Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, Spring Byington, James Gleason, Gene Lockhart, Rod La Rocque, Irving Bacon, Regis Toomey, J. Farrell MacDonald, Warren Hymer, Harry Holman, Andrew Tombes, Pierre Watkin
Written by: Robert Riskin, based on a story by Richard Connell, Robert Presnell Sr.
Directed by: Frank Capra
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 123
Date: 03/12/1941

Meet John Doe (1941)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Little Guy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Frank Capra is the king of the cornball movies; twenty years after his death, he's still very famous, much hated and much copied. No copies can ever do justice to the original, however. Capra's films work because he believed with his whole heart in his cornball agendas. Take Meet John Doe, for example. If this movie were made today, it would come with a condescending attitude from the filmmakers: "we're doing something about this sorry world of ours, why aren't you?" Or worse, "please reward me for my bravery and goodwill." But when Capra says something, he's really saying it. "Why can't our world be a better place? Look, here's one way it can happen!"

In Meet John Doe, a homeless man becomes a symbol for the power of the everyday working American Joe. This is a large group of people whose power is forever being stolen by the elite few, but John Doe begins to take it back. The story begins with some petty backstabbing and revenge as newspaperwoman Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) loses her job, along with several reporters (a big company has bought out the paper). As a parting stab, she writes a column that includes a fictitious letter from a fed-up soul called "John Doe." He's tired of the way the little guy is being treated and intends to commit suicide by jumping from the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve.

Ann storms out, but her column is a hit, and she quickly sees a way to hang onto her job and keep the "John Doe" idea going. This requires hiring a real-life soul to play him, and former ballplayer Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) gets the job. He comes attached with "The Colonel" (Walter Brennan), a footloose and fancy-free soul who loves the open road and frowns upon this whole scheme. (Cooper and Brennan also palled around together in Sergeant York the same year.) Of course, the John Doe idea grows bigger than anyone could have imagined, crooked businessmen try to take advantage of it, Willoughby has second thoughts, and he falls in love with Ann.

Aside from all this hokum, the other thing that makes a Capra movie work is that they're half comedies, and they're very funny. Cooper does his best "aw shucks" hayseed routine, which is perfectly matched by Stanwyck's whip-smart, big city routine. The pair was equally well-matched in Ball of Fire, released the same year. The humor gently wins our trust and affection, and when the serious stuff comes in, it feels right, and comes at the right time. Before long, viewers will discover that they have fallen nicely into Capra's hands, thinking, "this stuff still applies, in 2010, and why don't we have a John Doe today?"

Moreover, Meet John Doe makes a nice Christmas double-bill with Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Christmas only comes in during the last ten minutes, but the sequence contains some gorgeous, memorable imagery, sure to spark any holiday season. Meet John Doe is currently in the public domain and available for free online, and on any number of cheap DVDs, but VCI Entertainment has just released what looks to be the definitive edition (for now). It's a two-disc set that comes with a commentary track by Ken Barnes, three featurettes, and two radio shows (featuring Stanwyck and Cooper). It also has optional subtitles. The picture and sound isn't quite 100%, but it's certainly more than watchable, and it's a good price!

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