Meet John Doe (1941)

Eighty years ago today, the film Meet John Doe premiered. The ‘Every Man’ story was where Frank Capra excelled, but adding Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck to it is extraordinary. You should watch this movie.

Title: Meet John Doe
Directed by: Frank Capra
Produced by: Frank Capra
Screenplay by: Robert Riskin
Story by: Robert Presnell, Sr.
Based on: A Reputation 1922 story in ‘Century Magazine’ by Richard Connell
Starring: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography: George Barnes
Edited by: Daniel Mandell
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Release date: May 3, 1941
Running time: 122 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English
Box office: $1.8 million

A local newspaper, The Bulletin, is under new management, with columnist Ann Mitchell being one of the staffers dismissed to “streamline” the paper, but not before being told to write one final column. Infuriated, Ann prints a letter from a fictional unemployed “John Doe” threatening suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of society’s ills. When the letter causes a sensation among readers, and the paper’s competition, The Chronicle, suspects a fraud and starts to investigate, editor Henry Connell is persuaded to rehire Ann, who schemes to boost the newspaper’s sales by exploiting the fictional John Doe. From a number of derelicts who show up at the paper claiming to have written the original letter, Ann and Henry hire John Willoughby, a former baseball player and tramp in need of money to repair his injured arm, to play the role of John Doe. Ann starts to pen a series of articles in Doe’s name, elaborating on the original letter’s ideas of society’s disregard for people in need.

Willoughby gets $50, a new suit of clothes, and a plush hotel suite with his tramp friend “The Colonel”, who launches into an extended diatribe against “the heelots”, many heels who incessantly focus on getting money from others. Proposing to take Doe nationwide via the radio, Ann is given $100 a week by the Bulletin’s publisher, D. B. Norton, to write radio speeches for Willoughby. Meanwhile, John is offered a $5,000 bribe from the Chronicle to admit the whole thing was a publicity stunt, but ultimately turns it down and delivers the speech Ann has written for him instead. Afterward, feeling conflicted, he runs away, riding the rails with the Colonel until they reach Millsville. “John Doe” is recognized at a diner and brought to City Hall, where he’s met by Bert Hanson, who explains how he was inspired by Doe’s words to start a “John Doe club” with his neighbors.

The John Doe philosophy spreads across the country, developing into a broad grassroots movement whose simple slogan is, “Be a better neighbor”. However, Norton secretly plans to channel support for Doe into support for his own national political ambitions. When a John Doe rally is scheduled, with John Doe clubs from throughout the country in attendance, Norton instructs Mitchell to write a speech for Willoughby in which he announces the foundation of a new political party and endorses Norton as its presidential candidate. On the night of the rally, John, who has come to believe in the John Doe philosophy himself, learns of Norton’s treachery from a drunken Henry. He denounces Norton and tries to expose the plot at the rally, but his speech is interrupted by hordes of newsboys carrying a special edition of the Bulletin exposing Doe as a fake. Norton claims Doe had deceived him and the staff of the newspaper, like everyone else, and cuts off the loudspeakers before Doe could defend himself. Despondent at letting his now-angry followers down, John plans to commit suicide by jumping from the roof of the City Hall on Christmas Eve, as indicated in the original John Doe letter. Ann, who has fallen in love with John, desperately tries to talk him out of jumping (saying that another John Doe, has already died for the sake of humanity), and Hanson and his neighbours tell him of their plan to restart their John Doe club. Convinced not to kill himself, John leaves, carrying a fainted Ann in his arms, and Henry turns to Norton and says, “There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!”

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