MEET JOHN DOE (1941) B/W 132m dir: Frank Capra
w/Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Brennan, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington, James Gleason, Gene Lockhart, Rod La Rocque, Irving Bacon, Regis Toomey
From The Movie Guide: "Dark, oddball Capra, but a worthwhile watch with a tail ending wagging the dog. The film opens as Stanwyck, a struggling journalist, is fired from her job when a new managing editor, Gleason, takes over her newspaper. She angrily writes her last piece about a mythical idealist she calls John Doe and through him rants about the little guy being punished and mistreated by tycoons, moguls, magnates and captains of industry. To make good his protest, Doe states, in Stanwyck's fabricated letter to the paper, that he will leap off the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve. The public response is enormous, and Gleason demands that Stanwyck turn over the letter she has received from this so-called John Doe. She confesses that there is no letter, that she made up the whole story. But then, to keep the job she values above all else, Stanwyck suggests they find a phony hero from the ranks of the great unemployed and continue the story to sell more papers. When another paper jeeringly labels the story a fraud, Gleason, to save his newspaper's image, orders Stanwyck to pick out a stewbum and make him into her real-life John Doe. Enter Gary Cooper as Long John Willoughby, a onetime minor league pitcher with a bad arm and a shortage of cash.
"MEET JOHN DOE was Capra's first independent film production away from his home studio, Columbia, and beyond the reach of its tyrannical boss, Harry Cohn. It's basically an attack on the fascist elements then in America, notably the pro-Nazi German-American Bund. Capra wanted to warn Americans about the powerful fascist influences in their midst and did so mightily with this film. Though MEET JOHN DOE reportedly profited Capra and [screenwriter Robert] Riskin's independent company $900,000 on its initial release, Capra later reported that the tax bite was so heavy that he dissolved the company after a few months. So great had Capra's reputation become that all the leading players in MEET JOHN DOE agreed to do the film without reading the script."
From Joseph McBride's biography of the director, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success: "Yet though it lacks the political clarity and consistency [Sidney] Buchman brought to Mr. Smith, Meet John Doe contains some of Riskin and Capra's sharpest satire of politics and the media, and, in Arnold's D.B. Norton, a startlingly believable portrayal of an American Fascist.
"The film's ideological tensions stemmed in large part from the unusually self-reflective nature of its narrative. Meet John Doe finds Capra critically examining his own role as a manipulator of the mass audience and the interplay between sincerity and cynicism in his own feelings toward the public. As Charles J. Maland observed, 'Doe's picture appears on the cover of Time, just as Capra's had in 1938. Both were getting recognition, and both wondered if they deserved it. When Doe tells Ann [Stanwyck] in the airport waiting room that he's beginning to see the true meaning of the platitudes he had heard for years and been spouting for weeks, one senses that Capra is also speaking. Yet Capra, like Doe, seems to be torn: who is he (the Sicilian immigrant, the ex-ballplayer) to be a national spokesman of values, communicating to millions through the media?'
"Underlying those doubts was Capra's fear that he was an 'impostor,' as the voice of an anonymous member of the public calls John Doe, and the fear that he would be exposed before his audience and vilified by them, as happens to John Doe in the rain-drenched convention sequence, one of Capra's most powerful visions of American madness. No other sequence in Capra's work more clearly reveals his latent fear of the 'common man' and his awareness of how easily the public can be manipulated by the media, including the cinema itself.
"'I never cease to thrill at an audience seeing a picture,' Capra told Geoffrey Hellman shortly before making Meet John Doe. 'For two hours you've got 'em. Hitler can't keep 'em that long. You eventually reach even more people than Roosevelt does on the radio. Imagine what Shakespeare would have given for an audience like that!'
"It is Capra's awareness of the fragility of his hold over his audience, and his doubts about his worthiness for such an important role, that give the convention scene its extraordinary tension. The United States Senate could not stop Jefferson Smith's filibuster, yet D.B. Norton can stop John Doe from speaking simply by cutting the radio wires he controls. But this time the flaw is in the 'Capra hero' as well as in the system. Unlike the charges brought to discredit Deeds and Smith, the charges made against John Doe are essentially true. As Norton tells him, 'You're the fake. We believe in what we're doing." Though the crowd, despite everything, is still willing to believe in him, John Doe loses their goodwill when he confesses his deceit. No one wants to listen when he insists, 'This thing's bigger than whether I'm a fake!' (After the film opened, however, Capra added a scene in which John Doe follower Ann Doran insists, 'Anyway, what he stood for wasn't a fake.')
"'If you get their hopes up and they open their hearts to you and then they find out you are a fake, well, you'd better watch out for those people,' Capra told Richard Schickel. 'They don't like to be disturbed and opened up like that and then be double-crossed. And this is what made John Doe such an interesting picture, showing that people can become mobs, and one of the occasions they can become mobs is when they become disillusioned, when somebody has tricked them.'
"It is John Doe's awakening to the truth about his role in the American cultural-political system that, as Maland put it, 'helped to make the demands of Meet John Doe absolutely irreconcilable' for Capra, whose own public role contained similar elements of fakery and contradiction. And like John Doe, Capra lived with anxiety about what would happen if the public came to realize that he was not the man they thought he was: 'You can be a great filmmaker,' Capra said in 1984, 'but if they don't like you behind it, they don't give a damn about your films.'"
MEET JOHN DOE was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Story (Richard Connell, Robert Presnell).