Sunday, June 22, 2014

Meet John Doe (1941)

Director: Frank Capra                                      Writer: Robert Riskin
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                             Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Gary Cooper, Barbara Sanwyck, Edward Arnold and James Gleason

Meet John Doe continued Frank Capra’s string of pre-war hits. Gary Cooper, who had starred in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town for the director is back, this time as an out of work baseball player. It would be Capra’s last film before going to work for the government producing the Why We Fight series. He had already taken on government corruption in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so now he was taking a new angle, the corruption of individual people. Joining Cooper, Capra eventually decided on Barbara Stanwyck. It’s not the kind of part she was best known for, but having done a romantic comedy for Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve, and being one of Capra’s regular leading ladies of the thirties, it was obvious she could do the role and she was effective, slightly more edgy than Capra’s favorite leading lady of the time, Jean Arthur. Capra’s first choice, however, was Ann Sheridan who seems even more of a stretch, but she had conflicts with Warners and the studio said no. Then Capra went in the opposite direction and entertained the idea of Olivia de Havilland but she turned down the role. In retrospect, Stanwyck seems the perfect choice. Cooper, on the other hand, had always been the director’s first choice and had accepted the role without even reading the script.

The film begins with the newspaper owned by Edward Arnold getting a new editor, James Gleason. Part of his job is to lay off a bunch of employees, including Barbara Stanwyck. Though she begs, Gleason turns her down, saying that the newspaper needs fireworks. So for her last column she makes up a letter from “John Doe,” an out of work man saying that he’s going to commit suicide by jumping off the government building in protest of all the corruption in society. After a lot of fireworks do go off, she manages to convince Gleason to run with the story. But they need a real John Doe. Fortunately dozens of men have come to the newspaper looking for the job he’s been promised. They finally settle on Gary Cooper, a homeless ex-baseball player. He’s set up in a hotel, taking pictures for the paper, ordering room service, all to the disgust of his friend, Walter Brennan, who insists that all of this is leading to his being hooked into the system, losing the freedom and ease he had when he was homeless. All Cooper wants, however, is an operation on his arm so he can play again, and maybe a chance at being with the widowed Stanwyck, so he goes along with the gimmick.

It’s difficult not to see this film as a practice run for It’s a Wonderful Life, but then there are parts of every Capra film that feel that way. But with the Christmas time ending, the protagonist attempting suicide, and the Mr. Potter-like presence of Edward Arnold, this film probably comes the closest. Robert Riskin’s screenplay was based on a film treatment that had been written in 1939 by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, who would go on to win Academy Awards for best original story. There’s also a strong sense that Capra knew the country could not stay out of the war for very much longer and the idea espoused in the film would be a necessary one for the country to think about as that happened. In that sense the Edward Arnold role, with his insistence on discipline and dictatorship seems the perfect analogy to the right-wing fascism that had swept Europe and embroiled the continent in war. If there’s a downside to the film it’s that it’s speech heavy and the speeches are, in the words of Stanwyck herself, full of platitudes. Unlike the singing rhetoric of It’s a Wonderful Life, or the stinging indictment of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there’s not a lot to hang onto in the speeches and it’s probably the reason the film is less popular than other Capra films.

Capra’s veritably stock company is also on hand. The standout, however, has to be James Gleason. Most well known for his performance in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, he has a sizeable role that allows him a lot of room to demonstrate his skills. Walter Brennan is an interesting choice as Cooper’s sidekick, but seems to be the real voice of reason harkening back to the idea in You Can’t Take It with You. And Spring Byington is great, as always, as Stanwyck’s mother. The other memorable performance is by Regis Toomey as one of the “John Does,” and delivers one of the better speeches in the film though, again, it seems to go on without really saying much. Capra apparently struggled with the ending, at one point having five different versions in circulation to preview audiences, but had no idea what to do until a preview card suggested that Toomey come back as the impetus for the resolution. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is typical for those he churned out for Capra, utilizing plenty of standard national songs to give the picture an American feel. In the end Meet John Doe is an odd film, even for Capra, and while it remains popular it is definitely a lesser work in the director’s canon.

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