Meet John Doe

“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.” –The Colonel

Plot Summary from Wikipedia: “Meet John Doe is a 1941 American comedy drama film directed and


produced by Frank Capra, and starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. The film is about a “grassroots” political campaign created unwittingly by a newspaper columnist and pursued by a wealthy businessman. It became a box office hit and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story.”

Meet John Doe is the second Barbara Stanwyck Christmas movie I’ve watched over the holidays, the first being Christmas in Connecticut, and they make an interesting comparison.  Plots for each are built around falsehoods propagated by Stanwyck’s character, a writer of magazine articles in CiC and of newspaper stories in Doe.  Additionally, Sydney Greenstreet and Edward Norton play similar character types as the fat cats pulling the strings behind the scenes.  CiC, however, is a straight up screwball comedy with no higher aims; whereas, Doe is a pretty intense drama with a good deal to say about the effectiveness of the media as a means of manipulation.  It features a love story, sure, and there’s even some comedy, but the idea being explored, especially in the context of its depiction of “regular folks,” is the focal point.  In this regard, the film is more interestingly compared to Frank Capra’s “other” Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Both films can and have been accused of being sentimental; however, John Doe is a good deal darker than Carpa’s later film.  George Bailey and John Doe Both both are brought back from the edge of suicide. Unlike Bailey, however, it is John’s experience of the events in the film that drive him to the brink rather than rescue him from it, and no problems are neatly tidied up at the end.  There is no triumph over D. B. Norton, the villain, as there is for Geroge Bailey over Potter.  By the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, we know that Geroge and Mary are going to be okay.  It is, after all, a wonderful life.  The outcome for John Doe and Ann Mitchell remains, at best, uncertain.  On the other hand, at least they do have a future as John  Doe is also ultimately talked down from the ledge.  Like George Bailey, he becomes convinced of his worth through the value of the impact he has on other people, and he never abandons his simple middle-class values, even when they have been undermined right before his eyes.  Ultimately, as with George Bailey, it is his simple faith which redeems him.  Is that sentimental?  Maybe.  But it’s also genuine and heartfelt. Capra, at least in my mind, is the ultimate auteur.  One gains a sense from watching his movies of what the man must have been like himself, and he must have been a heck of a good guy.  Are his films sentimental?  Sure.  They’re sentimental.  But the world needs sentiment, and I am reminded of an Igor Stravinsky quote:  “To be deprived of art and left alone with philosophy is to be close to Hell.”

Gary Cooper’s performance is a bit unbalanced, but this is a small blemish on what is on the whole a very good film.  Highly recommended.


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