Saturday, April 4, 2015

Meet John Doe

Meet John Doe; drama/ comedy, USA, 1941; D: Frank Capra, S: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan

When she finds out her column is about to be terminated due to a budget cut, out of desperation, reporter Ann Mitchell decides to write a sensationalistic article for New Bulletin newspaper, and makes up a letter of a fictional man, John Doe, who plans to jump off from city hall on Christmas because he is unemployed and cannot stand the injustice in society anymore. Unexpectedly, the article is such a hit that the editors have to hire a man, Willoughby, to play John Doe. Spontaneously, thousands of people start John Doe clubs and initiate philanthropy. However, when the media tycoon D.B. Norton decides to exploit the movement to run for office, Willoughby rebels and is punished and demonized by the media. He decides to jump off the building on Christmas, but Ann dissuades him.

Frank Capra's last cooperation with screenwriter Robert Riskin, "Meet John Doe" does not hold up as well as their first films - the storyline is overstretched pass its prime at a running time of 120 minutes, and some solutions seem like a rehash of Capra's and Riskin's previous elements in thematically very similar "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", which makes them not that fresh anymore - yet the sole concept is so delicious it coined the term 'John Doe' as the American figure of speech. There are a few great satirical touches (the exquisite opening where the sign "Free Press", written in stone, is chiseled off by a worker with a drill in order to put another sign on its place, "New Bulletin Press") and the basic idea is rich, posing some thought provoking questions about the creation of any ideology, how such a momentum can be hijacked by the elite for their own purpose and the power of the media to distort facts and keep a myth alive for millions of people who need hope, and not grim reality. Cooper seems to be reprising his character of Mr. Deeds, but it is still good enough to work, especially since his character here wonders if by saying the truth, that he is not the idolized John Doe, but just a product of the media editors, will shatter all the dreams of his followers (when he wants to propose Ann, he confesses to her mother this: "I'm afraid she is not in love with me, but in the man she created. I cannot compare with him."), which even has religious implications. The dialogues are not as memorable as the above mentioned classics, yet the finale is dramatic: just like in "Mr. Smith", a media tycoon uses his power to control the public opinion by spreading negative word-of-mouth in the press against John as soon as he is not obeying him anymore, thereby even showing Capra in a darker, pessimistic edition, who shows how it is getting more and more difficult for the people to change something if the elite does not want it, and a darker ending would have thus been even more appropriate.


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