“Meet John Doe” (1941) is one of the most emotional exercises in flag waving ever produced by Hollywood, and yet still manages to contain a wry skepticism about Americans in a manner that is both supremely democratic and unapologetically nationalistic.
Director Frank Capra, often accused of producing work that was called “Capra-corn” because of its jingoistic nature, nevertheless displayed a genuine love of his adopted country which he later backed up by joining the armed forces in World War II. John Wayne, despite his later Medal for being an American, chose the deferment he was entitled to as a husband and father. Capra wore his heart on his sleeve, but he also put his money where his mouth was.
The story involves some of the most time-honored American practices, including the common man prevailing over evil forces. That the evil forces in this case happens to come from political corruption within his own sainted Republic makes the film much more testy than most of the patriotic films made in the war years to come.
The film’s opening sequence with the old stone nameplate of the newspaper being pounded off by a jackhammer and replaced with a new metal plaque of a new “streamlined paper for a streamlined era” reminds me of that sequence in the Warner Bros. cartoon “One Froggy Evening” when the construction guy blasts away a 1890s cornerstone and finds the frog in the strong box. Something sad and nostalgic we are destroying with our own hands for the sake of progress and a better world. Always a gamble.
No singing frog in this movie, though. Barbara Stanwyck, at top form, plays a newspaper columnist, one of many being laid-off under new management. Even today we can identify with the blunt way she and several of her co-workers are given the ax, especially the older men and women who we know will have a tougher time finding another job. A nice bit of comic relief is Stanwyck’s interfering with the sign painter who attempts to put new lettering on the office door window of the new editor. After messing up his work by barging in and out of the office, she later chucks an object through the glass in anger.
But there are no security guards to escort the banished workers out of the building as so many corporations do today. No need to fear they will steal computer files, because there are no computers, only Stanwyck’s clunky manual typewriter, on which she bangs out her last column, a hoax letter full of fire. These days a vengeful ex-employ might shoot up the office, but Stanwyck is more humane and ten times more crafty than that. Her revenge has substance. She passes off her copy to the old linotype operator, carrying galley sheets. We can imagine old Joe is really going to have a tough time finding a new job. Another frog in a strongbox, a man from another era.
Her tirade creates a fictional John Doe character who complains about the state of the country and threatens to jump off the roof of the city hall at midnight on Christmas Eve in protest. When the letter is printed, fireworks occurs. The community calls for action from its officials, and the new editor, hard-boiled but with a soft heart played by the wonderful James Gleason, wants to quash the embarrassment of the phony letter as quickly as possible. Miss Stanwyck convinces him that he could get a lot of mileage out of the hoax by hiring someone to actually be John Doe. She has a great monologue delivered all at once, ending with “On Christmas Eve, hot or cold, he goes!”
She plays what she plays so well, and that is a person with less than honorable motives who eventually undergoes a change of heart. The sole support of her widowed mother, played by Spring Byington, and two kid sisters, Stanwyck is the epitome of someone who was forced into the position of responsibility at a young age. She is the head of her family, and as such hasn’t the luxury to be softhearted. That falls to Mother Byington, whose sweetness of temper is possibly the result of never having to worry about paying the bills because her husband did it for years, and then her daughter took over. Miss Stanwyck’s character is hard-edged because she has been forced to be so to survive and to care for the weaker and younger members of her family. Her remorseless, cagey, determined focus on the prize reminds me a bit of the Faye Dunaway character in “Network”.
When she meets the man behind the new political machine operating the newspaper, played terrifically by Edward Arnold, he asks of her what she wants. When she replies “Money,” he responds, “I’m glad to hear someone admit it.”
The newspaper puts out a “search” for John Doe, and several scruffy types answer the call. Capra makes good use of close-ups in this film, on the hoboes, later on townspeople, to great effect. I love the lingering shot of “no-account Gruber” that allows us to explore his worth as a man by exploring his face.
Gary Cooper shows up, and Stanwyck and Gleason see, and we see at once, how perfect he is for the job. His rugged yet oddly angelic face is a combination of Young Mr. Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Christ. In tow with him is his pal played by Walter Brennan, whose sarcasm for the whole deal and for people in general and the American democracy at large keeps the film from getting too sappy.
But his dismal outlook is no more skewed than Barbara Stanwyck’s blatant exploitation of American public opinion, sometimes in cold ways, sometimes in quite comic ways. When they clean Cooper up and he is about to have his first pictures taken, she stops a photographer from taking an undignified shot.
“No, this man’s going to jump off a roof. Wait, let me comb your hair.”
There is a great scene when she is alone with Mr. Arnold, the American-style fascist, a big oil man in charge of the purse strings who secretly harbors political ambitions. He speaks softly, without a trace of bluster. His very self control is sinister and all the more powerful than if he ranted. He promises her a truckload of money to take Cooper as John Doe on speaking tours and radio programs, and from now on she is to report directly to him. Stanwyck plays this scene not as a conspirator, which is what she has become, but as someone who is delighted to find her personal small-scale power play for more money achieve success. We see the first twist in her character development. She is not as smart as she thinks she is.
Stumped with coming up with a radio speech, Mother Byington gives Stanwyck the late sainted doctor father’s diary, in which he espouses ideals of brotherhood and democracy. We hear Stephen Foster’s beautiful and emblematic song “Hard Times” over this exchange with her mother. The film is peppered with American standards, including a liberal dose of other Stephen Foster songs like “Oh, Susanna” and “Some Folks.” Odd that it would end with Beethoven’s Ninth, but then we Americans freely adopt from other countries anyway.
Miss Stanwyck, throwing herself into the speech, confesses of the John Doe character she has created, “I’ve actually fallen in love with him.” Tough for Mr. Cooper, who likewise falls for her, to live up to this ideal. There is a melding of her admiration for her late father and Cooper. Father images seem to be very important to this film. Walter Brennan’s much older character could be seen as a father figure to Cooper. James Gleason gives a very affecting speech about his father, who was killed before his eyes in World War I when they served in the Army together. A father provides protection and guidance, and the loss of a father means one may be without protection or guidance. This could turn one into a hard-edge woman forced to prostitute her ideals for money to care for her mother and siblings. This could turn a young man, cheated out of his baseball career by an injury, into an aimless wanderer. This could turn a hard-bitten editor into secretly searching for the ideals he once had as a boy, almost as if to retrieve his lost boyhood.
An opposing newspaper tries to prove that John Doe is a hoax, and offers Cooper money to admit as such. He is warned that he might never get to play baseball again, because of the scandal, and how kids look up to ballplayers as role models. Looking at this film with modern eyes, this bit is probably the most hokey, and most sad, of the film. If they only knew how low baseball would sink.
The scene where Mr. Cooper gives his first radio speech is stunning. At first he is nearly sick with nerves. Eventually, Stanwyck’s homespun typewritten speech gets to him, and to the tough editor, and to the people. Edward Arnold, in his mansion, notices his servants in the kitchen glued to the radio, and we have another impressive close-up, this time of his expression as he turns away from the swinging kitchen door and we see the wheels turning in his mind. It is the beginning of his political campaign.
John Doe clubs are formed, and though Cooper, scared to death by this time, tries to run out on the whole mess, a committee from one such John Doe Club begs him not to jump off the city hall roof at Christmas and encourages him to remain with the movement. It’s an interesting scene, where a small-town soda jerk played by Regis Toomey gets quite a long speech describing how his community’s John Doe Club was formed. (Here is a previous post on Mr. Toomey.) He is soft spoken and slow-talking, but all attention is on him. We have shots of the stars of the film, Cooper and Stanwyck, and Arnold, all watching him, their attention diverted respectfully to him, this minor character actor, as he continues. It is broken up, and again, made less sappy, only by occasional shots of Walter Brennan’s silent expression of boredom and annoyance. In era of fast-talking speeches, when stars seldom acquiesced to sharing screen time with lesser mortals, the scene is remarkable.
The brief scene with old Mr. and Mrs. Delaney are referred to in these previous blog posts on Emma Tansey and Lafe McKee .
Then a montage of train rides across the country (where we have more cliché American songs - “California Here I Come” and the inevitable “Sidewalks of New York” among them) and Miss Stanwyck furiously typing more speeches. John Doe Clubs spring up as flags on the evil Mr. Arnold’s map, and the government gets suspicious, as one director of relief wails, “People are going off relief. I’ll be out of a job!” A nation as idealistic as ours is also filled alternately with a degree of healthy skepticism, and surely must have been for the government in general after a weary decade of Depression.
Then Mr. Arnold’s elegant self control becomes more down to earth as he huffs on his pince-nez glasses and tells Miss Stanwyck to write a speech in which John Doe will form a third party and name Arnold himself as candidate for President. She sits there in his presents to her of a fur coat and jewelry like a well-decked out Judas, sucker-punched right in the ideals.
The rally is to be held, fittingly for Cooper and for America, in a ballpark, and John B. Hughes, an actual radio announcer of the day for the Mutual network, is one of those broadcasting the event. This film, especially this scene with its radio broadcasts and shouting newsboys, illustrates just how powerful were the tools of radio and newspapers at that time, and how pervasive in society. One wonders if a similar film were made today, how they would use the Internet for manipulation and gossip instead? Radio and newspapers haven’t yet gone the way of the linotype, but newspapers especially have a decreased importance for a younger generation that does not read them.
While Stanwyck is struggling with her principles and the Frankenstein monster she has created, Editor Gleason sets Mr. Cooper straight on what has been happening in a funny and emotional drunk scene. He uses the same expression to describe the Founding Fathers as “lighthouses in a foggy world” that Capra will use again in his narration for the “Why We Fight” series, in the first short called “Prelude to War.”
“I’m a sucker for this country,” Gleason tells us, “I like what we got here.” When Stanwyck recants, and Gleason protests, they are kept hostage by Mr. Arnold’s people until Mr. Cooper makes the fateful speech which will turn the course of this nation into a fascist country.
But wait, Gary Cooper changes his mind, tries to warn the public, an impressive and enormous crowd scene in the rain. Unlike these days of CGI, where a small group can be duplicated on film to appear as thousands, this huge crowd was comprised of a lot of individuals who got a few dollars that day. That, too, is impressive. There is another great close-up of raindrops glistening on the uncovered head of the minister as he leads the crowd in silent prayer.
But evil Mr. Arnold interrupts Cooper’s attempt to set things right and accuses him of being a fake. Which, of course, he is. In case we miss the implication that this is a crucifixion scene when the crowd gets ugly and turns on Mr. Cooper, Miss Stanwyck, listening to the action over the radio in horror cries, “They’re crucifying him!” and Mr. Gleason, held captive by her side, glumly announces, “Chalk up another one for the Pontius Pilates.”
With another montage of headlines and jeers, the tormented Cooper heads for the city hall roof at midnight on Christmas Eve to make a gesture which he feels will make amends for the public relations disaster.
Interestingly, Mr. Arnold and his henchmen, as well as the John Doe Club led by the soda jerk, and the newspaper editor, Walter Brennan, and a Barbara Stanwyck sick with fever show up, too. Everyone wants to stop his suicide, except for Mr. Arnold, who only wants to cover it up.
Stanwyck gets another impassioned speech begging Mr. Cooper, who with tears in his eyes tells Arnold, “Take a good look, Mr. Norton.” And proceeds to throw himself off the roof. But Miss Stanwyck prevails, “If it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for.” She describes Christ as the first John Doe, right before she faints.
Mr. Cooper carries Miss Stanwyck off the roof in his arms to the triumphant strains of Beethoven’s Ninth. The alternate ending, in which Cooper did dive off the roof, was nixed by the preview audience.
But the final word goes to Editor Gleason, now sober, who gloats in the evil Mr. Arnold’s face and says, “There y’are Norton, the people. Try and lick that!”
We like to think that. It is as American as baseball. It is what made us Americans in the first place, defying a superior political and military power. The people. We the people. But it was another man of a couple generations later, President Abraham Lincoln, who suggested that a foreign power could never take us over, that if we were to fail in our democracy, it would be at our own hands.
This is the message of “Meet John Doe.” The most remarkable thing about it, I think, is that this message was delivered at a time when there were plenty of foreign bad guys towards which to direct our suspicion, and soon would at the of this year of 1941. It is truly the sign of a great nation that can criticize itself, to be on guard against its own failings in the face of outside threats in such a troubled and chaotic world.