Meet John Doe
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper as reporter Ann Mitchell and former hobo Long John Willoughby

Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper as reporter Ann Mitchell and former hobo Long John Willoughby

Directed and produced by Frank Capra; original story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell; screenplay by Robert Riskin; cinematography by George Barnes; edited by Daniel Mandell; art direction by Stephen Goosson; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; music direction by Leo F. Forbstein; starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Brennan, James Gleason, Edward Arnold, Gene Lockhart, Irving Bacon, Spring Byington, and Rod La Rocque. Two-disc 70th anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD, B&W, 123 min. 1941.

Is there anything fresh left to say about Frank Capra the director and his most pessimistic film, Meet John Doe? Watching it again on a recently released DVD —VCI Entertainment’s digitally restored version—I began to think of alternate ways of looking at the film. Much of what I picked up during this screening dealt with Meet John Doe’simplicit and explicit relationship to the contemporary political scene.

Meet John Doe is a fable that deals with the dangers of home grown fascism, and the power of the ordinary man and little people to prevent the triumph of dark forces. A millionaire businessman, D. B. Norton—Capra’s most sinister villain (a porcine Edward Arnold)— is the indigenous fascist, who has a private motorcycle army and the ambition to create a third party (“a new order”) and run for President. He hires a down-at-the heels, boxcar riding drifter, and sore-armed pitcher, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper at his most taciturn), who assumes the name John Doe to become the linchpin and symbol of a nationwide movement, the John Doe Clubs. The Clubs and their belief in good neighborliness and charity spread like wildfire, and an apolitical Doe, who is shambling and inarticulate, and is only interested in getting his pitching arm repaired, begins to believe in the vague idealistic credo written for him.

The film is filled with Capra gags, bits of business, and stylistic tropes (“the Capra touch”): Doe’s invisible baseball game; Norton obsessively wiping his glasses; a duet between John on the harmonica and his cynical hobo pal, the Colonel (Walter Brennan) on the ocarina; innumerable reaction shots and close-ups that skillfully manipulate our emotions; a variety of montages; the striking use of light and shadow in the film’s climactic scene; and even a bit of self-parody—midgets representing the “little people” used in promotional photos for Doe. So, for possibly the first time, Capra is willing to make fun of himself.

There are also innumerable conversion scenes—Capra’s stock in trade (his Catholic legacy). They include the hard-boiled editor, Connell (James Gleason) drunkenly rediscovering his decency and patriotism and Capra’s pantheon of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln—“the lighthouse in a foggy world.” Ann (Barbara Stanwyck), the sharp, cynical, opportunistic reporter (much tougher and more mercenary than Jean Arthur ever was in earlier Capra films) who sets the John Doe phenomenon in motion by writing a fake letter from the unemployed "John Doe," threatening suicide to protest society’s painful problems. In collusion with Norton she goes on to write Doe’s speeches. But she begins to see the light, and is overwhelmed with guilt and romantic passion for Willoughby—giving up Norton’s big money. Willoughby himself has no idea that the John Doe clubs may serve nefarious goals. He’s a man who is dimly conscious of what is going on around him (he doesn’t even bother to read the speeches he delivers), and just floats along on the applause he receives from the public. Finally he has an epiphany, and faces down Norton and his fat cat, cigar-smoking cohorts (representing politics, labor, and business who all want a bit of the action) to the applause of Norton’s servants. He turns himself into a full-fledged Capra hero, and makes his “I’m just a mug speech” affirming the spirit of the John Does everywhere.

The one major Capra character that avoids engaging in a conversion experience is the Colonel. Throughout the film, he remains wary of the behavior of the people—in his words they are “helots” that can’t be trusted. He also rejects romance, money, comfort, and success, in order to live in accord with his idea of what a free man is. The Colonel may be capable of profound loyalty to Willoughby, but is continually at odds with Capra’s sentimental optimism— believing a “drunken barber shapes the world.”

The Colonel’s pessimism is Capra’s own antidote to and expression of self-doubt about his belief in the essential goodness of the common man. Capra was no innocent, and believed that it was possible for ordinary people to turn into a lynch mob, or be susceptible to indigenous fascists exploiting his type of benign rhetoric. Consequently, given his unease in Doe with the generally Pollyannish vision that permeates his earlier works like Mr. Smith, Capra had trouble concluding this film—shooting five different endings before he found one that he thought would not be too bleak for his public. So, the film concludes with the “little people” —the small town members of the Doe Clubs, who had joined an angry mob against Willoughby for being a fraud, magically affirming their faith in him and the ideals he represents. Their pleas stop Willoughby from committing suicide, and he walks out with Ann, who, feverish and exhausted, has collapsed in his arms. But it’s not the sort of victory that Jefferson Smith experiences. There is no recantation by Norton and no certainty that he has been defeated, except for Connell’s last line: “There you are, Norton—the people. Try and lick that.”

There is a more logical ending than this contrived fragile triumph that would have Willoughby at the end of his tether— rejected by the people, betrayed by Ann—commit suicide. But as quoted in Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Capra backed away from that concluding scene, because the ”audience told us that you can’t kill Gary Cooper.” He went on that ”sure the intellectual critics would have raved over that end, but it doesn’t make sense.”

Reading fan letters in Eric Smoodin’s Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930-60—one sees that some fans wrote resentfully about seeing the John Doe Clubs virulently turning on their icon. They felt that given the threat of Hitler, the film had to see ordinary people not as an easily manipulated herd, but as men and women who could stand up to power. Many other letters responded to the film’s politics, by looking to Hollywood to promote a political consciousness, and viewed Capra as a man who could mobilize the public. The letters attributed a special status to Capra, who seemed in one writer’s words to be speaking for those of us “who are sick of wars and the eventual taxes that are piled on us; of the cheap petty politics with their intrigue and selfishness.” So at least for the portion of the film audience that wrote fan letters, Capra was seen as a political leader, who produced powerful sermons. Capra wrote back that he had “no desire to direct a national movement,” but to continue to make movies.

Still, looking at John Doe today, one can glean parallels between the Doe Clubs and the Tea Parties. Capra had a keen intuitive sense about the nature of the American popular mind. It’s extremely plausible then that the fictional populist movement in the film would have echoes or even prefigured the more successful contemporary one.

The Doe Clubs believed in the Christian ideal of loving your neighbor, and of ordinary people pulling together to bring about change. (Such good neighborliness, of course, had its severe limits in 1941—the clubs were all white.) They were also anti-political —all the politicians in the film are comically ineffectual, and ready to serve Norton—and the clubs eschewed a commitment to governmental social reform for self-reliance, benevolence, and voluntary aid. Capra always looked for a change of consciousness rather than institutions, and offered up platitudes reverberating with feeling rather than coherent political ideas. So his films would never suggest that social change was a complex, painful act, not so different than the Tea Parties’ magical belief that cutting taxes and the deficit, and radically limiting government power would bring on an American Eden. Like the John Doe clubs the Tea Parties also lack a coherent political program, and were formed in reaction to heavy unemployment and a severe economic downturn.

Obviously, there are profound differences between the two. The Tea Parties are much angrier, define themselves in opposition to liberalism, are linked to one political party and are successfully involved in electing legislators and passing legislation (e.g., Wisconsin attempt to strip the collective bargaining rights of public employees). Nevertheless, they are both populist movements—supposedly speaking for the ordinary people against the elites. Also, in Doe’s first speech on the radio he simply calls for America to rediscover its older, better self, similar to the Tea Parties’ reverential invocation of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as a guide to what we should do politically.

What tops off the parallel between the two is the fact that just as the Doe Clubs are bankrolled by a ruthless, power hungry publisher/millionaire, people like the Koch Brothers often subsidize the Tea Parties. The Kochs are right-wing billionaires—anti-union, and anti-regulation who own the second largest privately held company (an energy and consumer products conglomerate) in the U.S. and through numerous PACs have financed Tea Party initiatives across the U.S. They are also the biggest contributors to the election campaign of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

The Tea Parties are perfectly at home with the paradox of claiming to be a people’s movement, and being allied with and serving the needs of a right wing corporate elite. Capra’s Doe Clubs were much less conscious of the political process, and the humanitarian ideals the espoused were so vague that someone more cynical and calculating like Norton could easily use them. It’s probably wrong to compare a fictional movement, with one that operates in the political arena, still if Capra did not have clearly defined politics; he was prescient about how an American third-party populist movement would look, and how the media could be used to manipulate the public.

The DVD carries a number of extras. There are featurettes, short biographical sketches of Stanwyck, Cooper and Capra. All three of them consist of many trailers and scenes from their films, but we do discover that all the directors who worked with Stanwyck saw her as the consummate professional. Cooper began in silent film and played subsequently in many Westerns, was viewed by Lee Strasberg as the “first method actor,” who could convey a great deal with just a simple gesture. And Capra, the great cinematic storyteller, had a gift for camera set-ups and saw “dullness” as a cardinal sin. A fourth extra contrasts the images before and after digital restoration. The restored film containing sharper picture quality and crisper audio than earlier versions I have seen. Meet John Doe did not make money and was nominated for only one Academy Award for Best Original Story, but it was the most politically suggestive and resonant of all of Capra’s films.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition of American Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).

To purchase the 70th anniversary edition of Meet John Doe, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3