One year, one film: 1941 – Meet John Doe

The film:
Meet John Doe, dir. Frank Capra
starring Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper

Recommended | HIGHLY RECOMMENDED | Must-See

(Image via Crisis Magazine)
(Image via Crisis Magazine)

TMP favorite Barbara Stanwyck stars in 1941’s Meet John Doe, the latest film to be featured in our “One year, one film” spotlight series! Stanwyck is columnist Ann Mitchell, who is about to be laid off from her job and is working on her final column. She cooks up a letter from “John Doe” — a fictional, unemployed man — and uses said letter to point out the ills of society.

When the letter is a hit with readers, Ann is invited back to the paper. Capitalizing on the success of the column, the paper hires John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to play the role of the letter-writer, drumming up more publicity for the paper and avoiding a scandal over the fact that the letter was actually fabricated. What started as one letter becomes a series of letters, and these letters develop into speeches for radio. The situation continues to snowball until there is a national “John Doe” movement.

Frank Capra loved stories with social commentary, and also had a knack for drawing stellar performances from his actors. Meet John Doe puts both of these Capra qualities on display.

I’m a huge fan of practically everyone involved in this film and as a result was bound to like it. Does my Stanwyck/Capra/Cooper bias make me see this film with rose-colored glasses, or did the critics of 1941 agree that it had merit?

Variety, though lauding the “magnificence” of Capra’s direction, complained about the story itself: “Robert Riskin, who wrote the screenplay from an original story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, leaves the audience at the finale with scarcely more than the hope that some day selfishness, fraud and deceit will be expunged from human affairs.”

Ruth Waterbury of Photoplay was not too kind to Gary Cooper’s performance as John Willoughby in her October 1941 “Close Ups and Long Shots” column, stating that the character was merely practice for the superior film of Sergeant York. “Sergeant York looks like the finished production of the film that Meet John Doe was a rehearsal for,” Waterbury wrote. Ouch!

Photoplay‘s actual review of the film was much kinder than Ms. Waterbury, praising the performances and even calling Stanwyck’s work “of Academy Award merit.”

The film fared better in other publications, too. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times pointed out that Capra had handled many “John Doe” characters before, but called Meet John Doe “by far the hardest-hitting and most trenchant picture on the theme of democracy that the Messrs. Capra and Riskin have yet made—and a glowing tribute to the anonymous citizen, too.” Film Bulletin of 1941 quoted the New York Post review, calling Meet John Doe “one of the big and important pictures of 1941.”

Critical opinion at the time of release may have been split, but TMP stands firmly in support of the wonderful Meet John Doe, a highly-recommended film (especially for fans of Frank Capra).

One thought on “One year, one film: 1941 – Meet John Doe

  1. I haven’t seen this one in a few decades, and remember nothing about it…including if I liked it or not! I do like a lot of Capra’s work – It Happened One Night, Mr Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You – so I’ll have to give this one another go at some point. And man oh man, I just looked up Capra on-line, and does he ever have some scathing comments about Hollywood, and how films changed in the 50s and beyond!


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