During the 1930's and 1940's Frank Capra directed a series of populist melodramas, films in which an honest, ordinary man fights the corrupt and powerful, and succeeds only after near failure and public humiliation. In Meet John Doe Capra employs a slight variation on the pattern by presenting a hero who is not scrupulously honest, at least not at the beginning.
The situation that Meet John Doe establishes is an intriguing one—a wealthy man with political ambitions who owns a newspaper, a young newspaper columnist determined to keep her job, and a bush league pitcher with an injured arm all trying to use one another for their own purposes. When D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) buys the metropolitan newspaper, The Bulletin, he changes its motto from "A Free Press Means a Free People" to "A Streamlined Paper for a Streamlined Age." As part of the streamlining he orders the firing of anyone on the staff who does not produce enough "fireworks" to stimulate circulation. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is one of those summarily dismissed because her column is thought too tame by the new management. Rather than give in, Ann decides to fight. In her last column she says she has received a letter signed "John Doe" from a man who is so disgusted by the conditions of the world that he is going to jump from the top of the City Hall on Christmas Eve.
The letter provokes such a big reaction from the people, the politicians (including the mayor and the governor), and a rival newspaper, that The New Bulletin (as it is now called) is forced to do something. To get her job back Ann suggests that they hire someone to pretend to be John Doe and she will write daily stories of his protests against greed, inhumanity, and hate. The paper is forced to go along with her rather than admit it has published a phony letter, and Ann and the managing editor, Connell (James Gleason), pick out their "John Doe."
The man they choose is Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a bush league pitcher with a bad arm who sees the whole scheme as a chance to obtain money for an operation on his arm so that he can once again play baseball. When the stories in the newspaper begin and are instantly popular, it is arranged for John Doe to make a speech (written by Ann) on the radio. Despite some misgivings and despite an offer of five thousand dollars from the rival newspaper to admit he is a fake, John delivers the speech Ann has written about the value and importance of the little or average man. People all over the country respond and begin to form John Doe clubs. D. B. Norton recognizes the phenomenon as one he can use to gain the political power he desires and begins organizing the John Doe movement.
The situation thus established is a confused and complex one for both Ann and John. Ann uses the ideas of her honest and idealistic father in the speeches, which persuade people to believe that "John Doe" is genuine and which—not incidentally—earn her large amounts of money from Norton. It is pointed out to John that even if he gets the money to repair his arm, he will never be able to play baseball when people find out that he is a fake. He is about to give up the whole thing when Bert (Regis Toomey), the leader of one of the John Doe clubs, comes to him and tells him a heart-warming story about how their lives have been changed and their appreciation of their fellow man deepened by what he has done. Both Ann and John at least partially believe the John Doe message, but one character has no ambivalence, no confusion of motives—D. B. Norton. He is the one purely evil figure in the film. Slightly heavy set, expensively dressed, smugly polishing his eyeglasses, he tells Ann that she will never have to worry about money if she plays her cards right.
Standing somewhat outside the action but always commenting on it is John's friend, who is called simply the Colonel (Walter Brennan). He has bummed around with John and views with disdain anything that complicates life. When first given fifty dollars, a new suit, and a hotel room, John enjoys it all, saying that even the major leaguers do not have such luxury. The Colonel, however, is contemptuous of the whole thing. As he explains it, money makes you used to things which will wreck you. You start by eating in restaurants, and the next thing you know you cannot sleep without a bed. You start with fifty dollars and end up with a bank account and with everyone wanting to sell you something. This, he says, turns everyone into "heelots," which, he explains, means "a lot of heels," who think only of how they can get money from you. The Colonel much prefers their old life when they rode freight trains and slept under bridges together.
The Colonel with his skeptical attitude provides the film with moments of humor and a refreshing counterpoint to the sometimes overly sentimental scenes. During Bert's long and emotional declaration to John, we see the Colonel looking on disgustedly; and in a delightful scene in the hotel room, John and the Colonel play a game of baseball with an imaginary ball.
The climax of the film occurs at a huge rally of John Doe club members from all over the country. Over twenty thousand have gathered in a ball park in the rain, and the event is being covered by national radio. Norton plans to have John Doe announce at the rally the formation of a third party with Norton as its presidential candidate. He and his cohorts plan a Fascist-style government to rule the people with an "iron hand." John, who is planning to ask Ann to marry him, finds out about the plot from Connell, who is cynical, but not cynical enough to let such a thing happen. When he goes to Norton's house to confront him, John finds that Ann, wearing a new fur coat and a diamond bracelet, is there together with Norton and all his cohorts. John threatens to reveal the truth to the rally, but Norton replies that he will kill the John Doe movement if he cannot use it. Completely disillusioned, John goes to the rally, but Norton outmaneuvers him. After newsboys distribute thousands of papers at the rally proclaiming John Doe a fake, Norton denounces him from the microphone and then has the wires cut so John cannot reply to the charges.
Long John Willoughby and John Doe both seem completely defeated; indeed, director Capra has admitted that he could not find a satisfactory conclusion for the film. He shot five different endings and finally settled on one in which John decides that the only way he can prove his sincerity is to jump from the top of the City Hall on Christmas Eve. Ann, Connell, and the Colonel all go to the Hall to try to stop him. When they find him, they are unable to dissuade him even though Ann tells him that the first John Doe has already died for the people. It is only when Bert, his wife, and another John Doe club member come to plead with him that John decides to live rather than die. Connell turns to Norton, who is also present, and says, "The people—try and lick that."
Perhaps Meet John Doe can best be characterized as a flawed masterpiece. Most of the flaws are in the last part of the film, where the pace slows drastically and the story seems to lose its bearings and drift off course. The drifting begins with John's somewhat out-of-character description, which lasts far too long, of a dream to Ann which shows his love for her. When John learns about the plot to use him to establish a third party, the pace again slows as Connell delivers a maundering, drunken harangue. And to say that the ending is overdone is to understate the obvious. It uses shameless Christian imagery as well as the characterizations of a repentant, hysterical woman who has gotten out of a sickbed (Ann) and a corrupt and powerful man (Norton) overmatched by one of the little people (Bert)—all on a cold, snowy Christmas Eve.
While it is still on course, however, the film is powerful and affecting, and most of the credit must go to the acting and directing. Ann is in many ways a typical Capra heroine—the clever, manipulative woman who finally has a change of heart and ends up on the side of the "sucker" she has been trying to manipulate. Barbara Stanwyck plays the role with enthusiasm and effectiveness. Gary Cooper is perfect as Long John Willoughby, the simple man who finds himself realizing the complexities of his situation a bit too late. He convincingly conveys the artlessness of Long John, notably in the scene in which he reads the first radio speech, which he has not seen before he goes on air. It does not slight the performances of Stanwyck and Cooper, however, to say that the Colonel as played by Walter Brennan is perhaps the most memorable character in the film.
Despite its weaknesses, Meet John Doe was deservedly well received by the critics and the public. Its main theme—the danger of Fascist takeover—fit well with the mood of the time (Hitler had taken most of Europe and was threatening to take over the rest of the world), and its other themes and concerns, especially the manipulation of people by the media, remain apt today.