Time: 123 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.
Gary Cooper captures the heart and soul of the every man in this political drama about finding self-worth and gaining respect for humanity. Those familiar with Capra's classic tale IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE will find common themes in this story of a drifter conned into helping the world become a better place for the gain of a crooked politician. Stanwyck plays the spunky writer who dreams up John Doe in order to save her job and ends up falling in love with the man he's become. Though romance plays a small part, this film is, at heart, a social commentary about life in America that's frighteningly relevant to what's going on in the world today. Frankly, it's slightly disheartening to see how little humanity has changed in 60 years. You'd think by now, a film with the simple message of building community and common decency would no longer be needed. Unfortantely, in the days of road rage and useless lawsuits, it's more viable than ever.
The film begins with Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck) about to lose her writing job at a tabloid in a massive round of layoffs. To get back at her boss for firing her, even though she has a family to support, she makes up her final column, ranting about the injustice of the world. In the missive, "John Doe" threatens to jump off City Hall on Christmas Eve in protest of the way society treats the common man. Having no choice the paper prints the column, which causes no amount of trouble for the mayor and other leading city politicians. When the paper's competition claims the letter is a fraud, Henry Connell (Gleason), Managing Editor of The New Bulletin, has two options on how to handle the situation: agree, and be seen as a lying fool; or, as Ms. Mitchell suggests, hire someone to become John Doe and use him as a mouthpiece to promote leading issues of the day. According to sales figures, his pledge sparked something in the average person. If they're looking for greater revenue and expanded circulation, this is just the story that could do it.
Seeing the potential, Connell agrees to Ann's plan, hiring her back to write the pieces and find their man. There are plenty of hard-up souls claiming they wrote the letter, looking for a hand up, but when they meet Long John Willoughby (Cooper), an ex-minor league pitcher, they know he's their man. John's actually looking for a real job, so he can earn the money to get his arm fixed, but isn't in a position to refuse their offer. A warm bed, nice clothes and three square meals a day seems to be a fair trade for a tiny, white lie. Besides, the cause to expose the crooked politicians and greedy corporations is a good one. His best friend, The Colonel (Brennan), doesn't agree.
Once you start accepting money from people, they own you and he's not about to be tied down by anyone. He tries to warn John that this situation will not work out to his advantage, but he won't listen. His major league dreams are so close he can touch them. If he has to play the local hero to make them come true, so be it. What he fails to realize is how successful this little endeavor becomes. Thanks to Ann's support and speech writing skills, he is soon the toast of America, an inspiration for all the "John Does" to reach out to their neighbors and help the less fortunate. He tries to disappear with the Colonel, but it's no use. He's touched a nerve and the people won't let him go.