MEET JOHN DOE — CLASSIC FILM PICK
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Wikipedia lists “Meet John Doe” as an “American comedy film.” How wrong they are. Frank Capra’s trenchant 1941 social satire of right-wing manipulation of American society, was released just prior to America’s involvement in World War II, at a time when the country’s anxious social climate was exacerbated by harsh economic circumstances following the Great Depression. The script is based on a story by war photographer and newspaper journalist Robert Presnell Sr.
Although the doors closed on the Group Theater’s socially conscious plays during the same year, the theater company’s influence for creating “forceful” socially provocative works is clearly on display in “Meet John Doe.”
The film still retains its resonance as a lively commentary against political and corporate corruption in a capitalist system that is nothing more than another form of fascism. In hindsight, aspects of “Spartacus” and “Ace in the Hole” seem derived from “John Doe’s” socially driven plot. The film is a singular example of mainstream leftist cinema at its best.
Times are tough. Newspaper writer Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is one of many staff members getting the axe. A single mother of two, Ann pleads for her job before sitting down to write her final column — one she intends to provoke the kind of “fireworks” her editor is looking for to boost newspaper sales. Ann writes an editorial letter under the nom de plume of “John Doe,” protesting society’s corrupt methods that exploit American citizens from cradle to grave.
Ann’s “John Doe” promises to commit suicide on Christmas Eve by jumping from the top of the City Hall tower as "his" final act of protest against an impossible system that enslaves its populace. Ann’s phony letter strikes a nerve with the masses. To insure her continued employment, she hatches a plan for the paper to hire a “common man” to accept responsibility for writing the letter, namely a real-life John Doe. Fifty dollars is all it takes.
With his movie-star jawline, Gary Cooper underplays the downtrodden character of John Willoughby, a former minor league baseball pitcher in need of elbow surgery before he can return to his chosen profession. For the last few years, John has ridden the rails with his harmonica-playing hobo companion “The Colonel” (Walter Brennan).
Although a supporting character, The Colonel is a key figure because he speaks the author’s theme lines regarding the true nature of freedom. He sees through the insidious rat race that money demands of its servants, and refuses to participate. He’s an outlier with reason and a purpose. You’d be hard-pressed to find such an ideally composed socialist character in any other film. And this is coming from Frank Capra, the man who made “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and produced US military propaganda movies. Go get ‘em cowboy.
Newspaper publisher and right-wing political upstart D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) plays two ends against the middle by funding the formation of hundreds of “John Doe” clubs across the country. Norton’s underhanded but obvious intent is to repurpose the club’s members as voters who will pave his way to the White House. Providing “John Doe” club members with the utopia they demand is the opposite of what Norton intends to deliver.
Barbara Stanwyck’s unreliable character Ann is revealed to be a canny opportunist with a bag of self-serving (read “survivalist”) tricks. Fainting works when sobbing doesn’t do the job.
“Meet John Doe” ends on an uncertain note. John Willoughby is left just as confused as he was when first he came to audition for the role of working-class-hero. Nothing has changed, except that John Willoughby is called something different.