Meet John Doe (1941)
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Gary Cooper delivers a masterful performance, and in keeping with the film, achieves this with a deceptively easy touch. He is supported by a peerless cast which includes Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Brennan, both on top form.
Perhaps most impressive is the illustration of Capra's democratic ideal by including the views of the audience throughout the story. You can find all your views being voiced by different characters at various points in the tale, opening the question of just who is the average everyman that Capra is seeking to show? - and how do they relate to you?
This movie is ten stars all over. Even for keen Capra fans, the expectation is surpassed by the final delivery. Thoroughly recommended.
Struggling columnist Ann Mitchell (the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck) is one of many about to receive their walking papers as the latest casualties of a newspaper takeover. Learning that her dismissal is in part due to a writing style that lacks bite, she vents her anger on her last assignment, fabricating and printing a somber, biting `John Doe' letter. `Written' by a despairing, unemployed man, who, tired of life's indignities, has given up on an indifferent, capitalistic society, the writer vows to throw himself off the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve.
Ann's last column sparks a major outpouring of varying concern, not only from top government officials, but from newspaper competitors who claims the piece is a work of fiction designed to promote sales subscriptions, and from the public who are genuinely moved by this man's plight. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the new editor-in-chief (James Gleason, in a marvelous turn) reluctantly keeps Ann on the payroll (with a bonus) while deciding to run with the story. Auditioning indigent men to lend a face to their `John Doe,' they find their man in 'Long John' Willoughby (played to perfection by Gary Cooper), an ex-baseball player who has fallen on hard times. Willoughby becomes an instant celebrity and an identifiable symbol of integrity and humanity. `John Doe' clubs soon start sprouting up all over the place promoting `good neighbor' policies. Trouble brews, however, when a ruthless financier (played with typical malice by Edward Arnold) agrees to sponsor `John Doe' appearances for radio and the lecture circuit, then threatens the movement by using it for his own political aspirations.
Cooper and Stanwyck are ideal in their top roles. Stanwyck is peerless when it comes to playing smart, gutsy gals. Here, she shows all sorts of vibrant colors as an assertive reporter trying desperately to climb up the newspaper ladder without getting her hands too dirty, trapped on both sides of the fence and playing both sides superbly. Coop too is deeply affecting, the epitome of the `aw shucks' kind of 'everyman' who manages to find a stirring, articulate voice underneath all that awkwardness and reticence. Nobody plays this kind of role better.
It helps too that the leads are surrounded by all-star character pros. James Gleason is marvelous as the frustrated editor who must wrestle with his conscience as the hoax he orchestrated gets seriously out of hand. He has one exquisitely tipsy scene in a bar with Coop where he lays all the cards out on the table. Regis Toomey, as a prime spokesperson for the "John Doe" movement, has a touching moment as he expresses the impact the club has made on his community. Edward Arnold is exemplary as the manipulating moneybags, and Walter Brennan's straightforward Colonel is insightful as Coop's obstinate buddy who sees his friend falling into the same opportunistic trappings he is supposedly rebelling against. The one veteran, scene-stealing player not up to snuff is Spring Byington, who is stuck on the bench in a rather benign, devoted mom role.
The only foul ball I found in this fast-paced, smooth-running story takes place atop the City Hall with an overly hysterical Stanwyck punching home Capra's idealism ad nauseum. It could have been more effective with a still strong but subtler set-up and approach. So, hey, it's not quite a shutout, but why quibble when the rest of the film is way ahead of the game.
Like the equally dark `It's a Wonderful Life,' Capra's genius is that he knows how to pitch and score the important points when necessary, not only with laughter and tears, but with unyielding hope and, most significantly, with words. It's more than any home crowd can ask for.
In order to keep her job at a failing newspaper Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck) concocts a phoney letter from a man who is determined to end his life in protest at the state of humanity and civilization, by jumping from the tower of city hall on Christmas eve.
The plight of the non existent man known only as John Doe touches the hearts of the papers readers. The Newspapers hard edged editor Connell, (Gleason), is now in a spot as Mitchell has declared that the letter was fake. With everyone trying to save John Doe and the Newspapers circulation improving, Connell and Mitchell decide to flesh out their creation by hiring someone to be John Doe. Enter Long John Whiloughby (Gary Cooper) a failed Baseball player who's homeless and looking for a job.
In return for money for an operation to enable John to continue his baseball career, he agrees to appear on radio as John Doe, explaining his reasons for his intended suicide and explaining that mans cruelness to others should cease and loving thy neighbour is the way forward for the world. Connell and Mitchell must first explain their actions to corrupt oil magnate and paper owner D B Norton (Edward Arnold).
After the Radio broadcast, John decides that he's being made out a stooge and goes back to his nomadic lifestyle. When recognised in a small hick town, He is soon aware of how much his radio broadcast has united the towns community. The community elect a spokesman in the form of Bert Hanson (Regis Toomey) who explains that they have formed their own 'John Doe Club'. John is visibly moved by what he has caused, and agrees to do a lecture tour of all the states in the hopes of uniting others.
D B Norton however, has other plans for the John Doe clubs and that is to unite the people through the John Doe cause and then exploit them by cornering their votes for his new 'third' political party and then rule with an 'Iron Hand' (sound familiar) Whether this party is Communist or Fascist is not explained but Norton does have his own Uniformed army at the ready not to mention many crooked politicians and Labour leaders in his slimy pockets.
During the Lecture tour, John and Ann develop their romance. On the Eve of a mass John Doe Convention, Connell becomes aware of Norton's scheme and tells John that he and the whole John Doe Movement is about to be exploited, to which John confronts Norton and is determined not to let his evil new order come to fruit. Wrongly thinking that Stanwyck is in cahoots with the would be dictator, tears up the intended speech and says he's gonna tell the people the truth. Norton's henchman are prepared for this eventuality and expose John as a phoney in front of thousands of John Doe members. Doe barely escapes injury as the crowd turns nasty.
With the John Doe clubs disbanded, the myth exposed, and the girl he loves out of his life, John makes up his mind to re-ignite the fire of the John Doe Movement by the only way that will prove that he is no longer a fake and that Norton's scheme can never transpire, and that is to obey the original text of the ficitious letter and to jump from the tower of the city hall.
Arnold's performance is outstanding as is Cooper's, and as he closes his eyes in silent prayer moments before he is to make his death leap brings a lump to your throat, and one of Stanwyk's final lines is equally as Moving ' If it's worth dying for then it's worth living for' Capra's film is strong to this date, and 60 odd years on has not dated as it gives a message as prevalent today as it was then. people can debate whether or not Capra deliberately made Doe out as a Christ-like figure till doomsday for all I care, I like the movie because it demonstrates that even the most ordinary man can make a difference.
Cooper's performance at first seems wooden, but he's an actor whom you need to watch, like a pond, to see the emotions swimming beneath the surface. Barbara Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses--she never makes a false move and is beautiful to watch from any angle.
I find some lines of dialogue chilling in this age of Patriot Acts I and II and corporate globalism/global corporatism: "The American people need an iron hand," declares D. B. Norton, whose sneer looks like Cheney's.
Ann Mitchell is a struggling journalist who gets fired from her newspaper job by new editor Henry Connell, by way of venting her frustrations she writes in her stinging last article about a man called John Doe who is tired of being pushed around and held back by the big bosses, she finishes the piece by claiming that Doe will commit suicide on Christmas Eve by leaping off the roof of city hall, the public react to the letter with tremendous heart and Doe becomes a champion of the people.
After Connell gets interested in the letter Ann has to confess that she made it up, they hatch a plan to turn a real unemployed drop out into John Doe so as to continue the story and sell more papers, and of course Ann gets to keep her job. This brings in ex minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, who is down on his luck and very short of cash, and this is when the story shifts from amiable comedy on to a much darker path, the result making for a riveting watch.
Whilst not being up with the best Capra films in his armoury, it is, however, one of his smartest. The portrayal of the human spirit in many guises is stark and poignant, whilst thematically Capra got his point over about the unsavoury elements blossoming in America. The cast are nailed on watchable, Gary Cooper is John Doe, the right amount of sympathy and guts is garnered from his performance, and in one rousing speech he has the viewers in the palm of his hand. Barbara Stanwyck is Ann Mitchell and she delivers a great turn that calls for a number of emotions to be performed convincingly, while the support cast are all solid with the stand out a bizarrely unnerving Edward Arnold as D B. Norton; a man wishing to be a dictator if ever there was one. 10/10
"The John Doe idea may be the answer though! It may be the one thing capable of saving this cockeyed world. Yet you sit back there on your fat hulks and tell me you'll kill it if you can't use it. Well you go ahead and try, you couldn't do it in a million years with all your radio stations and all your power. Because it's bigger than whether I'm a fake, it's bigger than your ambitions and it's bigger than all the bracelets and fur coats in the world!"
I also think Barbara Stanwyck gives a wonderful performance as Ann. I love it when he's standing on the building, threatening to jump, and she tells him that she loves him, and the world does too, and they'll forgive him for lying. I cried so much!
I first saw this movie on Christmas Eve and I loved it. I guarantee it will be a tradition for many Christmases to come!
In the parlance of snide critical dismissal, is there "sentimentalism" in his vision? Sure, but it's beside the point—when an artist does the commendable work of doing no less than presenting an alternative model for a better human existence, a penchant for overdramatizing the matter is bound to creep into the conception. But this is not a filmmaker compromised to intellectual short-cutting or base heart-tugging, and if you find James Gleason's final words evidence of a "corny" sensibility, then I implore you to take a closer look, for reasons I've attempted to elucidate above. For me, Capra's artistic reputation is safe on evidence of this film, as well as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life, and It Happened One Night, and I'm sure many others I'll have the pleasure of discovering in the future.
H.Ross Perot and Edward Arnold's D.B. Norton have some definite similarities. Both men of wealth, both ego maniacal enough to try and eschew the normal political route to the White House. Both firmly convinced they are what the USA needs.
Perot for all those graphs and charts didn't have much going for him in his candidacy other than a grudge against the Bush family. Although his platform isn't spelled out in Meet John Doe, Arnold says quite bluntly there's a new order of things coming and America needs a firm hand in the leadership. 'New Order' in 1941 meant fascism.
There's a marvelous bit of imagery that Frank Capra give us right at the beginning, it's one of my favorite moments in his films. The image of the old Daily Bulletin sign being sandblasted away about a free press guaranteeing a free people and vice versa. Replacing it is something about the new Daily Bulletin being a streamlined paper for the modern era.
Streamlining involves layoffs and the new editor James Gleason is giving out pink slips a plenty. One goes to Barbara Stanwyck who writes an innocuous chatty column. Gleason won't listen to her pleas so she fakes an anonymous letter from a man who signs it John Doe who threatens to jump off the City Hall Tower on Christmas Eve.
Stanwyck gets more than she bargained for and she and Gleason have to come up with a real John Doe. A sore armed former baseball pitcher, Gary Cooper, fills the bill.
This gets bigger and bigger and soon Arnold sees possibilities in it. Cooper goes on radio and delivers some homilies about love thy neighbor and being kind to others. He puts it over and a John Doe movement on these principles commences.
Homilies and bromides they may be. But love thy neighbor is a concept that should never go out of style. As is proved it's quite a bit bigger than the political aspirations of a snake.
This was the first teaming of Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. They followed it up with Ball of Fire another classic. Said to say that their third film, Blowing Wild, from the fifties hardly lived up to the first two.
Capra used a whole lot of familiar faces from his previous films in Meet John Doe. Also one new face who made his one and only Capra film, Cooper's good friend on screen and in life, Walter Brennan. He's Coop's cynical traveling companion on the open road, the Colonel.
Edward Arnold is one cold and sinister force in this film. I'm not sure but that this may be his penultimate role as a screen villain. His ambitions here would warrant that appraisal.
One performance I like is that of Regis Toomey. He plays a soda jerk who starts a John Doe Club in his small town. He has some great lines that he delivers simply and eloquently about how Cooper's first radio speech inspired him to really get to know some of the neighbors he had not bothered with before.
The lessons of Meet John Doe are simple and profound. Love Thy Neighbor and be kind to others are taught in all major religions and philosophies and the power is there when its focused. The other lesson I like is that the ordinary common people have a lot more in common than the things that divide them, be it race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, you name it.
Meet John Doe is a profound and moving film, but I be it's not one of H. Ross Perot's favorites.
Yes, it's a far-fetched story but it's fun to watch and has some powerful messages, leading with "Love thy neighbor." I was very impressed with Barbara Stanwyck's speech near the end, noting Jesus' words to that effect while pleading to Gary Cooper. By the way, having Cooper and Stanwyck as the leads isn't all bad, either! Adding actors like Walter Brennan, James Gleason and Spring Byington make it all the better.
Photography-wise, the film has an almost-eerie look to it in parts and is very interesting to view. I have yet to see this on DVD, but I plan to soon, I hope. Script- wise, it has a very good mixture of drama, comedy and romance. The story and the convincing actors all make it an involving experience and an emotional film.
As I said, I think this is one of Capra's best films, if not THE best.
I suppose it is both a strength and weakness in the Capra films. The director was trying to demonstrate the resilience of American democracy and character despite threats. Certainly, despite moments of doubts, the heroes all remain optimistic and beat back their enemies. But it has been shown that Capra is so set on making his heroes larger than life that the people who support them are usually very weak on their own. Look at the small businessmen who depend on Mr. Deeds loan plan for his fortune to help them in the depression. When Deeds looks like he is tired of all of Cedar's tricks and willing to just give up, a series of these scared rabbit businessmen start saying, "No, Mr. Deeds, you can't give up!" Or how the Congressional pages keep turning from supportive to rejective of Jefferson Smith when "evidence" of his bribery is produced. Or how George Bailey's Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) is rather absent minded (he is the one who carelessly drops the deposit money into Potter's lap at the bank). The fact is, for any democracy to succeed you need a fair minded and intelligent (and courageous) public to support a point of view - and that never shows up in Capra films until the hero makes his last stand.
Which is why the villains are more impressive at times. Edward Arnold in particular as would - be Fascist leader/tycoon D.B. Norton. With his quiet demeanor, and sharp mind (Arnold lets his eyes reveal more of his viewpoint than the tone of his voice), he is the most dangerous figure in Capra's political movies. He sets his financial muscles into action, taking over companies (like the newspaper at the start of MEET JOHN DOE) and examines how the staff is working out, and notes the clever marketing idea of Barbara Stanwyck in using Cooper as a mouthpiece for social commentary. Gradually he realizes that Cooper is creating a real movement here - and he might (with prompting) push that movement into the hands of D.B.Norton.
The key moment for his use of eyes and eye contact is (paradoxically) a simple action that is not really staring at anyone. Arnold explains to James Gleason and Stanwyck what he intends Cooper to say on a national radio hook-up that he'll stage: that Cooper is going to recommend his million of followers in the "John Doe" clubs to support Norton for the Presidency. While Arnold tells this to them, he has taken off his pince-nez eyeglasses and is quietly polishing the lenses - like he is replenishing the strength of those evil eyes of his.
In comparison to the goal oriented Norton Arnold's Jim Taylor in MR. SMITH is corrupt but more accessible. Taylor (in a brief scene) is shown with two cohorts having a night's entertainment with some women (presumably high class call girls - they are being offered jewelry as an incentive). Norton's idea of an evening is to have a dinner party of all his cronies, to whom he explains what plans he has for American society (with their assistance) once he gets elected! Norton and Taylor are both serious in what they do, but Taylor can step back a moment and enjoy himself.
Capra was assisted by good script writers, but he and they must have had some figures in mind. Publisher William Randolph Hearst comes to mind, with his repeated attempts to jump start his political career (he had been a Congressman and a serious Presidential contender in 1904) up to the 1920s. Similarly there was Henry Ford, who had been a candidate for the U.S. Senate in a controversial election defeat in 1922, and then a strong Democratic Presidential possibility in 1924. By 1941 both men were considered reactionaries, somewhat unfairly in Hearst's case. But in retrospect neither of them was as totally power hungry (or control freaky) as Norton is. He remains Capra's blackest character, and one of Arnold's finest characterizations.
Too many scenes are static. The baseball scene in the hotel is a waste of time. Barbara Stanwyck's attempts to create a news story from a fake letter is eerily reminiscent of today's headlines, but any good editor would have fired her. Gary Cooper plays an inarticulate man who speaks the words of others. Somehow Babs, an articulate writer, finds him irresistible.
The ending is vague. Why is Norton (Arnold) on the roof? Is is hoping Doe (Cooper) will jump? The film ends with ringing bells.
That these protagonists, cynical, smart, knowing, are oblivious to the scale of the powers they've involved... That the entire middle scale of the John Doe movement is absent... That the first time the movement encounters a major philosophical hurdle is as late and as singular as shown here... That a boob as inarticulate as Gary Cooper could persuade people he has a single idea in his head (let alone a coherent platform); all of these problems occur not with any real intent, but because it's inconvenient to answer them. which undermines any effort to construct a persuasive philosophy/movement.
The films excesses come in the form of sequences that go on and on and on, long after they've made their point, or which fail to make a point after just as long. i.e. John mimes a baseball game in his hotel room (ugh.), John recounts a pointless dream ad nauseum, a soda jerk gives a gee whiz speech whose entire point is to show you how wholesome and earnest people are. But the Soda Jerk is gratingly unaware of the concept of 'summarizing,' that instead of liking him, I just want him to shut up.
The biggest problem of all is the terrible, central performance of Gary Cooper, whose every scene is more insipid, irritating and objectionable than the previous one. How does the public imagine someone who can't get a single damned sentence out, is effusive enough to compose any of the films long ideological arguments? His cutesy mannerisms are way too much. I wanted to strangle him. Any time would have been a good time to stop the hard sell of John's irrelevant wholesomeness. The personal is hardly important in the face of major unanswered questions.
Lastly, the thing that has always annoyed me about this movie is that they just don't have an ending. The last moments are the wrong time to finally acknowledge the dramatic & ethical dilemma apparent to a viewer six minutes into the movie. People come to movies not just to see dilemmas portrayed, but resolved. The film fails to work itself out of any of the traps it brings into existence. By the end of the movie Capra has lost control of everything; the dramatic arc, the ideological aspects and the entire scale of the endeavor. As long as it is, it feels imcomplete, like The Magnificent Ambersons, a bastardized remnant that was wrestled out of its creators hands, chopped up and defaced with an 'improved' ending.
When I first saw this movie twenty years ago I absolutely detested it. This review actually represents fewer problems with it than I used to have. One can imagine any number of movies with which it would make an interesting double-bill; Citizen Kane, Nothing Sacred, All the Kings Men, Network, or the Fountainhead (It seems to borrow all the structuralist 'types' of Ayn Rand). The movie just ends up a bland call to activist citizenry, which is a small potatoes for all the ideas it puts in play. It persuades me that Americans aren't innocent in some general way, over time, but that they're newly ignorant constantly. I welcome that it asks more of viewers than most films, but it's a mess.
Full of memorable lines like "I know the world's been shaved by a drunken barber, and I don't have to read it." "If it was raining hundred dollar bills, you'd be out looking for a dime you lost someplace!" "Show me an American that can keep his mouth shut and I'll eat him." And that doesn't even cover the helots! Amazing cast, direction, writing, cinematography...the whole production is excellent. An idealistic, sentimental American classic from a legendary filmmaker and some of the best actors of their time. A must-see for everybody.
"Capra-corn" cynics may again mock the director's seemingly simplistic take on the malleability and simplicity of the American public at large, which here sees them swallow whole self-serving journalist Barbara Stanwyck's phony story about an "everyman" so disenchanted with the selfishness of society that he will make a suicidal sacrifice of himself on Christmas Eve to drive home his point. When she produces a stooge to actually play the part (Cooper's vagrant, baseball-loving Long John Willoughby) his scripted "John Doe" idealism strikes home in Anytown USA, fanned by Stanwyck's initially manipulative and no less cynical newspaper editor James Gleason. So far so good. However the the cause takes an altogether darker turn when it's later taken up by would-be dictator Edmund Arnold's sinister megalomaniac magnate DB Norton and his acolytes of faceless power-sharers. The initial scene where we are introduced to Norton, with a high-power display of motorcycle riders seems to these eyes a premonition of the way that today's dictators invariably preside over displays of their war machinery, usually at May Day parades. The more things change...
The movie brilliantly takes us on the respective journeys of all these major characters to self-awareness at the same time making its bigger point about the dangers of state control (a rallying call against the rise of fascism engulfing war-torn Europe at the time of the movie's creation) with great subtlety and conviction. I've read that Capra agonised over a suitable ending for the movie and balk a little myself at the perhaps over-zealous religious symbolism of Cooper's character as a Christ-like figure, rebuffed as a prophet in his own time, turned on by the mob and walking towards self-destruction on Christmas eve. That said, some fantastic acting by Cooper and superb direction by Capra at the climactic scene held enough sway for me to trust the outcome as seen.
Capra as ever, deftly handles his actors, prising superb performances from Arnold, Stanwyck, Gleason and Walter Brennan (as Willoughby's vagrant chum, the only one to see through the emperor's new clothes with his humorous "Helots" pronouncements) and especially Cooper who progresses his trademark gawky, bumbling sub-Deeds "average-Joe" character to someone altogether more complex and real by the finish. The cinematography too, is great, particularly in evidence at the pivotal mob scene where Capra again displays his mastery of editing and crowd control.
I'd forgotten the tie-in to Christmas at the finale and was glad that I was watching a movie at this time with a weightier message than most every other film of this festive season (even as I appreciate it was initially released in May of 1941!). On the DVD mini-focus on Capra, he's described at one point as a 20th Century Dickens. Taking into account the quality of the peak of his work from "It Happened One Night" in 1934 through to "State Of The Union" in 1948 (with "Meet John Doe" at the epicentre both episodically and fundamentally) I firmly believe he deserves this "timeless" accolade more than any other director I can think of.
They pick the friendly, innocent Gary Cooper, ex-minor-league baseball pitcher, accompanied by his equally crummy buddy, Walter Brennan. These two hobos are raggedy and hungry, the kind of people who at the time were called "bindle stiffs." The "bindle" was the bundle of personal effects they carried over their shoulders. A "stiff" was a person of no importance. You can still hear the word in the expression "working stiff." Where was I? These damned voices keep distracting me. Oh, yes.
So Cooper is hired to act as John Doe. After Christmas Eve, when he has his phony date with the angels, he is to be given a railroad ticket straight out of town and disappear.
Surprisingly, though, his radio speech turns the audience on. They love it. They form multitudes of John Doe Clubs all around the world. The John Doe philosophy? Nothing dangerous, don't worry. "Let's be kind to our neighbors." "Let's break down the walls separating all of us John Does."
The villainous Edward Arnold, the paper's owner, gets an idea. As the John Doe Clubs spring up all over, he sees their members not as airheaded do-gooders but as voters. This leads to a bright idea. In his next radio speech, John Doe will announce that Edward Arnold is forming a third party and running for president. All those John Does out there will vote for him -- "that's ninety percent of the vote."
And Arnold's philosophy is a little different from that of Cooper and Stanwyck, who has been writing his speeches. "Everybody's complaining," Arnold tells his cohort of corrupt goons, gangsters, politicians, and labor leaders. "What this country needs is a firm hand, some discipline." Does Arnold's scheme work? Of course it does. That's why he was elected president in 1944 and switched our allegiance to Nazi Germany and we lost the war and were occupied by the UN.
Well, the fact is that Arnold may be evil but these targets are pretty soft ones. The film is so stripped of real-life counterparts that it almost amounts to a fantasy. The private police force that Arnold has at his disposal are all dressed as State Police but their shoulder patches read "Norton Motorcycle Squad." Something else about Arnold. He probably gives the best performance in the movie. It's really quite subtle. He has to activate several latent roles -- loudmouthed dictator, thoughtful schemer, avuncular con man, and repentant fomenter of discord.
He's followed closely by Barbara Stanwyck, in one of her fine performances of the period, and by Cooper himself, who must look simultaneously stupid but sensitive. Cooper has a priceless moment near the beginning as he is shown to a fancy hotel room and allowed to order five hamburgers from room service. With a wide smile he hangs up the phone, then notices the statue of a bouquet-holding nude woman on the stand. His expression changes instantly to an exopthalmic gawk. Capra and the editor give him a full half minute to stare at it, touch it tentatively, and gulp, before Stanwyck's voice comes from behind him and he jumps. It's a small moment but an exquisitely comic one.
This was the last of three films that Frank Capra directed before entering the Army for World War II -- the others being "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." All have in common an innocent young hero who runs into greed and corruption and through strength of will manages to overcome his adversaries. Capra was an apolitical populist and humanist, and there's a good deal of corniness in these movies, but that doesn't stop them from being successful. "John Doe", unlike the others, becomes almost tragic before the improbable end. After his war service, Capra directed one more wildly successful film, "It's a Wonderful Life," perhaps the best modern Christmas story, but it too had its moments of genuine anguish.
I assume this was a difficult film to make, dealing with deception to put over an idea that is the antitheses of deception. This is basically a retelling of The Gospel, in a way. But it is also the depiction of the way the wheels of a Rumour machine can feed and steer public opinion, so in a lot of ways this film is highly related to "The Fountainhead" which I have just seen again this afternoon.
I never really did like the ending of this film, and after reading the accounts of the four various endings, I'm sure Capra really had a hard time making a believable ending. The ending that became the ending, is not perfect, but works well to resolve the conflict of the film: And is summarized in James Gleason's last words in the film: "Hear that, DB? That's the voice of the people" Now this tale was more suited for 1931 than 1941- We have a story set in depression times but shown in 1941... When the country was on the verge of falling in to World War II- How many people in May 1941 knew what was gonna happen in December 1941? In retrospect, maybe Capra was making his stab at National Socialism. As a matter of fact, we look at Norton's Thugs: Black Uniforms, Motorcycles, Arrogance. And the whole part of the plot that Norton wants to use the idea that "John Doe" is sending to the "hicks" - "The Hick Vote" as it was put in "All the Kings Men" - The idea that all of the basic working class people could be united under a common cause that they think is good... But which DB Norton wished to pervert. Edward Arnold, who is a fantastic crook in most of his films, he even claims (As Norton) that it is time for "The old corrupt parties to be smashed so that one party can take over" - Or words to that effect.
I think Capra makes several points with this film. On one level, he talks about the Depression Times, but on another level, he is making a statement about fascism. And throughout the whole thing he keeps a sense of Humour- And this colours the hard statements he is making.
Also not to be ignored is the basic "Snowball Effect" - Barbara Stanwyck performs one act of desperation, and it is a basically selfish action designed to keep her employed. It works... Too Well.
We do not even assign the role of the crook to Edward Arnold right away... In the film we the viewers are thinking that this is a swell guy. So, directly relating this film to events in Germany... It this the way it happened there... Is this how it started? Of all the points the film makes perhaps that is the main one, that freedom is usually taken away from us... By our giving it away. The role of a despot cannot thrive unless he is given permission by the people he is supposed to be representing.
The only thing that really bothers me about Meet John Doe is how Stanwyck is behaving at the end. Poor girl, had a breakdown, but she does not sell it to us as well as she sold herself earlier in the film. What ultimately saves it is Gleason with his final comment.
This film is worth watching... Oh at least three times, if not more.
Meet JD is masterful on every level. The performances are great, the pacing is quick, relentless, and utterly without filler, the sets are gorgeous in a sharp and contrasting period film noir. I've caught no errors in this film, and despite its tight production values, it retains an amazing ability to address a wide swath of portrayals and views on politics, class, power, and the rank intersection of propaganda and modern journalism.
It's far from the obfuscation of today's media, made at the tail end of the depression, released in 1941, just preceding the fundamental changes WWII would bring to America. In fact, Doe's opening radio speech is a prescient call to arms for the common people against the growing clouds of fascism and war. It's also the tragedy of this film - the horrors of WWII that followed it.
MJD is a sharpening of Mr Deeds Goes to Town from 1936, and is balder than the Capra classics starring Jimmy Stewart. This film makes no apologies - the elites are bad, manipulative people, with a fundamental distaste for democracy, and the common people are innocent and just trying to get a break in the world. The film is crushingly sweet, but Capra gets away with this by contrasting it with evil so unabashed and real that the choice is always obvious.
Gary Cooper's every-man persona is most convincing in this role, livelier than in his Westerns, as a real loser who first just wants some meals a good bed, and some money, and then gets a chance to be someone, something the purer Jimmy Stewart doesn't pull off as well (for me, not all). Barbara Stanwyck is a stunningly gorgeous and alluring tornado of energy, intellect and activity, openly compromising her morals at the start, only to get sucked in by the morality of the struggle and her interest in John Doe as a man. This transformation of both her character and John Doe into a man who finds something important in himself offers great traction and emotion for the film as it progresses. Any director would be grateful to have one picture show such growth so perfectly.
The supporting cast include Walter Brennan as the Colonel, Doe's hobo sidekick, an inveterate cynic and free spirit, a drifter comfortable with being no one, warning of the pitfalls of obligations to a regular life. He sees the manipulation of John before John does, and incessantly pulls in the opposite direction. Capra uses him as a foil to the ambition of everyone else, and as a mirror into a past before technology. His clichés reach back into the 19th century with remarkable authenticity.
Edward Arnold plays the creepy fat cat who wants to ride John Doe to political power, and James Gleason is perfect as the grizzled editor who works for Norton and starts regretting his involvement in a 'fifth column' coup.
They all give multiple soliloquies about common men and elites. One of these scenes could make a picture, but they arrive constantly but naturally. Everyday people make it into the production as well, and their moments are precious, including small-town soda jerks, outcasts, and little old ladies saying 'Bless You My Boy.' The John Doe movement, created as a scam, actually takes hold and makes everyday people treat one another better. It's a striking concept, and the genius is how the script takes a dirty con and turns it into something unintentionally sublime and as ambitious as community and world peace. It's the reverse of something good rotting away. Far- fetched, sure, but that's the power of a movie, of ideas, and of unintended history.
There's a horrific mob rule climax where John Doe's fakery is used against him when he tries to betray his puppet master, and we see classic counter-revolutionary behaviors by police and instigators to seal his humiliation. Later, he has to show he's willing to actually sacrifice himself leading to final moments that are so optimistic and positive they unintentionally remind us what we've since lost in our cynical world since the film was made, including media freedoms and middle class power, as the vestiges of political democracy crumble in front of us. The villains that lose in MJD have won in real life many times since 1941. John Doe's transformation from sucker to leader is the biggest plot stretch in the film, but a change we would all like to believe some common man could achieve.
Films wouldn't get this politically populist again until the 1970s, with Fist, High Velocity and Burn, and no film except Network offers such a scathing analysis of the major media and politics. Since the 70s, this kind of thing is covered rarely, and never this
Classic lines - "I'm sorry, mayor, but we voted that no politicians could join the John Doe Club."
Colonel - "I already know the world's been shaved by a drunken barber."
This is a story that everyone should watch and learn. It's about a reporter who comes up with a made-up story about a man who had written her and says how the world has become so cold. How the world treats the everyman like dirt. How no one cares about anyone other than themselves. How neighbour has turned against neighbour. That there is no hope left for the John Does in this world and how he threatens to jump off the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve if nothing changes.
Barbara Stanwyck is perfect as the reporter who comes up with the John Doe story using her late father's views and ideas. Gary Cooper is also perfect as the John Doe that she finds to portray the everyman for her stories. Together they help one another. He helps her to get her father's ideas out to the people and she helps him find that he IS worth something. Edward Arnold is very good as the evil head of the media, who uses John Doe(s) for his personal gain. The script is intelligent and poignant. The cinematography is fanastic. All this greatness and only nominated for ONE oscar(Best Original Screenplay)!!
The message here is one that we can use everyday people. Put yourself out there and get to know your neighbours. Share a smile with others and see the results.
This movie is full of symbolism. Every scene and every utterance has a message. A common man elevated-- being pulled in both directions. On the one hand, by a beautiful woman, on the other hand, by his old life- represented by Walter Brennan. Almost everyone in the movie praises the goodness of man, as long as man is on the right side and can be manipulated. There is a scene of a crowd in one accord, praising their hero-- the reverse image of a Hitler rally, because these people were good. Suddenly it starts to rain, and everyone has a large black umbrella. As they sing "God Bless America" the overhead shot shows the tops of the umbrellas gently moving in unison-- "huddled masses". Then the mood of the crowd changes-- can anyone say "Crucify him?" The same people who love him, suddenly hate him. Later in the movie Barbara Stanwyck reminds him of the John Doe of 2000 years ago. Christ. A beautiful tall building, glowing in the dark. A symbolism of capitalism. Anyone who wasn't around during the l940's, or have not read the history of that time. will miss all the symbolism- but the symbols are very clear to those in the know. All in all, a pretty good movie, if a bit long and drawn out, and very preachy, even if the preaching was well intended.