Watch Meet John Doe (1941) with Shannon’s introduction. Directed by Frank Capra, starring Gary Cooper & Barbara Stanwyck.
1941’s Meet John Doe was a change of pace for director Frank Capra. This often overlooked drama stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, and conveys many of Capra’s trademark themes, but in a darker way.
Meet John Doe
Gary Cooper is Long John Willoughby, a washed up baseball player living on the streets with his friend the Colonel (Walter Brennan). In his efforts to find work, Willoughby agrees to personify John Doe, a man made up by columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck).
Mitchell’s John Doe has captured the hearts and minds of people across the city in a letter written and published by Ann in a local newspaper. In the letter, John Doe lists his grievances against humanity, and his plan to kill himself in protest by jumping off the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve. D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold), the businessman who owns the newspaper, sees an opportunity to use John Doe’s influence over the public to further his own political aspirations.
John Doe Rebels
Long John Willoughby is hired to pretend that he wrote the letter, and to give speeches that touch the everyday men and women across the country. A John Doe movement begins. But when Willoughby learns he’s being use for Norton’s political goals, he rebels. Norton retaliates by announcing that Willoughby is a fraud, and the public turns against him.
Feeling alone and depressed, Willoughby plans to jump from the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve. But an unexpected turn of events leads Willoughby to reconsider.
Frank Capra: Name Above the Title
By 1937, Frank Capra was a household name. His films about common men of ideals overcoming the evils of the world resonated with audiences. For the first time, a director’s name alone meant box office. As Capra put it:
“I had reached a lifetime goal: Making something out of nothing; a nobody became Mr. Somebody—and I made the world like it. What began as a gleam in my eye…was now a successful Hollywood reality: a film director’s name spelled box office.
Armed with confidence from this success, and his characteristic optimism, Frank Capra left his longtime studio, Columbia Pictures, to become an independent filmmaker. With screenwriter Robert Riskin, he formed Frank Capra Productions in August of 1939. Meet John Doe would be the new company’s first film.
Meet John Doe: A Different Film
Capra wanted John Doe to be different. He wanted to prove to critics that, as Capra himself put it, “not every Frank Capra film was written by Pollyanna.” To accomplish this, he and Riskin broke from the usual Capra film formula: instead of making John Doe an innately good man of ideals, Capra’s hero is a man of no ideals who, through the course of the film, finds them.
Work on the John Doe screenplay went smoothly for Capra and Riskin. Until it came time to write the ending. There seemed to be no good way to close the film. Capra sought help from Hollywood’s most respected script doctors, but even they were stumped.
Despite the fact that the script was still unfinished, Capra’s prestigious reputation allowed him to assemble his dream cast for John Doe. Both Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck signed on to the film without ever seeing a script. Capra recognized this confidence his stars had in him was “the highest compliment a director could be paid.” As Barbara Stanwyck put it,
“You make other pictures to live, but you live to make a Capra picture.”
Meet John Doe Still Has No Ending
Ultimately, scripts were given only to Stanwyck, Cooper, Edward Arnold, and Walter Brennan. The rest of the cast received their lines scene by scene during filming. It was simply the easiest way to handle the fact that Meet John Doe still had no ending.
Capra tried to solve the problem by shooting four different endings to the film. He then released four different versions of Meet John Doe to trial audiences, whose reactions Capra hoped would lead him to the best of the four endings.
Unfortunately, trail audiences didn’t like any of Capra’s endings.
Meet John Doe had already been released in six major cities when Capra received a note, appropriately signed “John Doe,” from a preview audience viewer. The note gave Capra the inspiration he needed. As the John Doe wrote:
“I have seen your film with many different endings. All bad, I thought. The only thing that can keep John Doe from jumping to his death is the John Does themselves, if they ask him.”
After reading the note, Capra said “a large bell rang.” He now knew exactly how to close the film.
A New Ending
The John Doe cast and crew were reassembled, and a fifth ending was shot. Meet John Doe was then widely released with Capra’s new ending, the one viewers know today.
Tax laws of the time dictated that Frank Capra Productions pay over 50% of the estimated potential earnings of Meet John Doe to the government before those earnings were actually made. After working a year and a half with no salary, the financial strain of these taxes was too much, and Capra and Riskin were forced to dissolve their company. Though Meet John Doe would be the only film Frank Capra Productions ever made, it did bring Capra almost unanimously the intellectual and critical acclaim he’d hoped for.
Wake Up John Doe
Today, critical opinion on Meet John Doe is mixed. But hopefully viewers, the John Does that Frank Capra made the film for, will continue to find inspiration in his messages of faith, endurance, and humanity. As Barbara Stanwyck’s Ann Mitchell writes in the film:
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Wake up John Doe, you’re the hope of the world.