The mark of a truly gifted filmmaker is when their work is able to transcend the times in which they were made and continue to be highly regarded, beloved and is still relevant to subsequent generations. Such is the case with Frank Capra who made not one but two timeless classics with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), one of the most highly regarded films about American politics ever made, and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), the quintessential Christmas movie. Meet John Doe (1941) is not as popular as these two films but it is just as important. Like the aforementioned motion pictures, it features an everyman character exploited by both corporate interests and the media, which makes it just as timely today as it was back when it was first released.
It is significant that the opening credits play over a montage of every day Americans at work: farmers, miners and switchboard operators. Then, it segues to a succession of shots that feature college students, soldiers, children playing at school, and finally a nursery full of babies. Capra brilliantly encapsulates the circle of life in the opening credits along with iconic images of America at its best – hardworking men and women, including our armed forces and our youth expanding their horizons through education. He is suggesting that these are the ideals we must live up to before telling it like it really is with his film.
We are introduced to the newly revamped newspaper The Bulletin with its new slogan, “A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.” Along with the new era comes firings, including several veteran employees that are given the axe in rather humiliating fashion – by some young, punk kid who whistles and points at each person before making a clucking noise and making a throat-slashing gesture with his finger. The corporate hatchet man and new managing editor Mr. Connell (James Gleason) casually refers to the recent firings as “just cleaning out the deadwood.”
Among the recent firings is a resourceful columnist by the name of Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) who pleads to keep her job and is even willing to take a pay cut but Connell isn’t firing people for financial reasons. He’s trying to boost the paper’s circulation. He dismisses Ann but not before reminding her that she has one last column to finish. Understandably upset, she channels her anger and frustration into the column by writing a letter from a “disgusted American” citizen known only as John Doe. This fabricated person has been unemployed for four years and is so fed up with the state of things that he plans to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof as a form of protest.
Ann’s “John Doe” letter is published and is so well-written that people believe it is real, which freaks out the powers that be, from the mayor on up to the governor. Naturally, Connell brings Ann in demanding that she produced John Doe. She admits to making it all up. Just as the editor devises a plan to sweep it all under the carpet, the savvy columnist pitches him a new scheme that she promises will boost circulation: tell John Doe’s life story over a series of columns until his suicide on Christmas Eve. Of course, they’ll have to find some patsy to pose as John Doe. It won’t be too hard as a lineup of unemployed men show up to the Bulletin offices claiming to be him. Ann and Connell interview each one, looking for what he cynically calls, “the typical American that can keep his mouth shut.”
After a series of rejects in walks Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a downtrodden yet still good-looking man with a rip in his pants and not a penny to his name. He used to be a baseball pitcher until he blew out his arm. He’s just desperate enough for work that he agrees to pose as John Doe and basically signs his life away to Connell, much to the chagrin of his travelling companion known only as the Colonel (Walter Brennan) who is afraid that money will ruin his friend. For him, being poor and homeless is to be free and happy without a care in the world. Money ruins everything because once you have it people who never gave you the time of day start trying to sell you things and that leads to all sorts of material items, like license fees, taxes, ID cards, bills, and so on. You’re no longer free. You become part of the competitive rat race – something that the Colonel wants no part of. This is all conveyed in a monologue brilliantly delivered by veteran character actor Walter Brennan. While the Colonel exaggerates somewhat for effect, what he’s saying is essentially the truth. He’s the voice of reason and his speech – one of Meet John Doe’s key monologues – is a warning, foreshadowing what will eventually happen to both Ann and Willoughby.
The Bulletin throws all kinds of money at Willoughby, cleaning him up and getting him nice clothes. Pretty soon what the Colonel warned would happen does and Willoughby becomes seduced by money and fame. This scheme has also corrupted Ann. Once a hardworking columnist, she’s seduced by fame and fortune, consumed by the hype machine she helped create. What started off as a stunt to boost circulation becomes a national movement with John Doe clubs popping up all over the place as people are genuinely moved and inspired by the fusion of Ann’s words and Willoughby’s impassioned delivery of them. The rest of the film plays out the usual Capra arc as Ann and Willoughby get consumed by the system and must find it within themselves to break free of it by being true to themselves. It’s a classic individual vs. the system story.
In her first scene, Barbara Stanwyck emanates sympathy as she pleads for her job and then tries to fast talk her way in keeping it only to return to her office in anger as she rails against her fat cat bosses. In a few short minutes, the actress conveys an impressive range of emotions that almost immediately has us on her side. Then, when Ann is summoned back to Connell’s office to explain the John Doe letter, Stanwyck displays an uncanny knack for screwball comedy as Ann banters back and forth with the new managing editor, pitching her John Doe scam.
At home, Ann thinks of nothing but providing for her family while her mother (Spring Byington) is more concerned with helping the less fortunate, like giving money to a woman who just had a baby and a family that needs groceries. She doesn’t think about herself while Ann becomes self-absorbed – so much so that she can’t figure out how to write John Doe’s first speech to the American public. It is rather telling that she can’t come up with something “sensational” to captivate the masses. It is her mother that comes up with a solution – that he should say “something simple and real, something with hope in it.” Ann’s inability to figure out what to write without her mother’s help shows she’s getting corrupted by the allure of money. Over the course of the film, the actress manages to chip away at the sympathy we felt for Ann early on as she goes from someone fighting to stay employed and support her family, to a crass opportunist that becomes consumed by her own hype.
Much like Stanwyck did, Gary Cooper elicits our empathy right from his first appearance. Willoughby walks into the Bulletin offices looking like a hobo, but there is a quiet dignity and kindness evident in his slightly apprehensive facial expressions. There is a bit of self-consciousness thrown into the mix as he’s questioned by Connell. Willoughby looks hungry and just a bit desperate, but seems smart and a bit wary about what is being proposed to him. It’s a tricky balancing act that Cooper maintains expertly. His character has an impressive arc where he goes from anonymous everyman to media-created celebrity to a champion of the people when he confronts the businessmen who built him up, delivering an impassioned speech for the ages. Then, Cooper digs deep and shows just how low Willoughby goes when the powers that be fight back, destroying his credibility in the eyes of the people. It is a dark, scary scene on par with the darkest moments of It’s A Wonderful Life.
In many Capra films, he saw corporations and their greed for profit as the enemy to the basic decency of everyday people. In Meet John Doe, this is represented by powerful publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), a large, shrewd man that thinks in terms of money and strikes a deal with Ann, bypassing Connell, much to his chagrin. This is a crucial scene because it shows how Ann has wheeled and dealed her way to the top of the corporate ladder, striking a deal with one of the most powerful men in the country. Norton is a manipulative antagonist who uses his influence to manipulate the spontaneous grassroots John Doe movement to make money, using Willoughby as the means to do this. The publisher’s real agenda is the creation of a third political party and with John Doe’s endorsement he will lead it with the hopes that it will take him all the way to the White House.
Eagle eyed fans of the Coen brothers’ semi-Capra homage, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) will notice at least two things in Meet John Doe that they quoted in their own film. There is the man trying to stencil a name on Connell’s door, reminiscent of the one removing Waring Hudsucker’s in the Coens’ film. In Meet John Doe, there is a character that says at one point, “That gag’s got whiskers on it,” which Bruce Campbell’s character says at one point in The Hudsucker Proxy. Not to mention, both feature everyman characters bent on committing suicide during the holiday season, Christmas Even in Meet John Doe and New Year’s Eve in The Hudsucker Proxy.
In November 1939, writer friend Robert Presnell gave Frank Capra a treatment he had written with Richard Connell entitled, The Life and Death of John Doe. Connell and Presnell were developing a stage production of the former’s short story “A Reputation.” Capra and his business partner Robert Riskin read it and bought it the same day. Several days later, the two men began work on the screenplay. It would be the director’s first independent film and one in which he intended to earn critical praise, having grown tired of enduring derogatory remarks like, “Capra-corn.” He also wanted to show them “contemporary realities” like, “the ugly face of hate; the power of uniformed bigots in red, white, and blue shirts; the agony of disillusionment; and the wild dark passions of mobs.” Initially, he used the treatment’s title as the working title for the film. He changed it to The Life of John Doe before finally settling on Meet John Doe because the prior title might have been perceived as being based on a biography.
With Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra had fulfilled his contractual obligations to Columbia Pictures. Studio head Harry Cohn was so oppressive that Capra decided to start his own indie company with Riskin. However, they still needed a movie studio to provide them with facilities and set up a deal with Warner Bros. The first film of this new deal was Meet John Doe. Capra found it difficult running his own indie film company and ended up mortgaging his home to finance Meet John Doe. He had to do this because the director lacked cash due to heavy income tax payments. Capra was able to get a loan from the Bank of America.
Capra picked WB because they had a fantastic roster of movie stars, chief among them Gary Cooper. For the role of Long John Willoughby, the only actor Capra wanted was Cooper, but at the time he approached him there was no script. This wasn’t a problem for the actor who had read and then made the mistake of turning down the script for Stagecoach (1939), which went on to make John Wayne a movie star. Other actors followed suit – Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, and Walter Brennan – all without reading the script because Capra’s name alone was good enough to make them want to do it. For the role of Ann Mitchell, Capra screen-tested Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. The director wanted Sheridan, but was overruled by the studio because of a contract dispute. He eventually went with Stanwyck whom he had worked with on several films.
Capra and Riskin ran into script difficulties when they realized that the third act had problems – there was none. They had abandoned their usual formula and didn’t know what should happen to Willoughby at the end. They consulted with trusted friends and confidants within the film industry but still couldn’t solve their problem. So, Capra went ahead and began filming on July 8, 1940 without an ending only to eventually film and test-screen four different conclusions for critics and audiences in six major cities on March 12, 1941. After two weeks, Capra received a letter from someone called, “John Doe,” who hated all four endings. This person went on to tell the director how his film should end. Capra was so impressed that he re-assembled the cast and crew and shot yet another ending, which was the one that it is in the final film.
Meet John Doe received strong critical reaction. The New York Daily News gave it four stars. The World-Telegram felt it was “the finest film Frank Capra ever made, bar none.” The Herald-Tribune wrote, “It is a testament of faith as well as brilliant craftsmanship.” The New York Times felt that the film was a “distinct progression in Mr. Capra’s – and the screen’s – political thinking.” Finally, The New York Post felt that Capra had “made seven-eighths of a great and timely film.” It was a bittersweet victory for Capra. Due to federal law, Capra and Riskin had to pay taxes on the film’s income before the profits came in. As a result, they had to dissolve their company to pay taxes on the film.
With its John Doe clubs made up of every day folks frustrated with the rich getting richer and the poor staying poorer, Meet John Doe anticipates the Occupy movement by several decades. Or, rather, it is merely chronicles yet another cycle of discontent that often emerges spontaneously at crucial moments in history, like the civil rights/anti-war movement during the 1960s. As Willoughby says towards the end of the film, “Well when this fire dies down what’s going to be left? More misery, more hunger and more hate and what’s to prevent that from starting all over again? Nobody knows the answer to that one.” Prophetic words indeed.
Capra’s film equates the rich with corruption and dishonesty as embodied by the power hungry D.B. Norton. It warns of the dangers that comes with having too much money and how it can corrupt, making one turn their back on the things that matter, specifically basic, common decency, which Capra champions in his films. Meet John Doe shows how 99% of the population is at the mercy of the powerful and wealthy 1% and acts a warning – one that is more potent now than ever before. Like a true artist, Capra puts it all out there, wearing his idealistic heart on his sleeve. That kind of idealism may no longer be fashionable any more, but in these trying times may be it is exactly what we need.
Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press: New York, 1997.
Dirks, Tim. “Review: Meet John Doe (1941).” Filmsite.org.
McGee, Scott. “Meet John Doe.” Turner Classic Movies.
Miller, Frank. “Behind the Camera on Meet John Doe.” Turner Classic Movies.