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Review: Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe (1941)

Directed by: Frank Capra

Premise: A man who has fallen on hard times is drafted to become the face of a manufactured political movement but his own identity gets lost in the hoopla.

What Works: Meet John Doe is a very interesting film for a variety of reasons but among them is its director, Frank Capra. With titles like It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It Happened One Night, Capra’s filmography is almost perpetually upbeat and optimistic. Interestingly, this movie was made right after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and it reflects some of the same themes of that story but with a far more cynical outlook on the media, politics, and the American public. The story begins with a newspaper columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) writing a fake letter to the editor in which the author decries society’s ills and announces his intention to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. The letter becomes a sensation and instead of coming clean, the columnist and newspaper editor (James Gleason) hire an unemployed baseball player (Gary Cooper) to be the face and voice of John Doe. The John Doe character quickly becomes a celebrity, mobilizing the public with populist rhetoric and inspiring John Doe societies around the country. It’s all relatively harmless until the newspaper’s publisher (Edward Arnold) coopts John Doe fever to launch his own political career. Like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe is a film about a goodhearted everyman who gets caught up in events that are bigger than he is and who takes on the establishment, marshaling the public with a hopeful proletariat message. But unlike Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or any other film in Capra’s filmography, Meet John Doe pokes holes in the American myth of the individual and it undermines a lot of the ideas found in Capra’s movies. Meet John Doe is also interesting because of its continued relevance. It has been nearly seventy-five years since its initial release and the themes and ideas of Meet John Doe are prescient of our own age. This is a film in which a man is picked from obscurity and thrust upon the national stage in much the same way as Samuel Wurzelbacher (better known as Joe the Plummer), Sarah Palin, Michael Brown, and Kim Davis. Like those figures, John Doe becomes a pawn in the designs of much more powerful figures connected with media empires and political dynasties. In the process of becoming a public figure John Doe loses his own identity and the façade starts to become reality. This is all tremendously transferable to the age of social media and cable news. On top of all that, Meet John Doe is made with Capra’s typical filmmaking skill from a witty and intelligent script by Robert Riskin and it features sympathetic performances by Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.

What Doesn’t: The one aspect of Meet John Doe that does not quite work is the ending. This is one of those movies in which the filmmakers write themselves into a narrative corner and no ending will be entirely satisfactory. Part of the problem is the speed of the unraveling. When the truth of John Doe is exposed the public turns on him in an instant. That’s done for dramatic expediency but it isn’t entirely realistic, especially given the devotion that the public demonstrates for John Doe over the course of the movie. The ending of Meet John Doe is also an example of a filmmaker compromising the finale for the sake of the audience. Supposedly multiple endings were shot and tested and the conclusion that Frank Capra ultimately chose is intended to be a feel good ending that leaves the viewer in a positive state of mind. The problem is that the movie isn’t really leading toward this ending. If anything, the momentum of Meet John Doe is pushing toward a tragic conclusion. As a result the very end of the picture is a non-sequitur and it comes across as false.

DVD extras: None. Meet John Doe has fallen into the public domain and so there are many copies of this film available in physical form and online. Like most movies in the public domain, the quality of the presentation varies greatly from one edition to the next and so consumers looking to acquire a copy should investigate the distributor before purchasing.

Bottom Line: Meet John Doe has fallen into the background of Frank Capra’s filmography but the movie is worth seeking out. It is entertaining in the style of classic Hollywood pictures but it’s also smart and funny and the movie holds up remarkably well.

Episode: #559 (September 13, 2015)