‘Meet John Doe’ – Gary Cooper is a man of the people on Criterion Channel, MGM+ and free on Kanopy

Meet John Doe (1941), the final Hollywood feature that Frank Capra made before leaving to serve in the war effort, is his most populist piece of social commentary.

Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over. Her revenge involves a kiss-off piece, a phony letter from a fictional “John Doe” who promises to kill himself on Christmas Eve to protest the state of politics. It starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people articles.

Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe. He becomes the public voice of her ghost-written “letters,” his lazy delivery, lanky body language, and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.

Edward Arnold plays the industrialist who bought the newspaper to serve his ambition for public office. When the John Doe clubs start sprouting spontaneously across the country, Norton happily sponsors them, and not just to boost the prestige of his paper’s golden goose. When this non-partisan movement becomes a social force, Norton is ready to harness their energy and redefine their agenda for his own political aspirations.

What begins as an eccentric, folksy character piece transforms into a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement. It’s pure Capra, run through with the tension between idealism and corruption, faith in the goodness of the common man and acknowledgment in the easy manipulation of people and processes by the rich and powerful for their own gain. Decades later, the concept is still alarmingly relevant.

Capra’s idea of a populist movement is not political anger but social connection, transcending politics with neighborly concern and patriotic benevolence, and he makes a point of stating that these common folk are outside of politics. Yet it is hard not to make a connection to contemporary politics as this grass-roots organization determined to stand against the system becomes funded by corporate interests and longtime political aspirants hitch their ambitions to the movement, whether or not they really belong to it.

It’s scripted by Robert Riskin, who also wrote the screenplay for Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and could be a companion piece to both that and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), two key populist Capra films of the thirties where small town decency and idealism collides with big city cynicism and arrogance. And it slips into unexpectedly dark territory—at Christmas, no less, anticipating Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)—before finding a light at the end. We know who wins out in the end, but Capra’s faith in the common man, invariably a naïve rube played as a patsy by the politicians and industrialists until the final reel, comes with some ambivalence and is more than a little patronizing.

Walter Brennan plays “The Colonel,” Long John’s best friend and travelling buddy, and Spring Byington, James Gleason, and Gene Lockhart costar.

It earned an Academy Award nomination for its original story.

Black and white.

You can read a longer version of this review at Parallax View.

Meet John Doe fell into the public domain decades ago and has proliferated in poor quality TV prints, VHS tapes, DVD releases, and now streaming presentations. We only recommend superior editions at Stream On Demand. As of this posting, the best versions stream on Criterion Channel, MGM+, and on Kanopy.

Also on DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Edition (DVD)

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Meet John Doe has been widely available in substandard (and in some cases downright terrible) public domain editions since the birth of home video. The 70th Anniversary Collector’s edition from VCI is (as of this posting) the best edition on DVD so far but far from perfect. It appears to be constructed from multiple sources (none of them the original negative), has a soft image, and shows interlacing in the transfer. The two-disc set features commentary by historian Ken Barnes interspersed with archival audio recordings of Frank Capra, short featurettes on Cooper, Stanwyck and Capra, audio-only “Lux Theater” radio productions of “Sorry Wrong Number” (with Stanwyck) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (with Cooper), and cast and crew profiles.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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