Review: Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe


Frank Capra
Robert Riskin (Story: Richard Connell, Robert Presnell)
122 min.
Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Bernnan, Spring Byington, James Gleason, Gene Lockhart, Rod La Rocque, Irving Bacon
MPAA Rating

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In a typical Frank Capra film, ordinary men stand up for other ordinary men. It’s how many of his films have come to be regarded as classics. Not because they were groundbreaking examples of style or grand exercises in innovation, but because they spoke to the regular filmgoer of the time. Meet John Doe can’t hold a candle to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s still successful in its own right.

In the midst of financial crisis and high unemployment, a powerful newspaper is bought out and its employees are cut, including talented journalist Ann Mitchell, played by the lovely, if underused Barbara Stanwyck. Ann decides to finish out her duties by typing up a scathing critique of the government and the ignominy invited upon the common folk in the form of an anonymous letter from a man who plays to fling himself from the highest point in the city in protest. When the newspaper’s readership responds favorably to the letter, Ann is re-hired and the search begins for a man to impersonate this fake letter writer in an effort to string the story along for the success of the newspaper and to strengthen her career.

A washed up baseball pro, John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), is one of several homeless men who claim to have written the letter, and whose good looks prompt Ann to pick him as their fictitious John Doe. As Willoughby becomes accustomed to the life of fame and comes to realize the power he wields during a live radio broadcast, he gets the idea that he can really be of help to his fellow man and begins working hard to encourage his admirers to embrace their friendliness and become better neighbors to one another. Unfortunately, the newspaper’s owner, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) has other plans. In hopes of becoming president, D.B. goes to great lengths and spends vast sums of money to encourage the little John Doe Clubs around the country in hopes that he can use John’s celebrity as a springboard for a new political party and for his own ambitions.

As this is Cooper’s story, it’s little surprise that he carries the film with little effort. He pulls us into his depressing story and then carries us forward with his big ideas and hopes for the future. And when we’re finally left atop that building watching him decide whether to fulfill his fake letter’s promise, we are of little doubt that he’s about to do the right thing even if we hope that it won’t come to pass.

The first half of the film moves rather slowly for a Capra film. It lingers on examining very little, though is supposedly an attempt to convey the forthright nature of our anonymous hero and set up most of the events that will transpire as the film progresses. Yet, most of what we are given is mostly unnecessary. A lengthy scene where John discusses his life and ambitions with his guards and assistants over a fictitious game of baseball propels the story, but does so without a lick of brevity. However, as the D.B.’s ulterior motives are revealed and the film starts careening towards its conclusion, the audience is compelled to stand by John’s side against what they have seen. The film could have used some narrative tightening, but the end result is involving enough to make the entirety worth watching.
Review Written
November 29, 2010

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