Meet John Doe (1941)

Frank Capra
1941 • 122 Minutes 1.37:1 • United States
Warner Bros. 

Principal Cast - Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan
Screenplay - Richard Connell & Robert Presnell Sr.
Producer - Frank Capra
Cinematography - George Barnes

  • Academy Award for Best Writing (Story) - Nomination

I don’t read no papers, and I don’t listen to radios either. I know the world’s been shaved by a drunken barber, and I don’t have to read it.  

After being fired from her job as a newspaper columnist, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) forges a letter to the editor from the fictional “John Doe,” a disgruntled and unemployed would-be prophet who threatens to kill himself on Christmas Eve because of his dissatisfaction in the state of the country.  Unexpectedly, “Doe” gains a huge following and the paper is forced to re-hire Mitchell as well as hire a homeless man, John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), to portray him for public appearances.  Initially both Ann and John are in it for the money, but they are soon caught up in the same rhetoric and philosophy they are selling to the public.  The country unites behind John Doe, but DB Norton, the sinister newspaper publisher, has other ideas for Doe…

This movie is perfect example of Frank Capra’s mastery of making populist entertainment.  His heroes are likeable, charming and, of course, have loads of high moral standards.  However, this film is a tad darker than other Capracorn like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.  The climactic scene on top of City Hall where John Doe is about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve is dark and forboding, and almost a foreshadowing of Capra’s most famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is considering the same action on the same night.  Gary Cooper’s John Doe is charming, but Cooper has always been good at playing the down-to-Earth, humble do-gooders (Sergeant York).  Stanwyck is her usual delightful self… playing the jaded newspaper columnist with a heart of gold, and the two stars have a nice onscreen chemistry.

Meet John Doe is an often-forgotten gem that should be watched every Christmas season to remind us what the season is all about.