Thursday, April 19, 2012
MEET JOHN DOE
"For the John Does all over the world, many of whom are homeless and hungry."
When her paper is sold and streamlined and she gets fired, columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) decides to fake a letter from a "John Doe" threatening suicide for her last submission. The column causes a big stir, increases circulation, and gets Mitchell her job back -- now they have to find someone who can pretend to be the real John Doe. [Only in a Hollywood movie will the man they choose just happen to be as handsome as a movie star!] The guy who gets the job is unemployed, hungry John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), who gives a speech -- written by Ann -- in which he suggests people should act toward one another as if it were Christmas 365 days a year [not exactly a radical idea]. This leads to the formation of John Doe clubs, neighbors helping neighbors, people finding jobs instead of hand-outs and getting off relief, and so on. Then publisher D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) wants to start a John Doe party with himself as presidential nominee, which does not sit well with Willoughby. Worse, what happens if perchance "John Doe" is exposed as a phony...?
Meet John Doe takes a while to get going and its simplistic premise is never quite as solid as, say, that of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but eventually the movie and its various elements begin to click. Although Robert Riskin's screenplay doesn't really give Cooper a fully dimensional character to play, the actor nevertheless gives one of his best performances. Barbara Stanwyck is as terrific as she always is, impassioned and dynamic in equal measure. The movie has some lovely scenes: editor James Gleason talking about his father dying in front of his eyes during the war; Regis Toomey telling Cooper how he and his wife (an uncredited but excellent Ann Doran) reached out to a grumpy old neighbor and it snowballed into a committee of neighbors helping one another with their problems, and "John Doe" begins to realize what might actually be accomplished by his deception. [On the debit side, Walter Brennan's character, who thinks a man is "free" when he's broke, is an idiot and a pure Hollywood concoction.] Irving Bacon and Spring Byington are also in the cast. Capra wasn't able to use the bittersweet ending that he wanted, but the alternative he came up with works nearly as well.
Verdict: Despite obvious flaws and perhaps an unreal air about it, this is another Capra winner. ***1/2.