Film Title: Meet John Doe
Studio: Warner Brothers
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Gary Cooper
- Barbara Stanwyck
- Edward Arnold
- Walter Brennan
Frank Capra readily admitted that he thought Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t good enough to be an actress when he first met her as a young girl. During their first meeting, she lashed out at him verbally. Having been kicked around Hollywood for months, Stanwyck was fed up with all the mind games and empty promises. Her tirade was the culmination of many frustrating meetings with directors, producers and advisors. Stanwyck accused Capra of wasting her time. She felt that he wasn’t really interested in her abilities and only took the meeting out of professional courtesy. Her behavior only solidified Capra’s opinion of her as a “loose cannon”. It wasn’t until Stanwyck’s husband (at the time) Frank Fay called Capra and demanded that he see test footage of her before making any snap decisions that he changed his mind. Capra was sold on her and cast her in his 1930 film Ladies of Leisure. He would direct her in a total of five films, the last being 1941’s Meet John Doe opposite Gary Cooper, who accepted the role without reading the script because he wanted to work with Stanwyck.
Stanwyck is Ann Mitchell, a writer for The Bulletin newspaper. When publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) takes over, he changes the name to The New Bulletin and demands a new format. This prompts the managing editor, Henry Connell (James Gleason) to fire Ann. The new paper needs stories that light a fire under people and Connell finds Ann’s writing to be anything but exciting. Though she begs and pleads to keep her job, Connell insists that she finish her last column, collect her final paycheck and leave. Never one to back down easily, Ann has a brainstorm. She writes a column that includes a letter supposedly sent in by a man named “John Doe”. In the letter, Doe rants about the state of the world and the lack of goodwill in modern-day society. He ends his rant by vowing to commit suicide from the City Hall on Christmas Eve as a show of principle for his beliefs. In reality, there is no John Doe and Ann never received any such letter. She cooked up the scenario to give Connell the fireworks he wanted. Initially skeptical, Connell wants no parts of the publicity stunt until scores of people respond dramatically to the printed letter. It’s then that he realizes the gold mine in front of him. Ann, as the author of the new recipe for success, demands her job back and $1,000 bonus. Connell complies and the paper immerses itself in the John Doe phenomenon. Now there’s only one small detail to satisfy. Since there is no physical John Doe, they must figure out a way to find someone willing to pose as the mystery man. A crowd of men show up at the newspaper office, all claiming to be John Doe. Ann and Connell bring them in one by one to scrutinize. The majority are vagrants looking for a quick buck or an easy meal. After hours of sifting through weathered faces, a man named John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) presents himself. Ann immediately perks up at the sight of the interesting prospect. Willoughby has not come to “audition” for the role of Doe, but rather in search of a job for himself and his friend “The Colonel” (Walter Brennan). The two are drifters. Willoughby is a former pitcher who lost his career to an arm injury and The Colonel is more concerned with jumping freight trains from state to state. When Ann asks Willoughby about his willingness to assume the identity of John Doe, his reluctance is fueled by The Colonel’s insistence that financial gain will only ruin him and attract the attention of “heelots” (The Colonel’s term for bill collectors and salesman who prey on people with money).
After some reassuring words, Willoughby relents and agrees to take on the new persona. The paper continues to churn out letters supposedly written by Doe, in which he confronts every issue plaguing the common man. The ideal begins to catch on around the country and “John Doe” becomes a folk hero of sorts. Bulletin publisher Norton soon devises a plan to use this to his political advantage. He instructs Ann to work directly with him and commissions her to pen a radio speech for Doe. The speech, Norton believes, will put their “discovery” over the top and grab the attention of every Tom, Dick and Harry (also known as the real voters). Ann has difficulty writing the speech. She toils for hours at home, throwing away drafts and losing her confidence in the process. Her mother (played by Spring Byington) suggests that she draw inspiration from her late father’s diary. This proves to be the winning ingredient. As Doe is preparing to make his radio debut, a columnist from competing publication The Chronicle tries to pay him in exchange for reading a different letter over the air. The Chronicle letter has Doe exposing the Bulletin’s hoax. Though he agrees to do it (knowing that the payoff money will allow him to have his arm fixed), he bails on the deal at the last minute and reads Ann’s original script instead. Doe is secretly in love with Ann and he knows that betraying her trust would shatter any chance he may have. He begins to deliver in a shaky voice, nervously gripping the microphone stand and stumbling over ordinary words. However, by mid-speech he seems to boast a newfound confidence. Meanwhile, The Colonel keeps motioning towards an open door as a means of escape. Doe ignores his friend’s suggestions and continues speaking until every last word has been proclaimed. The emotion overwhelms him and he bolts through the side door to run away as soon as he finishes. Now resuming life as John Willoughby, he and The Colonel stop off for donuts in another town. Willoughby notices a truck driving by with a sign that reads “The John Doe Club”. Ann and Norton catch up to Willoughby and try to persuade him to continue his artificial crusade. He claims to want no part of the ruse or Ann’s proposal of a national speaking tour. Suddenly, members of a local John Doe Club ask to speak with Willoughby (who they think is John Doe). He listens apprehensively to their stories of goodwill and newly formed friendships, all based around the ideals of his simple message of faith. When Willoughly realizes the impact he’s made, he resumes life as John Doe of his own free will. They embark on the speaking tour.
Doe is now completely in love with Ann and approaches her mother for advice on how to tell her. Meanwhile, Ann has gone to Norton’s home for a meeting with various political figures who are trying to organize a John Doe convention. The convention will pack the numerous John Doe clubs from around the country into one venue for a speech to end all speeches. Norton’s plan is to pull the strings from behind the scenes by way of a strategically written script in which Doe announces his own political party. He will naturally name Norton as his candidate of choice for the President of the United States. Ann is turned off by the idea of cheapening the movement but seems to have little say in the matter. Connell also disapproves of the tactic. He gets drunk and spills the beans to Doe, who storms off to Norton’s house for a confrontation. Once there, he notices Ann among the planning committee and promises to uphold the original message of hope despite Norton’s attempt to capitalize on it. Ann runs after Doe and tries to go with him, but he ignores her and goes to the convention alone. As he begins to make his speech, Norton shows up with his committee and exposes Doe as a fraud. The crowd of supporters becomes a crowd of disillusioned people who turn hostile. Having no opportunity to tell his side of the story, Doe is chastised and takes to the streets as a loner. Ann is guilt-ridden and worried about Doe’s safety. She has fallen in love with him and feels remorse for starting the charade. In a moment of panic, it becomes evident to all that Doe may prove his sincerity by acting out the intentions of his first letter.
Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck would make one more film together in 1941, Ball of Fire. Cooper already had a good amount of film work under his belt. His career began in the 1920s, playing bit parts and doing extra work, though he went uncredited for his first 12 roles. His first credited role was in 1926’s Lightnin’ Wins, where he received third billing. He would go uncredited for a few more roles in the latter half of the 20s, but by the end of decade, he was making films every year and would continue to make films every year (with the exception of 1960) up until his death in 1961. He is often associated with western plots and cowboys, but also remembered as Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees. In this film, Cooper worked very well as the bumpkin-turned-activist. He perfected a technique of keeping his eyes low and glancing around quickly, as if confused out of innocence. The simplistic nature of his character made for a high level of believability. Cooper became John Doe. He was the embodiment of the ordinary man struggling to make it in a world dominated by big business. Director Frank Capra must have noticed those qualities in Cooper from the beginning. He’d worked with Cooper once before in 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and wanted no one else for the role of Doe. Stanwyck was her usual unforgettable self. She often echoed her personal life through the characters she portrayed and Ann Mitchell was no exception. Her first show of ambition came through immediately, refusing to accept the loss of her job. With quick thinking, she orchestrated a way to be needed. Stanwyck always had the ability to command respect and make the viewer cry in the same sequence. It’s a rare quality that few have mastered over the course of film history. She was as tough as she was fragile, though when her glass jaw started to show, she guarded it with the fists of a champion. Like many classic films, the supporting cast of Meet John Doe was of particular importance. Walter Brennan as The Colonel was annoying, but in a good way. The Colonel was supposed to be annoying. He was paranoid, overly protective and a bit egotistical. So, in that respect, Brennan played him in the best possible way. The viewer wants the John Doe movement to prosper and The Colonel’s condescending attitude is anything but welcome. All in all, Meet John Doe is a great yarn about the foundation of humanity and how collectively, we can make the world a better place.
Meet John Doe is currently in the public domain. Having said that, there is no one superior DVD release. Like many films without a copyright, it has been released by various companies, mostly without any restoration or extras. For that reason alone, one release cannot be recommended over another. However, you will still find a link at the bottom of this review to purchase a copy. As a side note, it should be mentioned that Meet John Doe is a film with a powerful message and deserves to be picked up by a studio for that reason, if not for its entertainment value alone. This film should be preserved for many future generations.
What hasn’t already been said? Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and a story about society at its most basic level – it could only be memorable. The public has seen horror and tolerated violence. At the very least, we can spend a little over two hours remembering what it means to be civil. Everyone knows a “John Doe” and some of us are “John Doe”. There are bits of comedy mixed in to soften the harsh blow of reality, but in reality, the message comes through loud and clear courtesy of Hollywood’s elite.
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