Meet John Doe: Review
When one thinks of Frank Capra one does not readily call to mind the image of an independent filmmaker. But like Alfred Hitchcock, Capra was one of the few men of the Golden Age of Cinema who carved out his own path. He may not have made films of an overtly controversial nature, but he did make films his way and followed his own rules.
Capra challenged the boundaries of the studio system and ended up butting heads with Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn. He believed in the concept of the director as author and that a film should be the product of that person’s singular vision. Believing fervently in creative freedom, Capra went to great lengths to maintain control, using his own home as collateral to finance Meet John Doe, thereby participating in the profits.
Meet John Doe is a timeless romantic comedy along the lines of a fable. A down and out man is selected from a stable of forgotten men. He reluctantly accepts the duty of representing the little people, championing a David vs. Goliath cause. Along the way he wins the affections of the lady who started the whole set up and ends up influencing the haves as well as the have-nots.
This inspiring tale stars two of cinema’s most popular and enduring screen icons. Barbara Stanwyck is ideally cast as the beautiful wisecracking reporter who writes a fraudulent newspaper story of a lost soul who has given up on the world and promises to end his life in protest of the nation’s deplorable conditions. Stanwyck had the unique quality of believably portraying a woman who, despite meager beginnings never hesitates to roll up her sleeves and take life head on. She was American determination in a 5’ 5” package, able to convey all the contradictions and complications of a depressed country through the expressive eyes of one tough cookie.
Gary Cooper is likewise well suited for his part as the incredibly handsome and humble tramp picked from the crowd to fill the hapless role of John Doe, becoming an overnight national hero and the unknowing pawn of big business. Once again, Capra’s talent for casting supports his recurring theme in physical form. There has never been anyone who so encapsulated all things American as Cooper. Down on his luck and living off of his hopes, he still makes a striking impression when he first appears, hat in hand. Ultimately, this simple man of the people (a professional baseball player) embraces his destiny with greatness and fulfills the hopes of others who have come to depend on him for inspiration.
This depression-era story illustrates one of Capra’s ever-present themes of the common man conquering the attempts of big money for absolute power. Parallel to the struggles of a maverick director, the narrative of the film hinges on the protagonist’s ability to speak and have his opinions heard. The film’s bad guy, Edward Arnold (a wonderful character actor, dripping with charm) represents what could go wrong with America if one focuses too much on the needs of the individual. Meet John Doe asserts that the national community needs to look out for each other. It is then that the country is at its best, giving the individual his greatest opportunity for success.
Frank Capra is considered to be one of the most highly regarded and esteemed classic film directors of all time. During the height of his popularity he received accolades from the press, was admired by the industry, and adored by audiences. Throughout the 1930s, a film by Capra was either the recipient of the Academy Award (It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You) or the favored nominee (Lady for a Day, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).
Much like Spielberg today, the Capra name is a recognizable signature ensuring a quality production with a wide appeal. So, identifiable is his particular style that his name has become an adjective, like Welles (“Wellesian”) and Hitchcock (“Hitchcockian”), to describe subsequent films that have mimicked his style or include “Capra-esqe” elements. “Capra-Corn” is another expression that came about due to the critics growing intolerance for what some considered unpalatable schmaltz. In fact, most of Capra’s films are, by today’s standards, excessively sentimental and politically naïve. But this opinion trivializes the great director’s immense talents and his everlasting impact on the lexicon of cinema.