Meet John Doe - 1941
Meet John Doe - Released May 3, 1941. Directed by Frank Capra
Meet John Doe is Capra's magnum-opus in a way that It's A Wonderful Life can never be. Director Capra and writer Robert Riskin are pretty worried about America and it comes out in full force with screen characters coalescing into mobs and running amok when they find out their film hero, John Doe, is a fake. Instead of the small town and local city neighborhoods and quirky characters of Capra's earlier films, all of the United States gets kicked in the shins a bit by Riskin's running monologue (via secondary played by character Walter Brennan) about cheap consumerism and the appetite for easy solutions dressed in jack boots and uniforms.
Probably the first question posed by Meet John Doe is the obvious one, is Doe (Gary Cooper) a fake? Well, he's been pretty unethical. He's a washed up bush league ball player who gets hired to pretend to be "John Doe," a character that is invented by newspaper writer Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) who then uses the "Doe" pseudonym to write a rabble-rousing column, partially out of pique and partially out of a desperate need to stay employed. Her creation of a common-sense talking "average man" quickly becomes an overnight sensation and everyone wants to meet the guy, thus the need to hire a tall, good looking person to play the role and continue the boost in newspaper circulation, and so we end up with a strange hall of mirrors: a fake person pretending to be a fake literary device inside of what a Hollywood film cannot avoid being, a fake story.
When the owner of the newspaper sponsoring this fakery walks into the picture, a manipulative media magnate named D. B. Norton (played by Edward Arnold) we start to see that all this compromised integrity is a perfect starting point for an American closet fascist. Norton wants a "stronger" America that bears more than a passing resemblance to Hitler's Germany (and Edward Arnold tops it off with speech-making gestures that are identical to those of Adolf, to make sure the point gets across, at least on a subliminal level, for the 1941 movie audience).
Gary Cooper's character (along with his caustic hobo buddy played by Walter Brennan) try hard to act like disinterested and cynical outsiders who are watching the craziness of American consumerism and politics with a jaded eye, but Cooper's character ("Long John Willoughby") can't contain it for as long as he needs in order to profit from the impersonation of the fictitious "John Doe" character. He finally weighs in on the side of the angels (or, that is, the side of Stanwyck) and the pair are mesmerized by the hypnotic power they've welded into an idol adored by the "hoi polloi" that are their audience.
Meanwhile, right over their shoulder is Eddie Arnold steadily building a political machine to unseat the two major American political parties and drive his way into the White House. "America has gone soft!" he says, and he has a definite plan to remake the place in a more muscular and threatening image. Though 1941 is a rather late date for Riskin's script to be calling upon depression era tensions and this makes the film a odd hybrid of 30's era doubt combined with America's nervous rejuvenation in 1941 as it prepared for war. In a unique way, Meet John Doe attacks the peculiar problem of pre-WWII fascism which was a popular movement during the 1930s, celebrated by some because it "made the trains run on time" among other superficial accomplishments. Capra and Rickin make it their mission to expose the fascist idea as naked power grab where security and pride (or at least self-satisfaction, judging by the smug looks around D.B. Norton's companions) is obtained by a loss of freedom with a side order of hating your fellow citizens. And so added into Capra's hall of mirrors is Norton who pretends to be a friend to mankind and an altruistic benefactor, while we, the movie audience, see him behind the scenes and can identify him as a manipulator and schemer.
Capra's directing in Meet John Doe is in his prime style, everything carefully shot and peppered with sight gags, humorous tweaks to side characters, and then coupled with some of Riskin's best writing (Riskin wrote a number of Capra's films, though not the much more famous Capra epic It's A Wonderful Life.) Meet John Doe is not as smooth and elegant as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but Riskin and Capra are trying to pack a lot more into this tale, and that's where the film finally fails, unable to tie up the whole thing in a way that both makes sense and is satisfactory.
Meet John Doe is sometimes called Capra's "flawed masterpiece" because of how the ending is arranged and shows Cooper and Stanwyck triumphing symbolically ('if the cause is worth dying for, it's worth living for' argues Ann to Willoughby as he prepares to jump off the top of a skyscraper on Christmas Eve) and though they've been exposed as frauds, Capra wants us firmly on their side and against Edward Arnold and his clique of corrupt industrialists and union bosses who are strangely de-powered and softened at the end. With bells peeling and purifying white snow falling, the Hollywood ending is probably about as good an ending as you can get for a main character who has a mission to annihilate himself in protest against "the state of civilization" but who also has to be still walking among the good guys as their group exits the screen.
With John Doe standing in the snow on Christmas Eve at the top of a tall building, ready to kill himself, the difference between Meet John Doe and It's A Wonderful Life shortens considerably. It is as if the relative disappointment of Meet John Doe was recalibrated on a smaller and more personal scale five years and one world war later into It's A Wonderful Life. Both films have heroes that are pushed to their limits and then hinge their life onto self-sacrificing suicide. In a way, 'Long John' Willoughby and George Bailey are brothers, sharing in the same fraudulent interior personality but given a second chance by credits that roll onto the screen just in time, leaving them both with a challenge to do something a lot harder than killing themselves: to keep living.
Other Christmas film reviews:
The Shop Around the Corner - 1940
Ernest Saves Christmas - 1988
Holiday Inn - 1942
The Man Who Came to Dinner - 1942
Meet John Doe - 1941
AMAZON: Meet John Doe Remastered Edition 1941
From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original Page October 2017 | Updated Sept 2018