Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck teamed up for the first time in 1941 to make Meet John Doe.
Though new to one another, both had experience working with director Frank Capra. Cooper and Capra had made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936. Stanwyck and Capra had made four previous films together, and he always proclaimed Stanwyck to be his favorite actress.
The film opens when reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is fired from her job when new publisher and aspiring politician D.B. Norton buys up her newspaper and cleans house.
She sits down to her typewriter and bangs out her final column in a red hot fury—she’s got a mother and two younger sisters to support, and she’s a damn good reporter cut from the roles only to save a few bucks.
Her final column causes an outpouring of support from the paper’s readers—she’s published a letter to the editor from a mysterious John Doe, an anonymous man who vows to jump off a building to his death on Christmas Eve to protest society’s ills. The paper is flooded with people wanting to help John Doe by giving him a job.
Her former editor drags her back into the newsroom and demands the identity of John Doe.
The only problem—there is no John Doe. Ann made him up.
And the city’s rival newspaper is accusing them (correctly, it turns out) of fraud.
Enter Gary Cooper as Long John Willoughby, a hobo and former bush league baseball pitcher the newspaper hires to pretend to be the John Doe who wrote the letter.
Ann writes more letters in John Doe’s name, and soon the fake John Doe is giving speeches and inspiring the nation to “love thy neighbor.”
He’s also falling in love with Ann, though he worries that she sometimes forgets that he isn’t really the idealistic John Doe she made up in her head.
Meet John Doe was the final Frank Capra film released before he went overseas on a special assignment from President Franklin Roosevelt. He shot a series of seven war documentaries called Why We Fight used to recruit soldiers and convince the public of the necessity of war.
And yet Meet John Doe has the same mix of cynicism, hope, and despair that Capra put into It’s A Wonderful Life, which he and Jimmy Stewart made in a fog of post-war disillusionment.
As John Doe’s movement grows, the vultures start circling—politicians see potential voters in the non-political John Doe clubs, and Ann herself goes from a woman struggling to keep her family fed in the wake of her father’s death to one wearing fur coats and diamond bracelets paid for by her publisher.
In the final scene, Willoughby is as forlorn and disgusted as the John Doe he has spent the film pretending to be. Politicians have corrupted his movement and he believes Ann has betrayed him. After being exposed as a fake, the members of the John Doe clubs have rejected him and gone back to lives filled with petty fights instead of loving their neighbors.
The only way he can prove that his movement is real and good is to take the Christ-like path of dying for his message. He climbs to the top of the roof of the tallest building in the city and prepares to jump off, just as Ann wrote in her original fake letter.
But Ann is there, pleading for a chance to start again—both their romance, and their movement.
Will John stay and fight or will he jump?
You’ll have to watch for yourself to find out.
As Meet John Doe is available for free for Amazon Prime Video subscribers in the United States, you have no excuse not to watch it tonight.
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