Friday, September 30, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe (1941) *** ½
Directed by: Frank Capra.
Written by: Robert Riskin.
Starring: Gary Cooper (Long John Willoughby - 'John Doe'), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Mitchell), Edward Arnold (D.B. Norton), Walter Brennan (The Colonel), Spring Byington (Mrs. Mitchell), James Gleason (Henry Connell), Gene Lockhart (Mayor Lovett), Rod La Rocque (Ted Sheldon -Norton's Nephew), Irving Bacon (Beany).

A lot of serious minded critics look down at Frank Capra. They have come up with the term “Capra-corn” to describe his films. True, even his best films – including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – can be a little bit corny – but that’s part of their charm. His 1941 film, Meet John Doe shares a lot in common with those films mentioned above (especially the first two). It is an inspirational drama about a real guy going up against a corrupt system. Yet, it is not as highly regarded as his other films. True, it isn’t quite as good, but it’s close. And had Capra stuck to his guns and ended the film the way that makes sense, it may well have be regarded as his best. But he copped out at the end because test audiences didn’t like his downer of an ending, no matter how much it made sense.

Meet John Doe stars Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell, essentially stepping in for the role that Jean Arthur played in Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, as a tough as nails female reporter. She is about to get fired – a corporation has bought the paper and is trimming the fat – but they want one more column out of her before she goes. She her column will be a letter she received from John Doe – bemoaning the evils of the world and his inability to find a job, and threatening to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve. The problem is, she made the letter up. To everyone’s surprise, the letter becomes the talk of the town, and all of a sudden, everyone wants to Meet John Doe. But since he doesn’t exist, this creates a problem. Ann is given her job back, and convinces her new editor to hire a poor slob to pretend to be John Doe until Christmas – at which point they’ll fake his suicide. It will be great for circulation. By this point, a long line of people claiming to be John Doe have lined up at the newspaper – and they essentially interview for the position. They decide on John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), who admits right off he didn’t write the letter, but was looking for a job. He’s tall and handsome, and a former ball player. He’s perfect. Ann starts writing a column, under the guise of John Doe, bemoaning all the evils in the world. He becomes a huge hit – and people want him to speak. Reluctantly, he does, and his speech which calls on people to be nice to their neighbors, makes him an even bigger hit. Soon, John Doe clubs start popping up all across America. Everything seems to be going great. But the owner of the newspaper, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) has other ideas. He wants to be President, and with John Doe’s recommendation, he can be. Never mind that he doesn’t care about all the John Doe’s in America.

A movie like this works for a few reasons. For one, Frank Capra truly seems to believe in every idea he is espousing in this movie. This could quite easily go off the rails and become a condescending film, yet somehow it never does. It is so earnest, that you believe that Capra actually believe what he’s selling, instead of cynically exploiting the audience. This feeling is in all of Capra’s movies. It doesn’t hurt that he gets such good performances from his stars. In many ways, Gary Cooper is playing a very similar role that he did in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – the hayseed come to the city – but Cooper nails it. He is probably better remembered now for his more heroic roles – like his Oscar winning roles in Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952) – but Cooper could do comedy with the best of them, and he does an excellent job here. Barbara Stanwyck feels more like a tough news reporter than Jean Arthur did in Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith – he’s got more sass and edge to her. But this ends up being a double edged sword, as it works better for her in the early scenes in the movie, where she is a cynic through and through, but makes her transformation (which is underwritten to begin with) feel a little too forced. She is still wonderful, but she needed another scene or two to show her transform into the softy she becomes. Edward Arnold is excellent as the classic Capra villain – the corrupt rich man and politician. And Walter Brennan adds some flavor as only he can as Willoughby’s best friend.

The movie progresses about the way you expect it to. When you have a big lie at the heart of your movie, you know at some point, it’s going to be exposed, and people will get angry and turn on poor Willoughby, the sucker in the middle of it all. I said at the beginning of this review that had Capra ended it the way he initially intended, that I thought Meet John Doe may have become his most highly regarded film – at least in film critic circles. And I truly believe that. The only way for this movie to logically end – the way the whole movie is building towards – is that Willoughby will actually commit suicide in just the way he said he would. And yet, audiences don’t want to see a character they love – especially one played by Gary Cooper – come to that sort of end. So, they tried to make the ending happier. Still, this ending is a little more cynical than other Capra endings – there is certainly no guarantee that John and Ann will succeed in their goals, or that Norton will be crushed. And yet, I feel that had Capra had a little bit more courage in making Meet John Doe, it could well have become his masterpiece. As it stands, it is a fine film, but doesn’t quite measure up to his best work.

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