By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
My good friends Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay of Lindsay’s Movie Musings have collaborated on a blogathon focusing on journalism in film–a topic that yielded some of the most intricate films to come out of Hollywood. From the epic Citizen Kane to the quirky and comedic Nothing Sacred, journalism is often portrayed in Hollywood as a bitter and cynical profession, and journalists as merciless in their pursuit of a story. Interestingly, several significant films involving journalism were released between the years of 1940 and 1941, including His Girl Friday (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), and Meet John Doe (1941).
These were the war years–Hitler’s troops invaded Poland in 1939 and war was in full throttle in Europe by 1940. No one yet knew when or if America was going to get involved. In this era of insecurity, Americans and others worldwide relied heavily on newspapers to keep them informed of constantly changing events. As movies sway with the tides of public consciousness, an influx in journalism-based movies seems to be a logical expectation for the years 1940 and 1941. The general distaste for the morality of the profession was magnified, no doubt, by the negative external forces at play in the world during that time that journalists had to report. Though the genres of these films range from screwball comedy (His Girl Friday) to epic drama (Citizen Kane), the portrayal of journalists as scavengers remains constant through all of them.
Meet John Doe goes one step further. Barbara Stanwyck plays a journalist who, as an act of vengeance upon being fired from her job, pens a letter from a fictional “John Doe” and submits it as her final column. The letter says that John Doe will commit suicide on Christmas Eve by jumping off the roof of City Hall as a protest against the state of civilization. It is published in the paper and it causes an uproar, with some thinking the letter is fake and others disturbed about John Doe’s distress. The newspaper editor calls her in for the letter, but she calmly tells him that there is no letter, she made it up. She outlines a plan to use the public’s outrage to the newspaper’s advantage, and create a “real” John Doe to sell more papers. Out of dozens of men who come to the newspaper office to say that they wrote the John Doe letter, they choose to use John Willoughby, an injured former baseball player who had just come to look for a job. He is groomed into John Doe, and little by little the story of John Doe is created. He is the downtrodden everyman with whom everyone identifies, and he attracts millions of listeners on the radio as well as creating a boom in newspaper sales. The lies grow, until John Willoughby and John Doe become one and the same in the eyes of those who created him.
Though it is officially listed as a comedy, the truth of the matter is that it this movie is virtually unclassifiable. There are moments of humor, moments of intense drama, and all through the movie John Doe’s phoniness is palpable and uncomfortable. This is the genius of Frank Capra, the director of the movie and Hollywood visionary extraordinaire. In the early 1930s, it was Capra who saw potential in young Barbara Stanwyck, casting her in his film Ladies of Leisure (1930) and helping build her image. Meet John Doe was the last of their 5 movies together, and Capra instinctively understood how to make the best of Stanwyck physically, emotionally, and through outside influences like lighting and camera angles. All of these things helped secure her character as a cunning and cutting journalist who pulled off the dupe of the century to get her job back. It works magnificently.
Meet John Doe is prescient in many ways–cinematically and socially. In 1976 Network, which focused on a ploy to keep television ratings alive by using a crazy man’s rantings to get people to tune in, was created with a very similar plot outline.
Though the filmmaking practices were markedly different due to different filmmaking standards (the fall of the production code allowed Network to be raw and gritty, while Capra’s signature smooth and soft camerawork gives Meet John Doe a gentle quality), the similarities are evident and both are reminders of the power of journalism to influence and brainwash. Today, in the era of biased 24-hour news networks, we would do well to remember Meet John Doe to remind ourselves of what journalism can make us believe and how easily we can be persuaded.
Lara G. Fowler