Monday, February 23, 2015

Meet John Doe (1941)



Director: Frank Capra

Director Frank Capra has a knack for producing pictures where ordinary people are able to do extraordinary things and present a dream that all men have an innate sense of good that can carry over to his/her fellow men. Capra had a dream for an ideal America and his 1941 version of this dream manifested in the motion picture Meet John Doe starring a Capra favorite in Gary Cooper. At the time just prior to the United States being driven to enter World War II this film would question the future of the nation and its principles with the corruption of its governing leaders.

Meet John Doe is a dramatic comedy about a former athlete turned bum hired to represent the common man in an act that begins as a publicity stunt for a newspaper, but becomes much more to the greater American public. Angered by being told she was writing her last column for her newspaper, journalist  Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) creates a fabricated letter about a “John Doe” that plans to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve because to society’s ill. Readers become intrigued by what John Doe has to say leading to Ann and the paper to hire former ballplayer and current bum John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to play the public role of John Doe as Ann continues to write for the fictitious John Doe in the newspaper. These stirring thoughts made under the John Doe give rise to grassroots clubs beginning to support what John Doe has to say in representing the common man anagist the immoral behavior of the world.

Willoughby hates the publicity of him playing the role of Doe, but believes in the morals Ann is teaching the world that has come to surround him. His thoughts change when Willoughby learns that the paper’s publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) is using John Doe and his gathering supporters to help him gain political power in hope of a possible run for the presidency. As Willoughby is about to reveal Norton of his ill-doings Norton presents Willoughby as a fraud to the public, causing a major stir against the “John Doe” stance. Willoughby’s last attempt to make John Doe’s words real is to go through with the suicide; however he is stopped by Ann who has come to love John. She reveals that John Doe is more than a man, but a belief within people that is stronger than Norton, leaving a sense of hope that the people will crush the corruption manifested in D.B. Norton.

The film contains all of the common Frank Capra ideals and emotions that American audiences had come to enjoy in his motion pictures. Produced by Capra’s independent production company with help of Warner Bros. Meet John Doe was the filmmaker’s first attempt to branch away from the controlled studio system that had handcuffed many directors in Hollywood. Once again Capra shares his ill thoughts on the lacking morals that have made society less that perfect and reiterates that innate goodness that resides in all Americans in hope that it will come out and rejuvenate the down-home principles that many find enduring.

From the very beginning Capra had Gary Cooper in mind as his leading man. Cooper took upon himself the role even before the script was finished because he enjoyed working with the director so much, plus he had wanted a project in which he could work with Barbara Stanwyck, who was set to co-star in the feature. Together they would provide top rate performances. Stanwyck is sharp and witty, while Cooper produces his simple, middle-American styling that makes his character believable.

To add to Cooper’s performance of John Willoughby we have Cooper  is paired up once again with Walter Brennan, whose elderly southern drawl both compliments and contrasted the character played by the film’s star. During this period in the 1940s the two actors would be common partners in various pictures. Brennan provides the staunch unchanging conservative who is more upset at the world than Cooper, allowing the audience to see how one can change for the good of others.

Meet John Doe would be a bit of a problem movie for Capra as he struggled to find the proper ending to his picture. After all, the idea of John Doe was about a character that was going to commit suicide, a very taboo subject for any motion picture, and when John’s world is crumbling, what was he to do? After filming various endings and performing test screens in various locations showcasing various conclusions with John committing suicide or the other scenarios. Capra would eventually settle on what would be his fifth version of an ending where Ann talks John out of it and the public reassure John of the morals that he helped to preach, leaving audiences with the most rewarding conclusion possible.

The picture was released around the period where World War II had been raging for a number of years in Europe, but before the United States had been drawn into the conflict. Here, once again, Capra brings to the front the idea that Americans and politics have been sullied and ideals buried in the turmoil of everyday living, and Capra seeks to bring forth the good natures in people. This somewhat reiterates the same ideas seen in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In a time where Americans believed they were patriotic, this movie made Americans look selfish, which they were and still are, but general audiences did not want to believe was true. This made the picture generally controversial at the time as Americans would not embrace their inner patriotism as much as they would after the events of Pearl Harbor in December of that year.

In general, critics found favor in the picture and praised Cooper and Stanwyck for their performances as these two actors were in the peeks of their careers on the silver screen. Produced by Capra’s own production company, the film would not be one of his better movies at the box office and years later he would sell the rights to the picture to aid his own pocket book later on in his career.

Meet John Doe would deteriorate in time when the picture fell into public domain, but remains a very fine feature film of Frank Capra while he was one of the best directors in all of Hollywood. It is a well recommended movie that manifests three artists, the director along with his leading man and lady, at the height of their games in a project they were a little less remembered for purely due to timing business choices of the director.

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