A man needing money agrees to impersonate a nonexistent person who said he'd be committing suicide as a protest, and a political movement begins.
NOMINATED for 1 OSCAR: Best Screenplay
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I find Meet John Doe (1941) to be Capra's darkest views of society. This film is the third of what can be seen as a sort of trilogy, with Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Mr Smith Goes to Washington; all three films focus on an innocent everyman standing against the forces of capitalism and greed, with a fiery professional woman at his side. But Meet John Doe is the most pessimistic of the trilogy (and most Capra films), not only in its view of American business and upper-class, which is no surprise, but also in its view of the middle and lower classes, who are represented in one memorable scene as a mob. In this film, Capra admits that middle class Americans are by no means perfect, and that they are easily swayed by the media. The fact that Capra produced it independently (he and Robert Riskin created their own company), may be a clue as to why it is somewhat unusual and more ambitious than his previous films, which were made with Columbia.
The film begins with the character Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who, upon being fired from her job at a newspaper, writes a false letter to the editor as a John Doe, expressing disgust and hopelessness towards society and resolved to jump off the Capitol building on Christmas Eve. The letter is a sensation, and Ann convinces her boss that it's good business to, instead of explaining the truth, find an everyman and pay him to be John Doe. Gary Cooper, is, of course, the choice, and, although his hobo friend the Colonel (Walter Brennan) warns him about the dangers of profit, agrees to the job simply so he can get his arm fixed to play baseball again. With the help of Ann's inspiring speeches, John becomes the people's icon and hero; they create John Doe Clubs where neighbors get together to make their town, and therefore, the country, a better place. The
Cooper plays a hero that is simple and na´ve, but with a quiet integrity that comes to embody the original idea of John Doe. He manages to cloak the movie star persona with subtle yet effective gestures and expressions that portray an incredibly truthful and humble man. Stanwyck, too, is effective with her portrayal of the strong newspaper woman who won't take no for an answer. Stanwyck always plays strong characters, but they are often beaten down in the end; in this film, however, although she is softened by John's sensitivity and integrity, she keeps her resilient manner and never gives up, which was enjoyable to watch.
But the stars are not the only actors who deserve praise. As in many Capra films, the character actors help hold the film together and are completely believable in their roles. Arnold, of course, as the cold businessman, Brennan as John's loyal friend who brings comedy and insight to the film, and James Gleason as Connell, the head of the newspaper office, who seems hard and business-minded, but is revealed to be extremely human and somewhat sad in one moving scene.
The illustration in this film of the lower and middle classes as a mob, easily riled, shows Capra (and the screenwriter Riskin) revealing the flaws of everyday people, and the media they believe so much in. Although Capra's films always side with them in the end, this one gives an idea of a potentially dangerous society when their idol is taken away or revealed as something different from what they perceived him. The character of Ann is also an example of a good person who, trying to support her mother and sisters, becomes focused on money and is then easily bribed by a corrupt upper echelon.
Meet John Doe is an unusual film in Capra's ouvre, although it seems to fit with the themes of most of his other films. The dark outlook is depicted not only by story and dialogue but also by the cinematography and lighting, and a film noir atmosphere is created at times, which shows some of the changeover from the 1930s to the 1940s. The film may get overly idealistic (big surprise for Capra) and melodramatic at times, but overall, it is a stirring critique of the upper and lower classes of American society, and the individuals who get caught in the middle.