Breaking News Blogathon: MEET JOHN DOE (1941)

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.

Thanks to Jessica and Lindsay, and be sure to check out all the other great entries over at Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings!

Lara G. Fowler

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17 responses to “Breaking News Blogathon: MEET JOHN DOE (1941)

  1. This certainly is the creme de la creme on the topic! Very compelling review of a classic film that still has a lot to say.

  2. A wonderful film that, as you say, is difficult to classify as comedy or drama, but always hits the mark in both areas. Great post.

  3. The ideas and questions posed by “Meet John Doe” always draw me into its world, which is of course, our world. Your excellent article did the same.

    I believe that the rain-soaked routing of the John Doe Rally is one of Capra’s best scenes in a career full of best scenes.

  4. I’va always loved this film – and you’re right, it can’t simply be classified as a comedy. There’s a bit too much drama and suspense in it for me to consider it a funny romcom lol

  5. I never tire of watching this multi-genre classic. Thanks for the great write-up!

  6. Excellent idea for comparison of Meet John Doe and Network, completely different takes (different eras, different directors) on the same theme — exploiting the agony of a fellow human being for ratings. Both movies are brilliant, both hard to watch. One has an ending we can feel good about, and one leaves us hurting. That’s old and new Hollywood for you. Great article.

  7. Lara, This is a most insightful piece. That you go beyond an (excellent) assessment of Meet John Doe, linking it – with a potent message – to that blistering ’70s classic, Network, as well as the nature and power of today’s biased news networks is brilliant.

  8. Thank you Patricia, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks so much for your kind words 🙂

  9. Thanks Becky, yes, these are things we have to remember nowadays. Movies have the power to remind us.

  10. I agree with you that it is the creme de la creme on the topic. “Nothing Sacred” is also fantastic, and does a great job in setting the precedent for this. I think Meet John Doe uses “Nothing Sacred” as a bit of a stepping stone–seeing their ante and upping it.

  11. Thank you, yes, the parts that are funny are very funny (I love the bits with Walter Brennan) and the parts that are dramatic are achingly so. Hard for me to buy this as a true comedy.

  12. Oh yes, incredible! And Capra really did make an entire career out of scenes. That’s so insightful.

  13. It’s been waaay too long since I’ve seen this movie, and your excellent review has made me want to see it again.

    I liked your point about how much everyone depended upon newspapers for their news during such a tumultuous time. So true!

  14. I really like this one. I had a roommate watch it, too, and he found it so intensely emotional he just couldn’t talk about it. Definitely a great meeting of talents.

  15. I wrote about this film for a Barbara Stanwyck blogathon (http://lipranzer.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/barbara-stanwyck-blogathon-meet-john-doe/), and it was great to read a different take on it. You’re right in how it combines comedy, drama and suspense so well. Nice write-up.

  16. I’m so happy you have trouble classifying this movie too! This is certainly my favourite journalist film, your wonderful review has convinced me I need to re-watch it very soon!

  17. The newspaper atmosphere in this film is particularly convincing, I’d say. Your comparison with ‘Network’ has me intrigued – I haven’t seen that one yet, but need to do so. Enjoyed your piece.

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