Meet John Doe



Frank Capra made many good-hearted sentimental films that captured America’s hearts and minds. One such film is a little ditty goes by the name of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” You may see it, oh, just about every year. It has become a holiday classic, and deservedly so.

Another lesser known Capra classic that climaxes on Christmas Eve is “Meet John Doe” starring Gary Cooper and the lovely and delightful Barbara Stanwyck.  It shares much in common with the other film as well, from attempted suicides to diabolical old men trying to wield their power about, to betrayal, lies, deception, and other such traits that should be in any holiday film worth its salt.

I try and get around to “Meet John Doe” each holiday season, as I find it is a trip worth taking time and again. Not only does it contain all the heart wrenching and sentimentality that one has come to expect from Capra, but there is a level of darkness and despair that is prevalent.

The film starts out with Barbara Stanwyck being fired from her post at a newspaper during its transition from “The Bulletin” to “The New Bulletin,” claiming she doesn’t write with the explosive fire the new paper will require. She responds, in turn, by giving them just the article they want…albeit a completed fabricated letter from a completely fictional John Doe. The response to this letter is enormous, and soon the public wants to know just who this John Doe really is. And so they have to find one.

Enter Gary Cooper, a down on his luck dude in need of a job. But, he’s got that movie star face and charisma…he is Gary Cooper after all; and their fates are sealed. Stanwyck’s Ann Mitchell convinces the head of “The New Bulletin”, D.B. Norton, that with her as the voice, and Cooper as the face, they can bring a whole new level of popularity and economic gain to the paper. And it does work.

And it even does some good as people find refuge in the writing and form “John Doe Clubs.” Which gives Norton an idea: he can use the John Doe Clubs that his money and paper are creating, to give him an enormous amount of power that he can wield politically. He buys Ann Mitchell off with money (at least temporarily) and figures that Cooper’s John Doe is already bought and paid for. After all, he’s a bum off the street who’s willingly the poster boy for the scam.

“Meet John Doe” shows the danger of popular media. On the one hand, John Does does speak for the people, and does help them. But there’s always the underbelly…the dirty trick puller, and he typically has the purse strings. He just needs the masses. So, controlling the media, he figures he can have them both. And, typically, there is a price tag for everything.

Aside from being fine dramatic entertainment, it is interesting to realize that this motion picture was made in 1941 during the era of Roosevelt’s New Deal and his Fireside Chats. It comes just two years after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. These are interesting times for popular and public media. It was then that the government and politicians were discovering the power and accessibility of contacting the public and getting them on their side, through mass media. One need look no further than the montage sequence indicating John Doe’s rise in popularity to see how quick and effective John Doe’s rise is. Capra deftly shows the danger of such popular power, whether it is for good or ill.  Cooper’s John Doe believes he is doing good, while D.B. Norton is waiting for the popularity to rise to the appropriate level so he can exact his ill will.

But this is all subtext and background, and Capra doesn’t let the film get bogged up in it. This is why it is so enjoyable, while also subtly dealing with a lot of then-current issues. The film is funny, and yes, sappy in the ways that only Capra knew how. And it shows that there is always an end to despair. I’ll drink to that.

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