Doe." Although he seems too honest to lie, Ann believes he's desperate enough. They create a fake letter, put him up at a fancy hotel with bodyguards, making him sign an agreement. Also in tow (much to Connell's chagrin) is THE COLONEL (Walter Brennan), a confirmed vagabond, distrustful of society, who warns John that he's falling into a trap of privilege.

    Next come publicity photos, which are directed by Ann to get the correct "angry protest" look. With headlines proclaiming his anger at the unfairness of the world, John becomes an increasing media sensation, courtesy of hyperbolic headlines concocted by Connell. Meanwhile, the GOVERNOR (Vaughn Glaser) suspects John Doe is a myth but mistakenly feels it was concocted by publisher B. D. NORTON (Edward Arnold) to discredit him. Ann convinces Norton to play it for what it's worth. Norton offers her money to write radio speeches to sell Doe. He also wants her to work directly with him and not Connell.

    Ann goes to work, typing up a storm but nothing comes to mind. Ann's Mother (Spring Byington) suggests that she write something upbeat and simple, using the values of Ann's late father as an inspiration. By now, John has begun realizing that his baseball career might not get started again if the John Doe business is revealed as a phony.

    Nonetheless, John reads his first manufactured upbeat speech, written by Ann, to a packed house. Ann coaches him to be sincere, suggesting that she's fallen in love with John Doe. The speech, broadcast on the radio, stirs the people with its "love-thy-neighbor" style message. CROWDS love him but John can't get away fast enough. He and the Colonel retreat to riding the rails in a boxcar and flee. B. D. Norton, thinking he was great, wants him located.

    When a DINER WAITER (Sterling Holloway) recognizes him, John's hope for a return to normalcy is squelched by sudden CROWDS, eager to meet him. Ann and Norton locate him. John isn't happy about it. When Norton offers him a lecture tour, he refuses it angrily. When the common PEOPLE who have a "John Doe" club talk to him, however, he softens when hearing how he's touched them. Now, John's torn. His itinerant pal, The Colonel, thinks he's been "hooked" and, disgusted, walks out on him.

    Norton arranges the lecture tour. John speaks in state after state, addressing the many national clubs in his name. Connell tells Norton, however, that he's curious why Norton is spending so much money on the tour. In the meantime, Ann, knowing that John now likes her, feels increasingly like the heel she feels she is. She feels even worse when John relates a tender dream that he had about her and talks to her about how he relates to the lonely, hungry people to whom he's been speaking.

    Norton gives Ann a fur coat and a gift. He then tells her that he wants John Doe to announce a new "third political party," which, it's clear to Ann, was Norton's plan all along. Norton wants to be the presidential candidate for that party, which will be less for the people than it is for those like Norton - big business types. John visits Ann's Mother, telling her he'd like to marry Ann. Her gentle advice is just to ask.

    While John talks with Connell, the editor, who's had a few drinks, blurts that Norton has a dark agenda. John feels hurt and used, as he'd felt the whole John Doe was legitimate, not a tool for Norton's political ambitions. Connell also tells John how well paid Ann is to write the speeches and would do anything for money. Angry, John walk in on Norton and Ann at a lavish dinner party he's having in his mansion. John overhears Norton's political plotting as well as his toast to Ann for having aided him. Ann sees that John is listening.

    John asks Ann if indeed she wrote Norton's speech and she admits it. John then confronts Norton and all at his party. John threatens to thwart his efforts. Norton accuses John of being the fake, not him. Norton threatens to reveal such if he talks. Aghast that Norton would kill the John Doe movement to protect his own interests, John is furious with all of them. He tells them off with passion, impressing Ann and the STAFF, who overhear. John feels that the movement is far too powerful for Norton and his cronies to stop.

    Norton wants John stopped before he can blow the whistle at the huge gathering that has now formed at a public arena. Ann catches up with John, trying to explain, telling him that she didn't know what Norton and his people were doing. John doesn't believe her and won't allow her to accompany him in his cab.

    John shows up at the event as a huge CROWD stands in the rain singing the National Anthem. A PRIEST introduces John. Before he can speak, Norton has published a report that John Doe is a fake. Norton's TROOPERS storm the event as John tries to get the mob's attention and speak. With John subdued, Norton takes the mike and accuses him of being a fraud. As John tries to speak, the Troopers cut the mike cords. Ann listens on the radio as the mob becomes unruly. John returns to his place beneath a bridge with The Colonel.

    Newspapers herald his faker. Clubs disband. John feels disgraced. He's tortured by memories of the sweet, simple people that he feels he now let down. Christmas Eve comes, the appointed time that John Doe was to take his life by leaping from the building. Some of his FOLLOWERS are convinced he'll jump, so they head for the roof, as does Ann.

    Indeed, John shows up, a letter in his hand addressed to the admirers he feels he let down. He's about to jump when Norton steps from the shadows with this MEN, telling him that if he jumps the mayor has been instructed to remove his ID, and thus his suicide will be for nothing. But John tells him he's already mailed a copy of the letter elsewhere. John's glad they're here. He tells Norton that the movement that they killed will be born all over again. Ann shows up as he's about to jump, begging him not to do it. She insists they can start it over again together; his followers agree. John and Ann walk away, and Connell gets in the last word with a thwarted Norton.

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