Meet John Doe (1942)

I haven’t had time to write anything new for this blog, but here is another review which I posted on livejournal a while ago…

I was very disappointed by Meet John Doe, as the back of the sleeve of the DVD claimed it was dark and sardonic – but instead it turned out to be one of the most sugary movies I’ve ever seen. I hadn’t seen any Frank Capra before this, and was dismayed by this one, although I have since been won over by first Platinum Blonde and then It’s a Wonderful Life

Spoilers behind the cut

I was tempted by this movie because it is about a newspaper, and I’ve worked in a newspaper office for many years. There is some good satire of the media business, especially the moment when a sign in the office about freedom of speech is replaced with one about a “streamlined age”. But for me it’s all deadened by the overload of false sweetness – plus the fact that all the characters seem to declaim and lecture one another endlessly rather than having remotely believable conversations!

I still think the basic plot is brilliant – a columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) faced with the sack writes and publishes a fake letter to the newspaper from a man using the pseudonym John Doe, who threatens to jump from the top of City Hall in protest over unemployment and corruption in the town. Then a down-and-out (injured sportsman Gary Cooper) is hired to portray the character of Doe, and ends up becoming just as disillusioned as his fictional counterpart. But the whole terrible logic of this story is that “Doe”should end up committing suicide – which I understand is what happened in the original  tale, and also in the first-filmed ending – and it seems like something of a cop-out when, instead, John (Cooper) turns back from the brink.  

Part of the plot is a satire on fascism, with thousands of “ordinary John Does” mindlessly following Doe after he gives a supposedly inspiring speech – but this portrayal of ordinary people is again incredibly sugary, with them all apparently being so sweet and good and neighbourly as to be totally unbelievable! 

Stanwyck and Cooper are both fine in their roles, and I’d like to see both of them in films which do their talents greater justice.

7 thoughts on “Meet John Doe (1942)

  1. Check out Cooper and Stanwyck in Ball Of Fire, made the same year as John Doe. Brilliant screw-ball comedy, directed by Howard Hawks, co-scripted by Billy Wilder.


  2. Thanks for this, Bill – I will try to get hold of that one. I have seen Stanwyck in one or two better films since watching this one, but would definitely like to see her with Cooper again. And I also like Howard Hawks.


  3. yikes!

    I’m a little shocked by your reaction to this one!


    I certainly can’t agree–I used this film as a text for an American Radical Thought class that I taught at Michigan State a while back–but it’s interesting to see how differently people can interpret a film.

    but I have to ask–do you really find the movie reassuring and complacent about the future (or even the possibility!) of true democracy? Yes, claims are made on behalf of the basic decency of “the people,” but I don’t think Capra shrinks at all from showing what happens to that “goodness” when fear (which is basically an omnipresent psychological fact of modern life) stalks into the heartland!



  4. Hi Dave, just quickly, it sounds as if I ought to watch this again and find out more about it – and might find myself changing my views. I don’t really remember the film well enough to defend my comments here, but, from the other Capra movies, and the films about the great depression I’ve seen since, I suspect I might have got this one all wrong. Many thanks for the link to your site – I’ll aim to have a rethink on this movie. Judy


  5. cool!

    I would never claim to understand what Capra intends for us to think about America and “the common man” (and I vehemently disagree with every explicit political statement he made in interviews)–but I can never resist voicing my opinion that the films present a strangely conflicted vision that can really get your mind goin’, once the pollyanna thesis goes onto the back burner!

    I’d love to hear what you think of MJD the next time around–especially if you decide that I’m off my nut! (which is entirely possible)



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