Meet John Doe (1941): Capra’s Oscar-Nominated Tale, Starring Cooper and Stanwyck

The successful collaboration of director Frank Capra, writer Robert Riskin and star Gary Cooper on the Oscar-nominated “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” encouraged them to find another interesting project to work on, and the result was “Meet John Doe.”

The original story on which Riskin’s screenplay is based was published by Richard Connell in 1922, and he and Robert Presnell wrote a screenplay, but it took a long time for the film to materialize, this time around at Warner, and not at Columbia, where Capra’s previous pictures were made.

Once again, the tale involves journalists and publishers with strong political overtones. Angered because she has been fired, newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) fabricates in her final column a fake letter, signed by one John Doe. In this letter, the writer announces that he is going to commit suicide on Christmas Eve as a protest against all the misery, hypocrisy and corruption that exists in the country.

When rivals accuse the paper of cheap publicity, it becomes necessary to produce someone to impersonate the nonexistent letter writer. The frantic editor and Ann, now back on the job, with substantial increase in pay, find the person in the shape of a poor and hungry bush-league pitcher with bad arm (Gary Cooper).

What begins as a spiteful joke takes on unbelievable proportions with letters flooding the newspaper’s offices. Ann writes love-thy-neighbor articles for the man and his fan mail increases. Then he is put on the radio and, before long, John Doe clubs appear all over the country.

D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold), the powerful publisher, in true fascist style, encourages the clubs and even holds a convention at which he intends Doe to nominate him as third party candidate for the presidency. When Doe refuses, Norton exposes him as a fake.

However, Doe can still commit suicide on Christmas Eve, as was threatened in the letter. He seriously plans to do so, but as he is about to jump, Ann stops him.

As “the American Everyman,” Cooper gives another strong performance, one that would have been nominated for an Oscar were it not for his other popular film that year, “Sergeant York,” for which he won his first Best Actor.

The superb supporting cast includes Walter Brennan, Spring Byington, James Gleason, and Gene Lockhart.

More than other Capra films, “Meet John Doe” is problematic and open to countless interpretations, from his contradictory approach to the “little people,” to the very ending, which was tampered with. Initially, the story ended with Cooper’s John Doe committing suicide, which is more dramatically coherent and emotionally convincing.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Original Story: Richard Connell and Robert Presnell

The winner was Harry Segall for “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.”

Release Date: March 12, 1941

Running time: 123 Minutes