The great Frank Capra’s most ambitious and disturbing film, Meet John Doe is possibly more relevant today than when it first appeared in 1941. The idea of a completely media-fabricated celebrity — raised almost to the level of deity and used as a tool for political gain — probably seemed pretty fantastic then. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched now. Nor do the circumstances that set the story in motion.
The premise itself is fairly complicated. When the paper for which Ann Mitchell (the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck) writes a kind of “Dear Abby” column is taken over by a powerful right-wing conglomerate, she finds herself out of a job, and decides to take small revenge by sending herself a fake letter in which a man calling himself John Doe says he’s going to jump off the roof of city hall on Christmas Eve to protest the human condition and social inequalities.
The letter creates a storm of public outcry, and Ann and the paper’s editor (James Gleason) find themselves having to produce John Doe. Enter Long John Willoughby (a perfect performance by Gary Cooper), a minor-league ballplayer with a bad arm in need of an expensive operation — a man ready to pose as John Doe for the price of that operation. What starts out as cynicism (“Hot or cold — on Christmas Eve he goes!”) snowballs into a positive force called the John Doe Movement, which, on its simplest level, just makes people be nicer to each other.
However, publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold at his nastiest) has other plans. Norton’s a thinly disguised fascist who plans on using the movement to pave the way to political power — and ultimately, to the White House. But John has come to believe in his own message and will have none of it; this prompts Norton to unmask him as a fake before a huge rally of followers, who, disillusioned, turn on John and immediately return to their old ways. In John’s mind, the only way he can set this right is to carry out the plan stated in the original letter.
The question arises as to whether he will. And this was where Capra’s film hits a snag, since he knew that the public wouldn’t go for an ending where John commits suicide. Script doctors and experts were called in to help (one famous remark came from an expert who told Capra that he didn’t have an ending because he didn’t have a story!). No less than five endings were shot with Capra settling on one that he felt was a compromise — and it’s hard to deny the validity of his feeling. After all, Meet John Doe is at bottom a modern-dress Christ allegory. As such, it can have only one real ending. But the compromise ending undoubtedly played better with audiences, and though it can be viewed as a little sappy, it has a power of its own.
Of all Capra’s major films (major in the sense that they “say something”), Meet John Doe is the darkest, despite a number of comedic moments and a large dose of (very palatable) romance. It’s also his most interesting film now in terms of what we’ve learned in the intervening years about the director himself — though on that score it’s a case of forehead-slapping, “of course!” 20-20 hindsight. The increasing body of evidence that Capra wasn’t quite the sweet everyman of filmmakers he painted himself out to be – a pose that didn’t really take flight till he made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, also starring Cooper, in 1936 — adds to the dark edges of this film in particular.
If Capra was indeed generally selling “the masses” a bill of goods, extolling the benefits of being the “common man,” with films that painted the wealthy and powerful as not just evil, but unhappy due to that wealth and power, then Meet John Doe becomes the one film that breaks rank — a kind of self-accusatory work. After all, hadn’t Capra himself ridden to his greatest fame and fortune on the strength of fabricated everymen? It doesn’t really matter whether his idealists were called Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith — or John Doe.
What these characters never were was extensions of Capra, but tools to put across a message and gain the filmmaker greater power, and that raises the question of how much closer Capra was to D.B. Norton than to Long John Willoughby. Rather than diminish the Capra films, however, this gives them a dark undercurrent, and adds a level of complexity that isn’t apparent if his work is taken at face value.
Flawed though Meet John Doe may be by its ending, it is the key film in Capra’s filmography, and a must-see for anyone interested in classic cinema.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke