Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe.1941 was a watershed year in American cinema. It was the year of the bold and groundbreaking Citizen Kane, the breathtaking and heart wrenching How Green Was My Valley, the grippingly patriotic Sergeant York, the sobering, frightening fable, The Devil and Daniel Webster, the pioneering noir classic by which all others are measured, The Maltese Falcon, the brilliant and hilarious send-up of gangster films, Ball of Fire, and the ultimate thinking man’s comedy, Sullivan’s Travels. All are landmarks in the cinematic landscape, which hold up amazingly well today. But director Frank Capra’s fanfare for the common man, Meet John Doe, also released that year, was arguably the greatest achievement in the careers of Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, character actor James Gleason, and Capra himself.
Gary Cooper was in three of the classics mentioned above, and few actors have ever made a better showing in a twelve-month stretch. Coop availed himself admirably enough as a real life hero forced to make a life changing decision in the Howard Hawks-directed World War I drama Sergeant York to take home 1941’s Academy Award for Best Actor. He displayed impressive comedic chops as a vulnerable and awkward academic with integrity in Hawks’ Ball of Fire (which also co-starred Stanwyck). Either of these performances, let alone both, would be enough to elevate any actor to legendary status. Yet in Doe, Cooper, as Long John Willoughby, a down-on-his-luck, dead armed baseball pitcher who is persuaded to portray the fictitious John Doe, managed to transcend even himself in an acting tour de force that elicits laughter, tears, and the gamut of emotions in between.
One could cite any number of scenes as examples, but a moment that particularly stands out for me is when the people of a small town come forward to tell John what the burgeoning John Doe movement means to them and how it has changed their lives. Cooper displays, in his face, wordlessly, an eloquent range of nakedly moving emotions as he listens, at first reluctantly, to their stories—culminating in an utterly indescribable look of shame, modesty, guilt and love as an elderly woman kisses his hand.
Stanwyck is at her most effervescent as the street savvy but idealistic columnist Ann Mitchell, who creates, then falls hard for, Cooper’s Doe. She’s in there fighting not only for her man, but also for the ideals her late father taught her, which she infuses into the stirring, heartfelt speeches she writes for John. And we pull for her as she overcomes manipulation and machination by repugnant powers-that-be while fighting for what is right.
Left to right: Walter Brennan, Cooper, Irving Bacon, Stanwyck, James Gleason.
This was undoubtedly James Gleason’s finest hour, as Stanwyck’s boss, the seen-it-all, hard-bitten newspaper editor Henry Connell. His drunk scene in a diner with Cooper, in which he eloquently sums up the value of freedom and why it’s worth defending, to the death if necessary, is enough to stir men’s souls—which of course was the intention. He’s speaking from a late 1940 perspective—with war raging in Europe and Asia and an unemployment rate of 14.5% at home, the twin threats of fascism and communism are very real—hearkening back to “lighthouses in a foggy world”: Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. But looking back today through the spectrum of what has transpired in the seventy years since, it’s difficult not to get a little choked up by screenwriter Robert Riskin’s stirring lines, and Gleason’s masterful, off-the-cuff delivery of them.
More than a passing nod is due Edward Arnold, as the personification of opportunistic corporate-political evil, D. B. Norton, and to the incredibly versatile Walter Brennan (who also supported Cooper in Sergeant York) as Doe’s Jiminy Cricket-like conscience and sidekick, who is referred to only as “the Colonel.”
The main character’s correlation to Christ is undeniable, and Connell even makes a reference to Pontius Pilate following what can only be described as a crucifixion scene. Capra, who was Roman Catholic, imbues his hero with the Christ-like characteristics of a sacrificial lamb, offering him up for the greater good of Mankind. Ultimately, though, Doe’s motives aren’t quite on the level of “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” as his intentions are somewhat vindictively (though perhaps justifiably) geared toward sticking it to the D. B. Nortons of the world. Ultimately, Ann convinces him that his sacrifice is unnecessary, that “the first John Doe” took care of it nearly 2,000 years ago, again drawing a Christ comparison, and on Christmas Eve no less.
John contemplates the ultimate sacrifice.
Though most would choose It’s a Wonderful Life as Frank Capra’s crowning work in a heartbeat, I can’t help but lean toward the somewhat forgotten John Doe. Capra was at the top of both his game and the movie world when he began shooting Doe in the summer of 1940, teamed with his best screenwriter, Riskin. Though his achievements would eventually be eclipsed by those of the great John Ford, he was at the time the most decorated director in Hollywood, having won three Oscars in the previous five years. His hallmark optimism and populism are palpable in nearly every frame of Doe, and while this film and Wonderful Life both celebrate the exceptional everyman, Doe resonates as a more personal work.
With rampant unemployment serving as the impetus for nearly everything that transpires in the film and a nationwide grassroots movement of the people as its centerpiece, plus ominous allusions to a new world order, Meet John Doe is open to a variety of sociopolitical interpretations from a 21st century perspective, which I’ll leave to you. But more than a few of the warnings and lessons therein are certainly pertinent today. What we are left with in the final analysis is a wonderful, thought provoking, inspirational film, with all the best of what the Hollywood studio system had to offer at its peak, by one of its finest directors.
© Jon Oye, 2011