Meet John Doe is a successful movie that can chalk up at least part of its success to its release timing. At the tail end of the Great Depression and watching the world fall into WWII, the U.S. was at one of its historical low points. So how about a movie with a positive message that encourages the individual to work with others? Sounds simple, right?
Squeezed out of a job when a new owner takes over at her newspaper, columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) goes out guns blazing. She writes a column from "John Doe," a reader who's become disillusioned and frustrated with humanity and civilization, vowing to kill himself by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve. Uh-oh, we've got a problem. Readers are curious, wanting to save John Doe. Where to find a reader who never existed? Ann and the paper hire John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), an ex-baseball player turned drifter, to pose as John Doe. The response is tremendous though across America, but even Ann could not have planned what John Doe becomes as certain parties become involved with the grassroots movement.
In his last film before making almost a dozen WWII documentaries, director Frank Capra does not disappoint here. His films have a certain style to them, and not just in the visual sense. Maybe not in a visual sense at all. At their base, these are good-hearted stories that want to believe there's genuine good in people. There are those that are inherently good and those that are inherently bad with little to no middle ground. You're either one or the other. Watch enough of his movies, and you see those traits pop up in countless stories and characters.
As a story, this 1941 Capra film is a forerunner of later classics A Face in the Crowd and Network. It shows the rise -- and the inevitable and eventual fall -- of an individual, a person who inspires charity, faith and belief in the masses. Here, Cooper's John Doe is just looking for a meal, a place to sleep at night with a roof over his head. He has no ulterior motives. It's Ann who sees the potential for good, and there's a plenty. The John Doe movement -- help thy neighbor, be friendly, be helpful to all -- takes the country by storm. The ulterior motive comes from Ann's boss, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold, doing what he does best, being BAD), who sees the power that can be manipulated with the John Doe movement. For a country struggling to get back on the right track, the message was simple (and appealing); work together, work to help and good things will happen.
Capra's films in general had a great sense of the Everyman, the normal guy. Obviously here, the focus is entirely on that individual in all his different forms. Who better to play the face of the Everyman than all-American actor Gary Cooper? In a career of iconic roles, this is certainly up there as one of his best.He does a fine job representing the average American. The shady nature of his business deal with Ann quickly hits hard, but he sees there's certainly potential for good too on an immense scale. He has a great believable chemistry with Stanwyck, the brow-beaten journalist who similarly sees the chance to do something in the country if people would just try. In addition to Arnold's snaky D.B. Norton, the cast includes Walter Brennan as the Colonel, John's questioning drifting partner who hates the system, and for the most part, people, and James Gleason as Connell, Ann's boss who sees what Norton is up to.
A sucker for anything in the dark, realist mode in films, I didn't always love 'Doe.' The sugary sweet outlook on life gets to be a little much at times, and the pacing can be a tad slow. One scene introducing the John Doe clubs goes on forever, Regis Toomey's Bert character explaining in expansive detail how the club came to be in his little town. The story is at its strongest at its darkest points. Norton's plan is hinted at -- uh-oh, sense of doom! -- and when it's revealed, the rug is pulled out from under John, Ann, and millions of Americans. As sweet as Capra's outlook can be at times, it's equally dark in these instances and equally effective. There are scenes where the symbolism is far too heavy-handed (portraying John as a martyr...a la Jesus), but what makes it bearable is the message of goodness. Well worth checking out. You can watch the movie in its public domain format HERE at Youtube.
Meet John Doe <---trailer (1941): ***/****