FRANK CAPRA – MEET JOHN DOE
During the 1930’s and 1940’s Frank Capra directed a series of populist melodramas, films in which an honest, ordinary man fights the corrupt and powerful, and succeeds only after near failure and public humiliation. In Meet John Doe Capra employs a slight variation on the pattern by presenting a hero who is not scrupulously honest, at least not at the beginning.
The situation that Meet John Doe establishes is an intriguing one—a wealthy man with political ambitions who owns a newspaper, a young newspaper columnist determined to keep her job, and a bush league pitcher with an injured arm all trying to use one another for their own purposes. When D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) buys the metropolitan newspaper, The Bulletin, he changes its motto from “A Free Press Means a Free People” to “A Streamlined Paper for a Streamlined Age.” As part of the streamlining he orders the firing of anyone on the staff who does not produce enough “fireworks” to stimulate circulation. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is one of those summarily dismissed because her column is thought too tame by the new management. Rather than give in, Ann decides to fight. In her last column she says she has received a letter signed “John Doe” from a man who is so disgusted by the conditions of the world that he is going to jump from the top of the City Hall on Christmas Eve.
The letter provokes such a big reaction from the people, the politicians (including the mayor and the governor), and a rival newspaper, that The New Bulletin (as it is now called) is forced to do something. To get her job back Ann suggests that they hire someone to pretend to be John Doe and she will write daily stories of his protests against greed, inhumanity, and hate. The paper is forced to go along with her rather than admit it has published a phony letter, and Ann and the managing editor, Connell (James Gleason), pick out their “John Doe.”
The man they choose is Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a bush league pitcher with a bad arm who sees the whole scheme as a chance to obtain money for an operation on his arm so that he can once again play baseball. When the stories in the newspaper begin and are instantly popular, it is arranged for John Doe to make a speech (written by Ann) on the radio. Despite some misgivings and despite an offer of five thousand dollars from the rival newspaper to admit he is a fake, John delivers the speech Ann has written about the value and importance of the little or average man. People all over the country respond and begin to form John Doe clubs. D. B. Norton recognizes the phenomenon as one he can use to gain the political power he desires and begins organizing the John Doe movement.