Director: Frank Capra
Writer: Robert Riskin
Cinematographer: George Barnes
By Jon Cvack
I recently read Saul Bellow’s Herzog and thought that maybe it was because I was so busy at the time that I found the book so boring, especially since Bellow’s work is so incredible. I then picked up John Upike's Rabbit is Rich a few days later - still very busy - and couldn’t put it down. Herzog wasn’t bad, it just wasn't that interesting. Meet John Doe is similar. Perhaps it was the crappy, public domain print I received, but it took me about five different viewings to finally finish this film. Whatever it was the story was an amazing idea, done just okay by Frank Capra, who the older I get, the more he breaks away from his cookie cutter, sentimental self and into one of the most political filmmakers of all time, with the incredible skill of presenting his material as anything but.
Reporter Anne Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is about to be fired until she creates an apocryphal story regarding a man named John Doe, who in protest to the injustices facing everyday Americans, plans to kill himself. The story blows up and sells millions of newspapers and attracts a firestorm of national media attention. Realizing that people are demanding to meet this John Doe, they find a derelict and former baseball player, John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), and pay him to play the fictitious John Doe. But like anything, he becomes a commodity. The politicians plan to exploit him for votes and the people see him as champion of their plights, eventually planning a new political party around his philosophy, and demanding that John Willoughby galvanize his base around their platform. It’s a such great idea.
The problem is that Gary Cooper’s every man personality just doesn’t work so literally. In fact, he has no personality. He’s a complete pushover. And while it’s great that he eventually overcomes his passivity, it occurs far too late into the 122 minute film. Allegedly there were multiple endings. The more tragic one (and what I was imagining could be interesting) had John Willboughy actually killing himself, thus transforming into the John Doe he was playing. That’s a powerful statement and supposedly it exists somewhere. Until then, take your time.
BELOW: Meet John Doe was another victim of failing to renew copyright so you can watch the entire film online
Thoughts on films, old and new
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