Barbara Stanwyck fights for the common man in her mink stole. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Warning: Spoilers

When society is in an Uproar and upsetting Apple Carts, questions naturally arise, such as: Who will end up In Charge?

This sort of societal shakedown can begin as a movement of the people, but as it gains popularity, politicians tend to jump aboard to advance their careers, because they’ve always held these beliefs, always, and how dare you suggest otherwise.

These attempts to Control The Narrative can be laughable, except when they’re not.

For example, look at the 1941 comedy-drama, Meet John Doe, a film that reminds us to Follow The Money when it comes to suspiciously well-organized, fast-growing populist movements.

When a newspaper columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) is laid off by the new owner of her newspaper, she writes one final column as a Get Stuffed to the new management. This column is about a fictional man, John Doe, who is so disillusioned by society he plans to End It All by jumping off the top of a building on Christmas Eve.

Although the owners of a rival newspaper determine the story is bogus, this article stirs the nation. John Doe Clubs spring up across the U.S., each one dedicated to making a Better World.

Naturally, the public wants to meet the original John Doe, which forces the paper to rehire Stanwyck and conduct an audition/recruitment drive for this fictitious character.

Happily, a homeless man in the form of Gary Cooper applies for the job and, thanks to Stanwyck’s publicity smarts, he skyrockets to fame.

Stanwyck gets the boot. Image: IMDb

The John Doe organization has true humanitarian goals. Folks dedicate themselves to helping others to create a better society for all, and it has a lot of members.

This groundswell is not lost on Edward Arnold, the new owner of Stanwyck’s paper, and he organizes a cross-country speaking tour. Hotels, transportation, advertising – put it all on the expense forms, boys! Nothing costs too much!

It’s not often you meet a rich and powerful individual who is also generous and altruistic, and Arnold is not one of them. He couldn’t care less about the goals of the John Doe Clubs; what he sees are potential votes – enough votes, in fact, to propel him to the White House.

This is how a cause is politicized, how it is hijacked from ordinary people and used by power-hungry individuals to seize control.

Stanwyck and Cooper as political rubes. Image: Coop Appreciation

Although this film should be Cooper’s – he plays the titular character, after all – Meet John Doe wouldn’t be half the film it is without Stanwyck.

This is our opinion: Barbara Stanwyck is the type of actor who brings out the best in her fellow cast members.

Watch Gary Cooper in this film. His performance is touchingly nuanced in a way you don’t see in all his roles, and his scenes with Stanwyck are pitch-perfect. According to IMDb, Cooper agreed to do this film even before reading the script, partly because he wanted to work with Stanwyck.

Surprisingly, Stanwyck wasn’t director Frank Capra’s first choice. He wanted Ann Sheridan, but she was unavailable due to contract reasons. Olivia de Havilland was also offered the role, but she turned it down.

While both women would have been terrific here, hiring Stanwyck worked out for the Best.

She dominates this film with her charisma. Watch as she packs her suitcase while a nervous and awkward Cooper tries to tell her he’s in love with her. Cooper’s the one with all the lines, but Capra wisely keeps the camera focused on Stanwyck, because all we want to see is her reaction.

But watch as she negotiates with Arnold, her new boss. She’s savvy and determined, but not ruthless, which means she’s punching above her weight.

Meet John Doe feels particularly relevant in a time of civil and political upheaval. It’s a little long, and a wee bit preachy, but any film with Barbara Stanwyck is always worth it.

Notes

  • Meet John Doe was nominated for the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story.
  • Four different, unsatisfactory endings were shot for preview audiences. However, rumour has it Capra decided on a fifth ending, inspired by a letter from an audience member.
  • This post is part of the The QUEEN OF SASS BARBARA STANWYCK Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer.

Meet John Doe: starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold. Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Robert Riskin. Frank Capra Productions Inc., 1941, B&W, 122 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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