MEET JOHN DOE (1941) 

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Gary Cooper
Barbara Stanwyck
Edward Arnold
Walter Brennan
Spring Byington
James Gleason
Gene Lockhart
Rod La Rocque
Irving Bacon
Regis Toomey

Frank Capra



Time: 123 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Drama/Romance

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.

"If it were raining hundred dollar bills out, you'd be looking for a dime you lost somewhere!"

Local businessman D.B. Norton (Arnold) is so touched by the message he sponsors John Doe clubs across the country. What he expects in return for his generosity is something neither Ann, Connell or John ever could have imagined. It destroys Ann and John's budding romance, as well as irreparably ruining John's reputation. In essence, he becomes the man Ann invented in the letter six months before. Ann makes herself sick with guilt and worry over the fate of John. As Christmas Eve approaches, everyone connected to the affair ends up at City Hall to see how the story will end. What will John Doe do? I won't ruin it for you by telling you. Capra is clearly exploring issues he will expound upon further in WONDERFUL LIFE, but John Doe is definitely its own film. There's an innate integrity to Cooper's down home masculinity that makes him easy to relate to and root for.

John is a simple man with simple needs who just wants to be loved and respected. He's the kind of man woman want to marry and men want to befriend. Cooper is both strong and bewildered, a man with smarts, way in over his head. You just want to take him home and take care of him forever. It's no wonder Stanwyck's character falls in love with him. Men like him aren't easy to find. Though she's the one who ultimately started this mess, you never blame her for what befalls our hero. She was just trying to keep her family from living on the street. No one portrays smart and sexy better than Stanwyck. When she turns on the charm, no man is safe. This is really Cooper's film, but she gives a complex and enchanting performance nonetheless. The other standout is Walter Brennan, one of the best character actors in the business. He's the only one in the film who senses there's more to the story than meets the eye. His pessimistic view on humanity is sadly dead on.

MEET JOHN DOE is ultimately a film about personal survival, about taking the world head on and living to tell the tale. John may be down, but he's not out. In the end, we learn how to face adversity with grace and determination. Capra weaves an intoxicating and complex tale that reverberates with all sorts of messages about life and the people we share the planet with. What he leaves us with is the idea that when things seem too good to be true, they usually are. However, John is not portrayed as a helpless victim. He knew going in that he has deceiving the public for his own personal gain. There may have been a larger plan he was unaware of, but he still never shirks his responsibility in the greater scheme of things. A refreshing take, one rarely sees these days. Without a doubt, this is one of Capra's most moving, intelligent and poignant films. Cooper's subtle, heartfelt performance gives this film the balance it needs to be engaging and entertaining. This is what being a star is all about.

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