1941 film, directed by Frank Capra and starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Known as "John Doe, Dynamite" in the UK. Running time of 135 minutes.
As venerable newspaper The Bulletin is sold to right-wing magnate D. B. Norton and renamed The New Bulletin, its "A free press for a free people" slogan changed to "A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined age", massive layoffs are imminent. Column writer Ann Mitchell, played by Stanwyck, finds herself out of a job, lacking the requisite "fireworks" the new owners expect of their writers, but is still asked to write her final column. Ann, who is in financial despair and must support both her children and her mother, decides to go out in style, giving the editors exactly the "fireworks" wanted: she fakes a letter, the text of which follows(quoted from Tim Dirks' "Greatest Films", see Sources):
Dear Miss Mitchell:
Four years ago, I was fired out of my job. Since then, I haven't been able to get another one. At first, I was sore at the state administration because it's on account of the slimy politics here. We have all this unemployment. But in looking around, it seems the whole world is goin' to pot. So in protest, I'm goin' to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof.
Signed, a disgusted American citizen. John Doe.
Editor's Note: If you ask this column, the wrong people are jumping off the roofs.
A public outcry erupts, and as phone calls bounce from mayor's office (the "City Hall" destined to be the suicide site), to governor, to rival newspapermen, The New Bulletin has a bona fide publicity hit. Ann is called back to the newspaper to hand over the letter, to which her calm reply is "there is no letter". Managing Editor Henry Connell, played by James Gleason, is eventually convinced by a most insistent Ann (who knows this could be her "meal ticket", her road to financial stability) that the best idea would be to keep up the John Doe story - rather than give in to the rival papers and admit it was all a scam. Conveniently, dozens upon dozens of would-be John Does are outside the door, claiming to have been authors of the letters. A well-edited, fast-paced "audition" sequence follows, finally settling on a John Willoughby (played by Gary Cooper) as definite man for the job. His motivation to take the job isn't political, social, or otherwise - it's quite personal, as he was a former baseball player who injured his arm and was hoping to get it treated, but didn't have the money. He is ever-accompanied by "The Colonel", played by Walter Brennan in one of the films most memorable roles. As the pair are put up in a luxurious hotel with bodyguards, the first of the films quasi-monologues occurs - The Colonel explains the nature of money and greed, stating basically that once you have money, everyone is there to ride on your back - the "heelots", as he calls them. Once you have a car, for example, you have to pay for gasoline, for insurance, for your license and your license plate, etc. It is a strong pronouncement undermined only by a lack of perception of the people a little further down this line of greed are many times just out to make an honest buck, and only the greedier "sharks" are really what The Colonel describes. Nonetheless, this attack can be construed as an attack on capitalism, or at least its current implementation.
As weeks go on, "John Doe" has a daily column in the paper, ghost-written by Ann and attacking the city's lack of investment in education, employment, and so forth. Meanwhile Willoughby's concern grows as the Colonel manages to further convince him that he's getting the short end of the stick - what they should really do, insists the Colonel, is get out of there and head to the Columbia River. Just as the Colonel begins to exert a dominant role in Willoughby's mind (who, incidentally, is manipulated throughout the film until the near end, when he finally takes a stand - only to be manipulated again), another disturbing factor comes in. "John Doe" is set to speak at a radio station, a speech D. B. Norton guarantees Ann will throw her salary up to 100 dollars a week, in a scene where Ann's true intentions are revealed, and she states she doesn't want to be a famous journalist but rather, just wants money - the duality between Ann the pragmatist and Ann the idealist is one of the film's central pieces. A rival newspaper infiltrates the "stronghold" at the hotel and offers a killer deal - $5,000, in cash, and a free ride out of town, if he reveals that he is in fact an imposter. Now Willoughby is torn between his growing affection for Ann and the constant cries of the Colonel for them to take the money and run. An interesting contradiction: to do the "good thing" (ie tell the truth) would equate to betrayal. Suspense builds as Willoughby readies himself for the radio address, and Capra makes Willoughby's decision unknown until the final moment. In the end, he reads Ann's letter (perhaps the conventions of film length would be a giveaway as to his decision), pushed to this decision by her confession that she's almost fallen in love - but not with Willoughby, with "John Doe" - here is Ann the idealist, in love with Doe's "outpours", and Ann the pragmatist, in love with the fact that Doe makes her quite a bit of money.
While Willoughby delivers Ann's carefully written speech (inspired by her late father), he is called an imposter by an audience member - a man from the rival newspaper. He is thrown out of the theatre, and John continues his hesitant, initially awkward speech. The second of the film's key almost-monologues, John asks the public to tear down the fences and just talk to their neighbour for once, to join up in an attempt to make the world a little less difficult. It is, in sum, a celebration of the little man, the fact that a nation is "the sum of its little punks". But the logical conclusion to the speech is not "workers of the world unite!", but neither is it ultra-nationalist. The movement described is apolitical, a theme revisited soon after, and the underlying message is that far too many political movements co-opt the "little punks" for their own intentions, even if those intentions are "good".
After the speech, Willoughby and the Colonel run off to the Columbia River, playing a tune from Pinocchio on the way, brandishing their harmonicas. On the way there, however, they stop by for a meal at a small diner, where they are recognized by the waiter and quickly mobbed by the townsfolk, who have formed their own chapter of the John Doe club - a club promoting friendliness and compassion. They are taken to the mayor's office, who has called D. B. Norton (the latter having ordered a search for his money-making everyman). Norton and Ann arrive, and try to convince John to return to their city and return to pretending to be John Doe. Willoughby is having none of it, saying he can't identify with what he was saying, that all he really wants to do is play baseball, and that if he's free to go, why don't they let him leave? All hope looks lost for the Ann/Norton side until the president of the local John Doe club enters and delivers the film's third quasi-monologue. This time, he talks of how, by following John's pronouncements on the radio, the townsfolk had gotten to know each other better, new friendships were formed, and solidarity had sprung up. This speech is effectively the effect to the radio address' cause. The speech is quite moving, affecting even John, who decides to return, much to the Colonel's disgust, who promptly leaves. If we quickly return to the end of the film's opening title sequence, there is a powerful image - that of a baby, alone in the maternity, a symbol that could very well represent Willoughby at this point.
The fourth important speech of the movie comes soon thereafter, where Willoughby describes to Ann a dream he had about her. In it, he was her father, chasing her because of some unknown ill-deed. The chase ends with Ann getting married (and looking very pretty, the indirect compliment a clear indication of John's feelings) to D. B. Norton's nephew, Ted, a marriage that would certainly appeal to Ann, the pragmatist. The minister? Why, John Willoughby, of course, here representing good deeds and morals. Her father (still played by Willoughby, now acting two roles) spanks her for her bad choice of husband, but reading any sort of sadomasoquistic undertone into this speech would be missing the point, as it is more of an indication of what Ann should rather than shouldn't, do. (To paraphrase John Lennon, we should not ask what we are fighting against, but what we are fighting for - a wise pronouncement, as there is an infinite number of elements to fight down but, if your purpose is clear, few you will be fighting for)
Meanwhile, with Norton's curiously enthusiastic sponsorship, John Doe clubs are springing up all over the country at a huge rate. By Willoughby's insistence, and common consensus, politicians are not included in these clubs - Norton agrees with this, and we soon see why. As he announces an enormous John Doe Convention in the city, to gather together representatives from all over the United States, he has a crucial conversation with Ann. She is to write another speech for him, this time announcing quite shocking news - that John Doe is to form his own political party, with someone he trusts fully to lead the way - of course, D. B. Norton. Ann's reaction is not shown - the duality between idealist and pragmatist is at its breaking point now, however, and the jewelry given to her by Norton is swaying her dangerously. Managing editor Connell, however, understands Norton's fascist intentions and rushes to talk to Willoughby. Willoughby says he never reads the speeches before the actual time, as he gets "more of a kick out of them that way" but Connell is insistent, and as they sit in a restaurant and he drinks increasing amounts of liquor, he reveals his "weakness" - the Star Spangled Banner, metonymically, the United States. He decries those who want to take over the country for their own intentions. The still-naïve Willoughby doesn't believe Norton to be capable of that sort of thing, that Ann writes the speeches and she'd never be capable of that sort of thing, and so forth.
He decides, however, to discover the truth and heads off to Norton's mansion, where a formal dinner gathering is taking place, uniting Norton and his political cohorts - plus Ann, wearing the jewelry. As he tears up the written speech and announces he will reveal Norton's real intentions at the Convention, Capra swaps monologue for heated debate, and Norton and Willoughby are at a standoff. Norton, however, has all the chips on his side, and reminds Willoughby that he is the fake and that he can kill of John Doe with the waive of a hand. John has another impassioned speech, but crucially it is now his own speech, not one written by Ann, and he decries the unjust nature of Norton's plan of action, of how, when finally something good springs up (ie the John Doe movement), Norton will co-opt it and kill it for his own benefit. Ann is now on John's side, her idealist side taken by seeing the John Doe she "loves" embodied in the John Willoughby speaking at the dinner: "You tell them, John!" He storms out, punching Norton verbally and nephew Ted physically, and heads for the convention.
Norton, however, is not to be outdone and has already prepared for this circumstance, printing thousands of newspaper denouncing the John Doe fakery. He has them rushed to the convention by his paramilitary motorcycle corps - Tim Dirks compares them to "Nazi stormtroopers" (see Sources) - and as John tries to speak, he is first impeded by the massive crowds' rendering of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" - patriotism - and then by the minister's request of a silent prayer - religion - and by the time he starts speaking, the crowd are already wild with controversy - is he really a fake? He attempts to speak but Norton stops him for proclaiming anything, and by the time he can finally clear up the controversy, his microphone is cut off - those in charge of communications also are in charge of who gets to say what. The Colonel makes his return, as he has been witnessing this from the audience and tries to rush up to the stage. A tumultuous scene ensues and Willoughby leaves with the Colonel, now a deeply broken man. Capra shows a nationwide fury and collapse of the John Doe movement - there are few things the United States detest more than having felt sympathy for an imposter.
Ann, feverish in bed, cries that she "should have been there for him" - she realizes, perhaps, that pragmatist, money-oriented Ann is inherently limited by the fact that money is not a shared concept, whereas idealist Ann can share in the (now-broken) movement with as many people who want to participate. A disillusioned Connell states that "you can chalk up another to the Pontius Pilates" - the Biblical/Jesus Christ reference about to become even more prominent, a bit of a stretch and to the film's detriment, in this reviewer's opinion, not nearing the effect of a similar comparison in Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
As the film nears its climax, the calendar nears Christmas - the date of the fictional suicide-to-be. A still-sick Ann stands in City Hall holding a vigil for Willoughby, while Connell also waits. We note who else is waiting - Norton and his cronies. Finally we catch a glimpse of a letter being mailed, and a figure nears the ledge of the building. "I wouldn't do that if I were you", interrupts Norton. The "if I were you" part is rather ironic, as imagining Norton as anywhere near John Willoughby is quite absurd. The busy rooftop is then further crowded by Connell, Ann, and the president of the John Doe club that spoke to Willoughby earlier in the film. Ann rushes into John's arms and confesses her love and beg, beg, begs him not to jump, saying that they can start up the movement all over again, that the movement must still be alive if Norton and his cronies had taken the trouble to come up there. The entire speech is delivered in an over-the-top, melodramatic style that has been criticized by many - however, Stanwyck is just making the most of the script presented to her, and her complete commitment and the passion that she brings to her character allows the scene to transcend corniness and be truly effective. The soda jerk club president says he didn't really mean it when he called Willoughby an imposter, that they were taken by the mob mentality, that they were going to start the movement up again, and it would be much better if Willoughby was helping out, and Ann continues her passionate speech by saying the "first John Doe" (ie Jesus Christ) had already died for John Does everywhere, and if "it's worth dying for, it's worth living for". John eventually acquiesces, and the film concludes with Connell, now firmly out of Norton's hold, stating - "There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!"
Though the John Doe clubs were apolitical in their nature, it would not quite be true to affirm the film itself is apolitical. It is certainly anti-Fascist, and the time period makes this a very pertinent theme. There are Socialist elements in the film but it never takes the requisite "next step" and propose a shakeup of the political system - in fact, such a change is shown as being very difficult given the way that the political bosses unite and conspire to make any real reform almost impossible. Norton's political campaign is never resolved or alluded to after the dinner meeting, and so we as audience must assume it failed - a victory for Willoughby but a costly one. The ultimately optimistic ending is effective and timely, and is in itself a statement - had the film been made ten years later, prevailing Existentialist thought would probably have rendered the ending a despairing one.
I've left the cinematic aspect probably under-examined, and though it does not suffice to say Capra's work seamlessly ties together the already very good script (by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Story), and the photography, the cinematic 'language', rarely strays from closely matching the demands of each scene, any further description might sway into hyperbole, so it is left to anyone else willing to present a more objective view of Capra's direction.
- "Meet John Doe". Internet Movie DataBase (http://www.imdb.com/), specifically at (http://us.imdb.com/Title?0033891), accessed 12/29/02.
- Dirks, Tim. "Meet John Doe". Greatest Films (http://www.filmsite.org), accessed 12/29/02.