Meet John Doe (1941): The Start of the Stanwyck and Cooper Magic

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)
Meet John Doe (1941)

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.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)
Barbara Stanwyck sizes up Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941)

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.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)

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.

Meet John Doe (1941) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): Clarissa Explains it All

#32 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part V: Hollywood’s Greatest Year

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) opening banner

Sometimes, because of something that’s happening in the world at large or inside your own four walls, you’re especially open to a particular message.  You’re a student, waiting for your teacher to appear.  If this message comes in the form of a well-crafted film, it can alter the way you see the world or yourself.  The film—or novel—can become part of your own life’s story.

The best art becomes part of our very DNA.  

And sometimes, your heart is so stone cold on an issue that not even one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies of all time can pierce through.

Such was my unfortunate, unsatisfying experience with Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

When a United States senator dies suddenly, the state’s governor appoints Jefferson Smith to serve out the remainder of the term.  Jefferson Smith is no politician.  He’s basically a Boy Scout Troop leader, bursting with honesty and pure patriotism.

He comes to Washington with an earnest desire to do good and completely naive to the inner workings of the federal government.  When he tries to pass a bill to build a boy’s camp, he inadvertently jeopardizes the underhanded scheme of Senator Paine and a political boss.  The two have conspired to secretly buy up land and then sell it at a premium when they pass a bill to build a dam on the property.

This property, of course, is where Jeff Smith wishes to build his boy’s camp.

Jeff Smith has his illusions destroyed as he uncovers the plot.  Senator Paine and others work to undermine Jeff at every turn, first manipulating him, then intimidating him, and finally framing him for the crime of buying the land.

Jeff refuses to give up, and the film ends with Jeff’s magnificent filibuster on the floor of the senate, where he vows to keep on fighting for justice and American values no matter what the corrupt elites do to stop him.

He ultimately passes out on the senate floor from exhaustion, and in an attack of conscience, Senator Paine admits the truth of his guilt—and Jeff’s innocence—in the scheme.

Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

It is the triumph of idealism over cynicism, which is usually just the kind of story I love.

But a week away from the most contentious presidential election in my lifetime, poor Mr. Smith just didn’t land for me.   

You too probably have strong feelings about the upcoming election, regardless of your political party.  Depending on who you support, you may be feeling pessimism, optimism, despair, or hope.

But red, blue, or independent, I can’t believe anyone is feeling idealistic about American politics at this moment in our history.

For better or worse, the polite masks have been ripped away to reveal the raw power struggle that drives the bloodsport of national elections.

In this light, Mr. Smith looks hopelessly naive.  The film’s corrupt act of buying up land to sell at a premium wouldn’t even make today’s newspaper, much less the front page.

The delight of watching so many classic films has been how fresh and relevant they feel.

But Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is eighty-one years old, and feels even older. It speaks of an idealism that was possible before Vietnam, Watergate, and 9/11.

Director Frank Capra himself became disillusioned after World War II, and his later films took on a darker tone.

But if I cut away the personal baggage brought to watching this film in 2020, it is easy to see why Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is beloved.  It is a treasure, and was one of the first films chosen by the National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress.

First off, you have James Stewart, one the greatest and most beloved characters of all time in the title role.  This is the movie that rightfully made Stewart a star.  He plays Jeff with a wide-eyed wonder that never fully dims despite discovering that his hero Senator Paine is rotten and weak.

But it’s Clarissa Saunders, played wonderfully by Jean Arthur, who is really at the heart of the film.  Saunders is Jeff’s world weary secretary, who knows how Washington really works and is disgusted by it all.  She at first thinks Jeff’s innocence is an act, then dismisses him as a hopeless rube.

Almost against her will, she teaches Jeff the ropes and tries to protect his innocence.  In one of the film’s best scenes, she explains the arduous process it takes to actually write a bill and pass a law.  As the film goes on, his idealism melts her cold heart, and in the final act she has become a true believer.  Her understanding of the rules—both written and unwritten—of the senate are the key to Jeff’s successful filibuster.

It is Saunders, more so than Jeff, who is the stand-in for the audience.  She has the most satisfying story arc—a cynic finding her idealism, so much so that she convinces Jeff to keep fighting for his “lost cause” when he considers quitting in a moment of weakness.

So maybe I—maybe we—should all take heart that if even cynical Saunders can rediscover her idealism in the heart of an honest politician, maybe we can do the same.

If we can find one. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

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Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The Good Life

#20 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)
James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can’t Take It With You
You Can't Take It With You (1938) opening banner

Frank Capra was on a roll.  Starting in 1934 with It Happened One Night, he won the Best Director Oscar in three out of the next five years.  In 1938, he won his third and final Oscar with the ensemble comedy You Can’t Take It With You.  He also began to cement his legacy as a director who perfected a tone in his films that celebrated the best parts of the American dream and gave audiences wholesome and upbeat films to take their minds off their Depression troubles.

Capra was still working under Harry Cohn at Columbia, turning out critical and commercial successes without the benefit of the huge budgets and roster of stars his competition enjoyed over at Paramount and MGM.  In You Can’t Take It With You, Capra managed this by pulling sparkling performances by both young and up-and-coming actors and old favorites.

You Can’t Take It With You started out as a 1936 play by George Kaufmann and Moss Hart.  Capra and writer Robert Riskin expanded the play for the screen.

The film’s initial setup is simple enough—ruthless, greedy banker Anthony Kirby is planning to buy up all the real estate around a competitor’s factory to prevent expansion and put his competition out of business.  It’s an underhanded plan, but it is spoiled by the one eccentric old man who refuses to sell his family home.

Lionel Barrymore plays Grandpa Vanderhof, the lone holdout and benevolent patriarch of the eccentric Vanderhof family, a group of misfits that eschew convention in favor of spending their days—and thus their lives—doing exactly as they choose.  This includes daughter Penny Sycamore writing bad plays all day just because someone once left a typewriter at their house, her husband setting off fireworks in the basement, and granddaughter Essie dancing ballet in the living room, despite her teacher’s continued assertions that, “Confidentially, she stinks!”

Kirby’s dilemma is simple, and unsolvable:  He is a man who throws money at every problem, and the Vanderhofs can’t be bought.

Grandpa Vanderhof refuses to sell for the simple reason that he doesn’t want to leave the home filled with happy memories, and his refusal to sell protects the rest of the neighborhood from being evicted from their homes.

This clash of ideas about what makes a good life—Kirby has more money than he could ever spend but lacks fulfilling relationships with his wife and son, and treats his employees like dirt, while Grandpa Vanderhof lacks wealth and status but has the love and respect of family and friends—is the heart of the film.

Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof

Capra thickens the plot, of course.  The life philosophies of two old men might be interesting, but a Hollywood film needs youth, beauty, and romance.

In his first starring role James Stewart plays Anthony’s son Tony, the reluctant vice president and heir apparent in his father’s company.  Jean Arthur, also in an early starring role, plays Grandpa Vanderhof’s loving and slightly less crazy granddaughter Alice, who is a stenographer at the Kirby’s bank.

Unbeknownst to both old men, Tony and Alice are in love. 

And we’re off.

There is an inevitable clash of cultures when the Kirbys and Vanderhofs meet, a plot twist where Grandpa Vanderhof nearly loses the house but is saved by the senior Kirby’s dawning realization that Grandpa Vanderhof is the richer man, surrounded by people who love and respect him.  And of course, Tony temporarily loses Alice.

Don’t worry, he gets her back again.

It’s amazing to me that this film was nominated for seven Oscars and won Best Picture and Best Director.  Not because I think it’s undeserving—it certainly is (and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Barrymore wouldn’t have been out of line)—but a picture like this wouldn’t even have been considered for a nomination today.  It’s a comedy with a message so pure and positive it borders on corny.

Its complete lack of cynicism would invalidate its legitimacy in the minds of today’s Oscar voters.  As a critique, it says more about the trend of the Oscars than it does about Capra’s film.

You Can’t Take It With You also serves as a changing of the guard in terms of Hollywood’s leading men.  Though he would act for fifteen more years, at sixty Lionel Barrymore’s best years and films are behind him.  He’s on crutches throughout the film, and this is explained by an accident, but the truth is in real life he was plagued by painful arthritis that would increasingly trouble him the rest of his life.

Barrymore is the heart of the film, and he gets all the best lines.  Yet he’s clearly passing the torch—however reluctantly—to James Stewart.  

Only three years into his nearly sixty year career, James Stewart is already oozing charisma and speaking in his inimitable stutter-step accent.  His wide-eyed Tony is head over heels in love with Alice and her crazy family.  Alice knows it is a bad idea to fall in love with someone whose family will never accept her, but really, what woman could resist Jimmy Stewart when he turns up the charm?

You Can’t Take It With You isn’t a perfect film.  It’s a little too long, and sometimes the antics of the Vanderhof family become irritating.

But honestly, let’s not quibble.  This is a movie made to distract you from your troubles.  You munch on popcorn while watching young people fall in love and old people coming around to the idea that love triumphs over money, and that the American Dream is alive and well.

What could be better than that?

Verdict for You Can't Take It With You (1938):  Film Buffs Only

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James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)

The Walls of Jericho

#19 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in pajamas on opposite sides of the blanket Wall of Jericho in It Happened On Night (1934)
It Happened One Night (1934) Opening Banner

In his unparalleled thirty-year career, Clark Gable starred in 66 films.

Though nominated three times, he won only one Best Actor Oscar.

Can you guess the film?

If you’re like most people, you are certain he won the Oscar for his legendary performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.

You’re wrong.

The King of Hollywood won his lone Oscar for a little film called It Happened One Night.

One of the first screwballs ever made, this little gem shows that the cream does indeed rise to the top.

Columbia started out as a B-movie studio on what was then un-affectionately called poverty row.  Unlike the Big Five, Columbia didn’t own any theaters, and they couldn’t afford to keep big stars on the payroll.  

Upstart director Frank Capra (who would eventually go on to make It’s A Wonderful Life) convinced the notoriously cheap,crude, and hard-nosed studio head Harry Cohn to get some A-list stars on loan to make a funny little escapist road trip that Capra was sure would cheer up Depression audiences.

It’s a simple setup—Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a spoiled rich heiress who runs off (again) when her father wants to annul her marriage to a gold digger.  To elude her father’s detectives, she hops on a bus and finds herself sitting next to Gable’s Peter Warne, a newspaper reporter who recognizes her and smells a great story.

He agrees to help her find her husband in exchange for an exclusive.  With no money and no street smarts, Ellie has no choice but to reluctantly agree. 

At one point, they are forced to spend the night in a one-room cabin, and Peter puts a blanket over a clothesline and pronounces it the Wall of Jericho to protect his—not her—modestly.  When Ellie at first refuses to cooperate, Peter begins slowly undressing until she is forced to retreat to her side of the wall.  He’s teasing her, but there’s no malice.  We know that while Peter would like to get to know Ellie in a more biblical manner, he’s a gentleman and no threat to her reputation.

From his side of the wall, Peter watches Ellie’s shadow as she undresses, and though the scene exists to circumvent production code rules, it’s a sexier moment than if they’d torn each other’s clothes off.

Capra and the code leave something to the imagination, to great effect.

Peter and Ellie learn to appreciate one another—Peter teaches Ellie how to properly dunk a donut, and she shows him a thing or two about successfully hitching a ride.

And when her father’s detectives show up, Peter and Ellie work together seamlessly as a team to throw them off the trail.  When they laugh at their success, both Ellie and the audience have forgotten all about her soon-to-be annulled marriage.

As their madcap adventure progresses, their initial disdain slowly melts into love.

We’ve seen this plot a hundred—no, a thousand times before.

But the audiences of 1934 had never seen anything like it, and romantic comedies writers have been ripping off It Happened One Night ever since.

Clark Gable didn’t want to make the film.  He was used to the posh comforts of MGM, and he was angry at Louis B. Mayer for loaning him out to Columbia.  His co-star Claudette Colbert also wasn’t much interested in the film.  She’d been planning a vacation and was forced to cut it short when Columbia met her asking price.

And to be honest, Harry Cohn himself didn’t expect much from the film.  It had no big advertising campaign, no thought of Academy Award nominations.

No one involved, it seemed, understood what a special movie they were making.

No one but the audience.

They loved it.  Its success came from word of mouth, and the good word spread like wildfire.  People saw it, then brought their friends and saw it again.  Its initial run went on and on, far longer than anyone could’ve predicted.

And when Oscar time rolled around, this little film that no one thought was anything special became the first film to win all five major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.)  In all of Oscar’s history, only two other films have completed that particular quinfecta.  The other two are from the modern era:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

It charmed audiences and critics, and if you give it a chance, it’ll charm you too.

Gable is in the type of role he was born to play—a charming rascal with a well-concealed heart of gold.  Colbert is perfect as the spoiled heiress with a lot more going on beneath the hood.  Their chemistry crackles as they practically burn up the screen with their bickering.

When I covered Possessed, I said it would be the first on a list of six essential films to understand why people still love old Hollywood films.

The second film on that list is It Happened One Night.

It’s the most charming screwball, a movie full of heart and laughs, and a great scene with Colbert and Gable in matching pajamas.

You can stream it for three bucks on Amazon.

Rent it tonight, and see for yourself what happens when the Walls of Jericho come tumbling down.

And learn how to properly dunk your donuts.

It Happened On Night (1934) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in pajamas on opposite sides of the blanket Wall of Jericho in It Happened On Night (1934)