"A Truly American, Christian Masterpiece"
What You Need To Know:
Filled with frequent humor, MEET JOHN DOE is a must-see masterpiece of American cinema. It’s superbly written by Robert Riskin and directed by Frank Capra, with many moments for laughter and many moments for tears. Gary Cooper is brilliant, as is the rest of the cast, but the movie belongs to Barbara Stanwyck. It’s her flawless performance that ultimately breaks your heart. It’s also her character who reminds everyone at the end that Jesus Christ is the One who ultimately sustains God’s command that we should love one another. MEET JOHN DOE is one of the most beautiful, consistently amazing movies ever made. It warrants multiple viewings.
(CCC, BBB, PPP, ACAC, V, N, AA, D, M) Very strong Christian, moral worldview promoting Jesus, love thy neighbor, the Christmas spirit, and American values (including the Founding Fathers and the Star Spangled Banner), with some suggestions opposing big business and big labor, but with an anti-fascist message; no foul language; some violence includes discussion of suicide for a great cause, but Jesus Christ eventually is given as a reason not to do such an awful thing, a man is pelted with eggs and tomatoes when a newspaper twists the truth about him, a man describes a bizarre dream about becoming his girlfriend’s father and having to spank her for doing something wrong, and a woman throws something through some glass in a door; no sex but some romance; man is startled by a nude small statue sitting on a table; alcohol use and a man is drunk in one scene; smoking; and, lying, libel and slander but everything turns out all right eventually.
Many moviegoers know about Director Frank Capra’s two most-beloved classic movies IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON starring James Stewart. A lesser-known movie, but perhaps just as brilliant, if not more so, is the 1941 gem MEET JOHN DOE with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. It’s an extremely entertaining comic drama about a hardboiled female reporter and a down-and-out baseball player who discover redemption, a purpose for living and each other, while working for a ruthless oil man turned newspaper magnate who secretly wants to run for president.
The movie begins with the ruthless newspaper magnate D.B. Norton (played by Edward Arnold in his most villainous Capra role) taking over a paper called The Bulletin. A man with a jackhammer destroys The Bulletin’s motto, “A free press means a free people.” He replaces it with a new sign saying, “The New Bulletin, a streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era.”
Inside the press room, a man is painting the new managing editor’s name on a door, Henry Connell, while a copy boy points to all the people in the newsroom whose heads are on the chopping block. Exiting Connell’s office are several older editors, followed by a young reporter, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who’s looking very glum. They’ve all just been fired.
Ann storms back into Connell’s office, telling him she can’t lose her job because she’s the sole support for her poor widowed mother and two younger sisters. However, Connell says he doesn’t want her kind of writing, which he disdainfully describes as “lavender and old lace.” We need “fireworks” to build circulation, he tells Ann. When she replies that she can write like that, he ignores her and reminds her to finish her last column.
Angrily, Ann decides to pull a terrible prank on Connell and Norton. She writes a phony anonymous letter to the editor from a “John Doe,” who says he’s going to commit suicide and jump off the city hall building’s roof on Christmas Eve because of all the “slimy politics” causing high unemployment. “If you ask me,” Ann writes, “the wrong people are jumping off the roofs.”
The next morning, the fake letter generates a public outcry. Norton’s political opponents think the letter is Norton’s first salvo against the governor. Meanwhile, other people offer John Doe a job, still others offer to take care of him, and five women want to marry him, all of them pleading with him not to commit suicide.
Smiling like the cat who ate the canary, Ann saunters into Connell’s office. She admits the letter was fake and reminds Connell he wanted fireworks to build more circulation. Connell wants to write a story saying that John Doe has changed his mind about committing suicide, but Ann tells him he should rehire her and hire a man off the street to claim he wrote the letter, and she can write a daily story in the name of Jane Doe where he complains about a particular issue each day. Connell nixes her idea until he learns that the Bulletin’s rival paper, the Chronicle, has called the letter a fake. Now, you got to go through with her plan, Ann says, or the Bulletin will be playing right into the Chronicle’s hands. She adds, not only do you rehire her to carry out that plan, but she demands a $1000 bonus, or else she’ll give a written confession to the Chronicle that it was she who wrote the letter.
That very day, Ann and Connell interview dozens of homeless men to pick the one who will agree to play John Doe until Christmas Eve, then slip away into the night. They pick a hungry, down-and-out baseball player, Long John Willoughby, played by Gary Cooper, who’s traveling the country trying to earn enough money to fix his pitching arm. Traveling with John is “The Colonel” a cantankerous, cynical man played by Walter Brennan.
The Bulletin promises to pay John the money to fix his pitching arm if he plays ball with them (pun intended). Meanwhile, working with John, Ann starts putting together stories and columns tweaking the political establishment. Soon, it becomes clear Ann and John are developing feelings for one another. Then, when John has to deliver a radio speech, Ann takes some of her late father’s idealistic, homespun writings about America and doing the right thing to develop the speech. John’s speech makes two points. First, that Americans need to treat every day like Christmas and be nice to everyone they meet. Second, they should get to know their neighbors so they can “Love thy neighbor.”
After the speech, a guilty John runs away, but Ann and D.B. Norton search for him. When they find him, they bring along a group of people, who loved John’s speech. They tell John, because of his speech, they started reaching out to their neighbors and now want to start a bunch of “John Doe Clubs” all across the country to spread the gospel of “Love thy neighbor.”
They have only one rule, however: Politicians aren’t allowed to join any John Doe Clubs. Of course, this ensures that, sooner or later, D.B. Norton’s political ambitions will endanger everyone’s happiness.
MEET JOHN DOE is a brilliant, riveting, funny, heartfelt, exciting, and incredibly poignant movie through and through. The writing by Robert Riskin is witty, wise and emotional. Frank Capra’s direction is perfection personified.
Although MEET JOHN DOE stars Gary Cooper, the movie actually belongs to Barbara Stanwyck. Cooper is definitely brilliant, as is the rest of the wonderful cast, but it’s Stanwyck’s performance that ultimately breaks your heart. In some critics’ opinions, including MOVEIGUDIE®’s reviewer’s, her performance may be the greatest performance by an actress in film history. That said, all the other main performers deliver great moments filled with humor, drama, pathos, and humanity.
James Gleason as Connell has never been better than he is in this picture. There is one scene where he does the most amazing double take when he turns his head and catches Stanwyck watching starry-eyed as Cooper superbly delivers John’s moving, witty speech calling for people to “Love thy neighbor.” In another scene, a drunken Connell patriotically tells John Doe what a “skunk” D.B. Norton is and how Norton will destroy the beautiful country created by America’s Founding Fathers, men like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, whom Connell calls “lighthouses in a foggy world.” “I’m a sucker for this country,” he adds. “I like what we got here. A guy can say what he wants and do what he wants without having a bayonet shoved through his belly.” Finally, if you don’t shed a tear when Connell tells John how, in the Great War, World War I, he, Connell, saw his father get killed “with my own eyes,” you must be an unfeeling, misanthropic robot. If this scene has the ring of Truth in it, it’s because it is, at least partly, true. James Gleason was indeed a soldier during World War I.
Lest we forget, MEET JOHN DOE also features a wonderful performance by Walter Brennan, who’s perhaps the greatest, most reliable and most amazing character actor America ever produced. The scene where he explains his character’s philosophy of life about “heelots” is one of the most memorable, funniest scenes ever. It’s to Director Frank Capra’s eternal credit that it’s not just Brennan but all the actors in that scene who make it what it is.
MEET JOHN DOE has a timeless moral and socio-political message. It reminds us of the power of the press, and the lengths to which unscrupulous people in the press will go to feather their own nests or push a particular agenda. It also shows how cynical members of the press can be. For example, the movie suggests that the Bulletin might be perfectly fine with having someone commit suicide, if the newspaper can somehow capitalize on the person’s misery. As such, it may remind people of the TV photographer in the1980s, who stood by while a man lit himself on fire. As the saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads.
MEET JOHN DOE also shows the dangers of political populism, not just on the right but also on the left. Both the supporters of President Donald Trump and the supporters of the leftist protests against Trump should keep that in mind.
Ultimately, however, MEET JOHN DOE has a very strong Christian, moral message. It not only encourages viewers to follow God’s command to “Love thy neighbor,” which Jesus Christ Himself called the second greatest commandment. It also shows viewers that, in following that command, we don’t have to offer ourselves as a real sacrificial martyr unto death. As Ann reminds John in the movie’s brilliant last scene, after she overtly and desperately pleads for God’s help, “You don’t have to die to keep the John Doe idea alive. Somebody already died for that once, the first John Doe, and He’s kept that idea alive for nearly 2000 years. It’s He who kept it alive in them [the people of Earth]. And, He’ll go on keeping it alive forever and always.” In the end, therefore, it’s Barbara Stanwyck’s heartfelt delivery of these words that finally makes MEET JOHN DOE the sublime, exhilarating Christian masterpiece that it is. Her words and delivery almost perfectly capture Acts 4:12, “There is no other name [Jesus Christ] under Heaven given to mankind, by which we must be saved.”
MEET JOHN DOE is a must-see masterpiece of American cinema. In fact, watching a major part of this movie at least twice a year could be seen as an imperative. It’s that entertaining, it’s that funny, it’s that sweet, and it’s that important of a movie.