Movie Critique - Meet John Doe

For review of all movies starring Barbara Stanwyck, go here.

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: A dark movie with shades and shades of optimism infused every which way the plot takes a turn, uplifting at the end, delivering a very powerful and profound message. 

Meet John Doe is a 1941 American comedy drama film starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, James Gleason, Gene Lockhart and Walter Brennan in the lead cast. Directed and produced by Frank Capra, adapted from the 1922 story A Reputation by Richard Edward Connell which was published in Century Magazine. The film was made for Warner Bros., the first of the two Capra made for the studio.

Ann Mitchell (portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck), soon to being laid off newspaper reporter, prints an article about a fictional John Doe who threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve protesting societies ills and evils. Unexpectedly the article creates a sensation and it lands on Mitchell and her editor Henry Cornell's (portrayed by James Gleason) shoulder to prove that the story is true and there is a real John Doe. They end up hiring John Willoughby (portrayed by Gary Cooper), a former basketball player down on his luck, to pose as the fictional John Doe. Before either of them know, Mitchell and her John Doe become a national sensation, developing into a grassroots movement with the slogan "Be a better neighbor", and more political drama surround it. 

Screenplay for the film was written by Robert Riskin, his last collaboration for Frank Capra. Riskin derived the plot from 1939 film-treatment titled The Life and Death of John Doe by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell which was in turn based on Connell's 1922 story.

This was one of the three stories by Richard Edward Cornell that were adapted to film. The other two were - the 1940 American crime-comedy film Brother Orchid and the 1932 The Most Dangerous Game.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a hard bitten newspaper reporter who learns the meaning of basic humanity and love. Her character is very strong, independent and revolutionary with a side of cynicism and hardness that wears off as she spends more time with John Doe. Barbara made her character Ann Mitchell look easy on eyes but with a strong spine, inspiring so many women out there.

Gary Cooper agreed to play the part of John Doe in the film without even reading the story because he wanted to act along-side Barbara Stanwyck. This is the first time I am watching a movie of Gary Cooper, although I have heard him being referenced with his 1952 American western film High Noon several times in movies and TV shows. As John Doe in the film, Cooper was charming and effective. 

Edward Arnold had several radio appearances with prominent roles in the ABC radio program Mr. President from 1947 to 1953; and as Mr. Reynolds on The Charlotte Greenwood Show. I have heard him in many other shows too in the Old Time Radio podcasts I have been listening to recently. In this film, Arnold is the scheming and cynical newspaper publisher, D. B. Norton. 

I remember watching him as the blind detective Captain Duncan "Mac" Maclain in the 1942 crime mystery film Eyes in the Night; and 1945 mystery film The Hidden Eye. I was rather impressed by his role of a blind detective in both films but the movies didn’t fare well for Arnold though. 

Gene Lockhart portrays the role of Mayor Lovett in the film. I remember him as Horace Swayne, the butler, from the 1935 American mystery-comedy film Star of Midnight which I watched middle of last year. The comedy of errors in this film begins with Gene Lockhart's Lovett creating a riot for the viewers.

Originally I wanted to see this film because the snippet provided on Turner Classics Movies (TCM) for the film reminded me of the 1989 Hindi Indian language film Hero Hiralal starring Naseeruddin Shah in lead role which had a similar role. But that story is slightly different from Meet John Doe. Instead I found that this was remade in Hindi Indian language in 1989 as Main Azad Hoon with Amitabh Bachchan in the lead.

Turner Classics Movies (TCM) aired this movie as part of Christmas Movies Special this past December. However, the TCM host Ben Mankiewicz gave us the 2015 Christmas Eve introduction of this film by Robert Osbourne, who had been the face of TCM for over 23 years until he passed away in 2017. This movie was aired again in 2020 as part of Robert Osbourne's favorite Christmas Movies being played for Christmas Eve and Christmas

Director Capra has always delivered movies filled with humanity, goodness, decency, likable plots and outstanding actors. His stories always showcase the common man who is duped by slick criminals but manages to come out on top in the end. If you have seen the 1946 American Christmas fantasy family drama film It's A Wonderful Life, you know what I mean. Meet John Doe was another one of Capra's memorable films made five years prior to It's A Wonderful Life. You can still see the same message he has been showing in most of his movies. 

Although Meet John Doe doesn’t have a Christmas element to it, it does focus on the year-end holidays, the hoopla created by businessmen and politicians, the common man trying to make these holidays happier than the rest of the year. The film also puts light on fascism which was prevalent at that time, what with the world being at war. And ofcourse the talented stars to complement the plot.

James Gleason who is the editor Henry Connell in the film, in a conversation with Stanwyck's Ann says to her "I told you I can't use your column anymore. It's lavender and old lace". Incidentally Capra's second film for Warner Bros. was the 1944 American black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace which has been on my list to watch for a long time. James Gleason is one of those fixtures in many movies in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. 

And some more powerful and thought provoking quotes:

The Colonel: All right. You're walking along, not a nickel in your jeans, your free as the wind, nobody bothers ya. Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business: shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, everything, and there all nice lovable people and they lets you alone, is that right? Then you get a hold of some dough and what happens, all those nice sweet lovable people become heelots, a lotta heels. 
Ann: If it was raining hundred dollar bills, you'd be out looking for a dime you lost someplace!

Above all the speech that Cooper's John Doe gives when he is introduced to the world is so versatile, so valid even for today's world when we are stepping into the third decade of the 21st century. His words still hold true even if they were written 80 years ago, specially in this diverse nations with people living together with multiple cultures and religions.

The world has moved on, become small, reached the stars and moon, invented and discovered miracles of past present and future, but the fate of the everyday common man still remains the same, if not more tougher now than when it was for him in 1941. Here is the video clip of that speech.

That speech actually got tears to my eyes. Not only just the speech, but the impact those words had on people from a small town called Millsville really moved me. If only, as the John Doe says in his speech, that warn Christmas spirit lasts all year long, may be world could really be a better place for everyone.

I am glad that Capra showed the shrewd politics, the cunning publishers and the opportunists in the name of doing good along-side. The film had unusual number of uncredited actors for that time. The closing credits lists the cast members as "The Players".

Frank Capra had five endings filmed and all five were screened. However, neither of them garnered any good reviews. And finally he created a final and sixth finale based on a fan's suggestion. That sixth final is what is now seen when the film airs. 

Despite the movie being called a comedy drama, I would consider it more of a drama film with a philosophical take. There is so much in the movie that goes deeper than you can think; makes the viewers' mind open to the togetherness of this world in general.

A dark movie with shades and shades of optimism infused every which way the plot takes a turn, uplifting at the end, delivering a very powerful and profound message. A wonderful presentation by Capra giving voice to the anonymous and the average John Does.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. The film was adapted to radio by The Screen Guild Theater and broadcasted on September 28, 1941 with Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward Arnold reprising their roles. 

b. This is the final film of Rod La Rocque who plays the part of Ted Sheldon in the movie.

c. Gary Cooper's character's full name is Long John Willoughby in the film. In his 1938 American western film The Cowboy and the Lady his character's name is Stretch Willoughby. Interestingly enough in both the films Walter Brennan plays his wise-cracking sidekick. You can see him as The Colonel in the film. 

d. Incidentally his last name Willoughby reminded me of episode 30 from season 1 of the American television anthology series Twilight Zone titled A Stop at Willoughby.

e. Two other speeches in the movie smacks reality into everyone's faces, making us sit straight and think of what the powers be are doing to people and world in general. First one at D. B. Norton's office in response to his threat to kill The John Doe Movement by John Doe himself..

And another one at the end of the film, which becomes the closure of the film. This time it's both John Doe and Ann Mitchell's speech along with Doe's supporters. 

f. This film is referenced in the 1957 Hindi Indian language drama film Pyaasa.

g. Look for some of the yesteryear greats in the film - J. Farrell MacDonald, a character actor and director, in the role of Sourpuss, chairman of John Doe Club in Millsville; John Regis Toomey as Bert Hansen, head soda jerker.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. When they are looking for a John Doe, Connell describes the potential person as 5'5" with light chestnut hair and brown eyes. But when they finalize on Gary Cooper for John Doe the description doesn’t match at all. Cooper is 6' 3" with brown hair and blue eyes. Shouldn’t they be selecting someone to go with the description already given to the police to make the story plausible? Or the scriptwriters should have changed the earlier dialogue to match Gary Cooper?

b. When the dog is picking up the discarded paper ball from the floor to the waste paper basket you can see it is empty in the long shot. But in the immediate closeup shot the basket is full.

c. In the finale scene, the cigarette in John Doe's hands keeps appearing and disappearing between scenes. 


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