Gary Cooper. Barbara Stanwyck. Frank Capra. All in their prime. What's not to like? Meet John Doe (1941) was made at a time when Hitler's reach was spreading throughout Europe and Capra, always the idealist, spoke to that reach through his film. With Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, made in 1939, the director ended his long term relationship with Columbia Pictures, a relationship which raised Columbia's standing in Hollywood significantly. Along with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith formed the two legs of an unofficial trilogy which represented Capra's signature filmmaking during this period. Meet John Doe formed the third leg, with Gary Cooper in the role of the common, every-man, aptly given the moniker John Doe. Barbara Stanwyck has the role played in the previous films by Jean Arthur, the cynical career gal who is eventually won over by the honest, innocent rube.
The movie tells the story of Long John Willoughby (Cooper), a down on his luck bush league baseball pitcher with a bum arm. He is plucked from hoboville to personify the fictional irate citizen John Doe, created by newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck). Per Ann's column, Doe, frustrated and disenchanted with society, threatens to jump off a high rise roof on Christmas Eve. After a deluge of response from those wanting to save/help Doe, Cooper is drafted as the disillusioned wretch incarnate. What starts out as a publicity stunt becomes a dark cloud over Cooper's conscience, when John Doe clubs are formed across the nation to spread his mantra of "Love Thy Neighbor" and the whole movement is threatened by a dark and ominous influence.
Cooper, relishing the opportunity of working with Capra again after their success with Deeds, signed onto the picture without seeing a script. This decision said alot for his enthusiasm to work with the director, as Cooper was riding high with a succession of recent hits and his Oscar winning Sergeant York, would be made the same year as John Doe. In turn, Capra wanted Cooper specifically for the lead role. The Capra-Cooper magic hit again with Doe, but not without a few snags. The film tends to get a little talky at times, such as when Cooper's eccentric hobo sidekick (Walter Brennan) goes on a tirade about the helots, his word for those who seek security and creature comforts and get caught up in the soft life. Capra gets a bit heavy handed with the lectures as well as with his classic "Capra-corn" sentiment, but what's wrong with a little sentiment, it hits all on some level.
As a Warner Brothers production being directed by Capra, the studio's reigning bombshell, Ann Sheridan was tagged for the Stanwyck role. Contract entanglements nixed the idea so thoughts roamed to Olivia de Havilland. When she didn't work out either, Stanwyck was cast. Always a good combination with Frank Capra, the gutsy Brooklyn born actress made several pre-Code films with the director at Columbia. Although not her best work, she and Cooper click and her obvious and immediate attraction to his character when they first meet is convincingly carried through the film. There is foreshadowed evidence of Elizabeth Lane, Stanwyck's character in 1945's Christmas in Connecticut, in her performance. As Lane's driving force is ownership of a stunning fur coat, the ambition of Stanwyck's Ann Mitchell is also grounded in material gain, much to her chagrin when her superficial desires interfere with her relationship with Cooper.
The supporting players are a veritable who's who of Hollywood's second tier. James Gleason as Stanwyck's cigar chomping, hard boiled newspaper boss. Walter Brennan as Cooper's crabby, harmonica playing side kick. Edward Arnold, wonderfully menacing as the power hungry Mussolini wannabe. Spring Byington as Stanwyck's good Samaritan mother. Regis Toomey as a small town soda-jerk, who with his wife, Ann Doran (oddly uncredited in a sweet and substantial performance) head one of the newly formed John Doe clubs. Even future cast members of Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Harry Holman and Sarah Edwards are on hand as Mayor and Mrs. Hawkins.
With no satisfactory ending agreed upon, several were filmed. Essentially this is one of the films flaws but doesn't detract from the overall quality of the movie. Though a tad overlong, Meet John Doe provides both an idealistic punch, as well as a great showcase for both its stars , particularly Gary Cooper. His quiet and simple approach to acting was used to perfect advantage and is a great complement to Stanwyck's brash city girl. Originally one of my "13 classic movies I've never seen but want to", I can happily say it is marked off my list in a most satisfactory way.