In the spirit of the holiday season as well as the current gloom stemming from recent political outcomes, I thought the time couldn’t be more perfect to revisit a still somewhat undiscovered cinematic treasure from the master of classic movie sentimentality, Frank Capra. The film in question is Meet John Doe and if many familiar with the director’s work may not recognize it, that’s perfectly understandable. The film doesn’t hold the same place in movie history as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or even Capra’s most signature film, It’s a Wonderful Life. However, what Meet John Doe lacks in popularity, it more than makes up for in ideology, truth and overall importance in what was Capra’s most skillfully political and poetic film.
Meet John Doe opens on newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who has just lost her job as a result of the paper she writes for being taken over by a conglomerate. As her final farewell, Ann quickly types up an editorial based on a letter she claims was sent in by a man calling himself John Doe. The letter is an impassioned criticism of 40s society and humanity in general, which ends with a proclamation stating that John Doe will jump to his death off of city hall on Christmas Eve as a form of protest and disgust at the state of things.
The column causes a stir and Ann’s job is saved after she convinces Mr. Connell (James Gleason), the paper’s Editor-in-Chief to let her keep publishing John Doe’s “letters” in an effort increase readership. He agrees and the two begin a hunt to find a John Doe they can present to the public. When they find a homeless former baseball pitcher named Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), they believe they have their man. Long John agrees to go ahead with the scheme in exchange for the money Ann and Connell have promised him. However, it isn’t long before John develops feelings for Ann while wrestling with his conscience over the fraud he’s taking part in as “the John Doe movement” continues to grow across the country.
The primary reason most don’t cite Meet John Doe among the legendary Capra’s collection of inspiring films is its decidedly grim nature. The film ventures into the realm of social unrest, disenchantment with society and an America which has all but forgotten so many of its own citizens. The large collection of homeless men who show up at the newspaper office claiming to be Ann’s John Doe may have been played for laughs, but there’s a definite sadness at seeing so many lost men who would rather risk legal trouble pretending to be someone they’re not than spend any more time on the street.
However, the film takes an even darker turn when D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), the head of the conglomerate who has taken over the paper takes an unhealthy interest in funding the John Doe movement. As the John Doe’s of the world unite and conditions among society genuinely begin to improve as a result of Ann’s words and Long John’s delivery of them, Norton and his band of wealthy men seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the intent of forming a third party which will serve as a platform for their own personal agenda, benefiting no one but them and their already-bloated bank accounts.
But Meet John Doe is a Capra film. And no Capra film would be complete without the director’s trademark heart and love of people. Indeed there is a great amount of humanity in the film thanks to its incredibly well-written script, which is full of long wraps of dialogue which speaks to the importance of loving one’s own fellow man. “If anyone were to ask you what the average John Doe is like, you couldn’t tell him because he’s a million and one things,” Long John says at the start of one of his speeches in which he’s describing the average man. “He’s Mr. Big and Mr. Small. He’s simple and he’s wise. He’s incredibly honest, but he’s got a streak of larceny in his heart. He seldom walks up to to a public telephone without first sticking his finger in the slot to see if anyone left a nickel there.”
All the ideological sentiments about tolerance, love and unity between countrymen are played for everything they’re worth. However it’s in the film’s ending in which a frantic Ann, delirious with fever, pleads with a suicidal John atop of snow-covered city hall on Christmas Eve where the core of Meet John Doe is reached. Pleading with Long John to spare his own life, Ann struggles to make him realize that it doesn’t matter if he was a fake or not, or what Norton and his goons had planned, the movement represented the people, and was bigger than all of them. “If it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for. You don’t have to die to keep the John Doe idea alive,” explains Ann. “Someone already died for that once – the first John Doe… and he’s kept that idea alive for nearly 2,000 years. It was he who kept it alive in them and he’ll go on keeping it alive forever and always. For every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born,” she tearfully exclaims.
Meet John Doe was anything but a hit for Capra when it was released. The film was considered grim and depressing by all who saw it. This was mainly due to an original ending which saw Long John actually carry out his suicidal plans. Dropping said ending didn’t help matters much as the film was considered a failure despite earning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. Making matters even worse in the years since the film’s release was the fact that Meet John Doe was an independent production, the first from Capra’s own company and was not tied to any major studio. As a result, the film has since fallen into public domain with a variety of shoddily-made DVD editions floating around, all but ensuring the film will never get the quality, pristine treatment it so richly deserves.
There’s no doubt however that Meet John Doe is the most quintessential of Capra films as evidenced by the gusto of its characters and the pulse of its undeniably powerful message. It goes without saying that Meet John Doe remains an important film today more than ever. In a country which stands more divided than it has in years, and with powerful men claiming to have the welfare of the people at the forefront of their greedy, opportunistic minds, a film such as Meet John Doe proves far more timely than even Capra could have ever imagined it would. If the film’s dark traits are alive and kicking, then it stands to reason that its good ones are as well, specifically the idea of humanity, brotherhood and the strength and power to make the world better than it is which Capra truly believed exists within each and every individual.