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By Way of Introduction: Meet John Doe

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

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Meet John Doe

2 hrs. 2 mins Comedy, Drama, Romance 1941 7.6 stars

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: Gary Cooper - Long John Willoughby

Barbara Stanwyck - Ann Mitchell

Edward Arnold - D.B. Norton

Walter Brennan - The ‘Colonel’

Spring Byington - Mrs. Mitchell

James Gleason - Henry Connell

Gene Lockhart - Mayor Lovett

Sterling Holloway - Dan

Regis Toomey - Bert

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Choosing the Right John Doe

Barbara Stanwyck and James Gleason choose Gary Cooper

Barbara Stanwyck and James Gleason choose Gary Cooper

Synopsis Part I

In the opening scenes we see layoff notices at a major urban newspaper. Person after person is being let go. A new owner has taken over and he is having his editor trim the fat! That editor is Henry Connell (played by James Gleason) and he is tough, a no nonsense task-oriented leader. The new owner he works for is the big guy, D. B. Morton (played by Edward Arnold – who else?). Numbered among the journalists that receive layoff notice is Ann Mitchell (played by Barbara Stanwyck), but she is determined not to go down without a fight. Although she pleas with Connell about her need for income, he is unbending, says it’s not about the money, but the material; he wants “fireworks” in his newspaper to attract readers. Ann has one more column to get out that day before she’s through. Back at her desk she mutters that if “he wants fireworks, he’ll get fireworks” and she begins to type at lightning speed.

She types in this last column; of a letter she has received from a man she names “John Doe”. In the letter John Doe complains about conditions in the country and rails against the political climate. He concludes that as a protest he will commit suicide by jumping off the roof of city hall on Christmas Eve. This letter, however, impresses Connell and he publishes it. Soon the whole city is buzzing over this very public suicide note from the mysterious John Doe. The paper wants to pursue Mr. Doe, offer him a job, food, etc.

But it was Ann’s last day and she walked out of that office with no indication of where she was going. Frantic, Connell conducts a search for her while a rival paper has accused him of printing a fake letter for just for ratings. In the midst of the chaos, Ann shows up to the relief of Connell, but then to his dismay she confesses that the letter really is a fake and that John Doe is a complete fabrication out of her own imagination!

She makes Connell an offer he can’t refuse. She explains the whole plan to him. All they have to do is hire someone to play the part of John Doe. That would lend legitimacy to the story laid out in the letter.

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No sooner had she finished explaining the plan than a crowd of men showed up claiming to have written the letter. And from amongst that crowd Ann and Connell selected a man named John Willoughby, nicknamed “Long John” (played by Gary Cooper). John is fed along with his faithful companion, “The Colonel” (played by Walter Brennan). The entire plan is explained to them. The Colonel detests the whole idea; he’s a hobo and that’s the extent of his ambition. He is extraordinarily fearful of the influence that money and comfort can have upon a man and he calls those who succumb to them “Heelots”.

But John likes the idea and he is willing to go along with it. He had a career as a pitcher until an injury sidelined him and part of the deal for him is that the newspaper will pay for an operation he needs to resume that career.

Ann goes to visit D.B Morton to suggest a radio slot. D.B in turn offers her money to write a speech. She agrees and writes a speech for John to read on the air – it is a speech about ideals such as neighborliness and selflessness. It is a patriotic speech and it is extremely well received across the nation. But it is Ann’s writings and while John’s voice spoke the words they were not his own.

After the speech John and the Colonel departed and returned to the hobo life of depression era drifters. In a diner, one day, however they were discovered. Neither one of them had realized what a national hero John Doe had become. John was surprised to see that he had inspired an entire nationwide movement and series of John Doe Clubs collectively known as the “John Doe Movement”. The recognition of John Doe at the diner caused quite a stir and he was rushed into the mayor’s office as protection from the thronging crowd. Ann and D. B. were brought to that town to talk him into coming back into their plan. Unconvinced, John continues in his desire to be out of the limelight.

John and the Colonel are Discovered

Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan are caught by Sterling Holloway in a diner.

Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan are caught by Sterling Holloway in a diner.

Synopsis Part II

But then one of the local “John Doe Club” chapter presidents brings his group into that mayor’s office and steps up to John and tells him of how the club developed. It is a story of his town’s people coming to know and appreciate each other, a story of loving one’s neighbor, a real feel-good story of bringing all sorts of people together. One thing about the John Doe Movement that’s foundational to their philosophy is that no politician may join up.

John is touched by this man’s story and John decides to stay with Ann’s and D. B.’s plan. The Colonel however leaves. John travels and speaks all across America promoting the brotherly love message of the John Doe Movement. And in time a fledgling romance develops between John and Ann.

D. B. however has a sinister plot afoot. He wants to harness the good feeling, the spirit of neighborliness in order to run for president. A large national John Doe convention is set to take place and John will naturally be the keynote speaker. But before John goes to the stadium to deliver his speech Connell pulls him aside, sits him down in a bar and informs him that his movement is being hijacked by D. B. and that the speech written for him to give announces D. B.’s plans. This comes as a shock to John as he is not in the habit of pre-reading the speeches he delivers; he just trusts himself to Ann’s writing. He doesn’t know that Ann has been bought by D. B.

Angered, John goes to D. B.’s mansion where he and others, including Ann, are having a dinner. John confronts D. B and threatens to expose him. D. B. counters that he has made John into who he is and he can just as quickly tear him down again. Ann goes running to John as she realizes that she has also been fooled by D. B., but John rejects her and drives off to the convention to make his speech.

D. B. cranks up his political machine and prints papers and pamphlets claiming that John is a fake, and then spreads them, with the help of agitators, all throughout the convention. By the time John rises to give his speech the crowd is booing. D. B. takes the stage and denounces John, says he was in it for personal gain.

As John quickly realizes his popularity has plummeted rapidly. But he does believe in the movement and tries to figure out a way to bring life back into it. Eventually he realizes that the only way to bring legitimacy back to the cause is to go through with the earlier plans to commit suicide by jumping off the top of the city hall at midnight on Christmas Eve. The Colonel has come back and along with Connell stands guard at the city hall building in an effort to prevent John from carrying through with his plans to jump; but they weren’t the only ones who had an idea that he would do it. Suspecting and fearing that he might decide to do this Ann goes to city hall to try to talk him out of it. D.B. also goes to city hall fearing John might jump, but for a different reason than why Ann fears it. D.B. is afraid that the negative publicity from the jump will ruin him and make a martyr out of John Doe.

Indeed, John is on the roof of city hall. As he nears the edge in order to jump D.B. and his henchmen are there to talk him out of it. They are unpersuasive. Ann shows up next and appeals to John not to jump. She pleads with him on the basis of her love for him. He is not persuaded by her either. But there is someone else who suspected that he would jump, the president of the “John Doe Club” who had convinced him not to give up the idea; he brought his wife and a neighbor to also try to dissuade him from jumping.

The combination of people that were trying to talk him out of jumping all had a cumulative effect of convincing him that life was better off being lived than being sacrificed especially since the people still believed in him.

So, on an idyllic snow-covered roof top a bunch of people restored hope to this man who moments earlier had decided to end it all, die for a cause he still believed in – a cause of bringing people together across the nation in a spirit of neighborliness.

Crisis averted, trust restored, John came down off that roof – a happy ending

John Meets Local Club President

Regis Toomey, chapter president of the John Doe club meets Gary Cooper.

Regis Toomey, chapter president of the John Doe club meets Gary Cooper.


This is the second Frank Capra movie I’ve reviewed in a row. In both movies it is a story of the triumph of the little man over the powerful man and his machine (And Edward Arnold is the bad guy in both movies).

An obscure hungry man looking for a job stumbles into a bizarre opportunity, one that will instantly provide him with food and shelter, immediate needs. Beyond that the opportunity provides him fame and fortune, and it will only cost him - his life! Oh, and first he will have a romance tossed into the bargain.

It is greed that produces this strange set of events. First there is the greed of the man at the top, D.B. Norton in purchasing a major newspaper and then clearing out its personnel. Out of this operation a letter is composed full of fireworks to ignite the hearts of readers. From those fireworks a nationwide movement is started, a good movement promoting neighborliness. It is greed one again that tries to hijack that movement for political gain. It appears as if it will be a ‘might makes right’ story, but it turns out to be a ‘right makes might’ story instead – a prevalent Capra theme.

John Willoughby is a nobody, a small time baseball pitcher who never progressed beyond the bush leagues. His best friend is a hobo who has absolutely no aspirations whatsoever. Add the fact that it’s the Great Depression and there’s no money and no food. John is a poor hungry, desperate man. As he plays the role of John Doe he begins to warm to the ideals that are composed in the speeches he is handed to deliver. He rises above the stage fright of the microphone from which he delivers radio broadcasts. He rises above the fright of being at a podium on stage as he speaks at rallies. He begins to believe in the “John Doe” principles. He sees himself as being a contributing member of society. He is inspired by his own fictional self.

Ann writes John’s speeches drawing heavily on the writings of her own deceased father, wisdom from an earlier generation. She begins to fall for John; perhaps she sees her father in him. I will note that in the previously reviewed movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (also directed by Frank Capra) it is the wisdom, the sayings of Smith’s father that capture the heart of Saunders - wisdom from an earlier generation.

The message of the speeches and consequently the message of the John Doe movement are calls to neighborliness, particularly meaningful at this time of depression and warfare. But the theme is not new; it is Biblical, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Judeo-Christian ethic is the backbone of the American culture so this message which John Doe preached resonated well.

Lest you are tempted to think I’m injecting too much theology into this review take note of the final scene where Ann is pleading with John not to jump and stating that a sacrifice has already been made for man 2,000 years ago. Note also that this scene is occurring on Christmas Eve and even thought the writer seems to conflate the meaning of Easter with the meaning of Christmas the point is still obvious. The movie puts John in a Christ-like role. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it is a most certainly and intentionally written stretch. By extension the implication can be seen that D.B. Morton is a Judas character (or a Simon Magus character – wanting to purchase the power). Let’s stick with Simon Magus for a moment. D.B. wants to utilize the power of the John Doe movement to promote a political party. In a broader sense he wants to utilize heartfelt matters and changes with people’s characters to effect temporal changes. His is a position of greed and opportunism, but he seeks to use spiritual means to gain temporal power. This is a losing strategy and indeed it backfires on him and rightly so.

The movie has a happy ending which I am always in favor of, but at this time in history it was particularly useful. The movie came out in 1941. The country has been in the Great Depression for over a decade now and was about the enter World War II which was already underway. The country was in need of a happy ending.

I will close with an explanation of the “The Colonel’s” issues with most people. He gives a memorable glimpse at his outlook on life when he explains the concept of “Heelots”. This is his word for people who try to take your life over, usually by trying to sell you something or by obligating you in some way. The Colonel is a hobo and completely identifies with the hobo lifestyle. He reckons that when someone comes into money, even just a little bit of money, they get beset by “heelots – a lot of heels”. Once you have money they’re after it and eventually you become a heelot yourself.

Up on the Roof

Gary Cooper carries the fainted Barbara Stanwyck

Gary Cooper carries the fainted Barbara Stanwyck

The Whole Movie

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