Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941), is the story of down and out baseball player Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), who having never quite made it to the major league, has taken up the carefree life of a hobo, riding across the country in boxcar trains with his trusted sidekick, the ever critical and self-reliant Colonel (Walter Brennan). Set at the end of the Great Depression, and on the verge of the American entry into World War II, Willoughby and the Colonel show up at the Bulletin newspaper, looking for any jobs going round. They arrive just in time, for Willoughby with his honest all American face, to be cast as the suicidal John Doe protester, unhappy with the current ills of society. This is a part conceived of by the scheming reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who, in a desperate bid to keep her job, devises the media stunt in order to boost the paper’s circulation and impress her new boss, Wall Street industrialist D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold). What follows is a tale about a somewhat flawed individual, Long John Willoughby a.k.a. John Doe, who at first reluctantly, then assuredly, finds a populist voice that can take on the businessman-cum-totalitarian figure of D.B Norton. In order to fully grasp Capra’s underlying intention with Meet John Doe, it is necessary to understand how Capra deploys differing notions of individualism, as well as the type of individualism, which he is ultimately asking his audience of 1941 to accept, in light of America’s imminent participation in WWII.

According to K.L. Dooley, notions of freedom, equality and individualism, as understood through the lens of the nineteenth century French Political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings on the American colonies, is best understood as a blending of “North” and “South” beliefs and values.1 In the Northern Puritan view, conceptions of freedom, equality and individualism, formed a type of “community-tempered individualism”2 accountable to God, wherein hard work and equality form the backbone of a community of like-minded individuals, with the end goal being the community’s overall well-being.3 On other hand, the Southern variation was characterized as a type of “unrestrained individualism”.4 At its worst, this type of individualism amounted to the pursuit of self-interests and competition, over the benefits of a community as a whole. At its best, the Southern landed moneyed class was also capable of pursuing honor, knowledge, and truth, that went beyond self-interest, in keeping with the expectations and privileges of the noble class. Moreover both these ways of conceiving individualism would eventually go into the melting pot of beliefs and values that would ultimately shape American Democracy.5

In Meet John Doe, Capra taps into a ubiquitous notion of individualism, evident in the train car-hopping figure of the Colonel, who is critical of society’s rules and conventions, especially when the accumulation of money is concerned. Capra also promotes the idea of a “community-tempered individualism” through Ann’s invented figure John Doe, and the populist view of loving thy neighbour adopted by the John Doe Club. There is also the example of an unrestrained or uncontrolled individualism in the figure of D.B., whose agenda is the accumulation of great wealth and power. These three types of individualism are often set in competition, through a dynamic interplay of elements within the film’s mise-en-scène. For example, after Willoughby delivers the John Doe speech over national radio, he has a change of conscience and makes a run for it with the Colonel, but the two men are spotted in a small town before they can get away. It’s at this point that Willoughby’s growing attachment to the John Doe club, collides with Ann’s new allegiance to D.B.’s “unrestrained individualism.” In a medium close-up shot, Willoughby stands up as Ann arrives on the scene, and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln becomes visible just over Willoughby’s shoulder. It is of importance to note that Ann no longer sports the simple work attire that she initially wore when she first met Willoughby, but now wears an expensive looking suit adorned with a fur piece and hat. She presents a glamorous figure commanding as much attention as D.B, who she now associates with.

As the scene continues, Willoughby’s discomfort with the new Ann grows, and he makes a move to leave with the Colonel. As a result, the Lincoln portrait becomes obscured, implying Willoughby and the Colonel’s desire to return to their previous carefree lives. However, before this can happen, Bert Hansen and the town’s John Doe club, approach Willoughby and the Colonel in humble awe, and begin to relay how they have mobilized the principle of love they neighbor. The scene cuts back and forth between Hansen and Willoughby, as Hansen relates the story of grumpy old Sourpuss who it turns out is just hard of hearing. The Colonel, standing next to Willoughby left of screen, becomes visibly irritated and takes a seat. In doing so, the Lincoln portrait is revealed again, just over Willoughby’s shoulder, tipping the balance in favour of the growing connection between Willoughby and the “community-tempered individualism” that the John Doe Clubs represent.

Meet John Doe was the last of a trilogy of films made under Capra’s independent film production company Liberty Films, and it sank it with its poor reception and low box office returns. The film was released in the spring of 1941, three months into the American entry into World War II. Perhaps Capra’s favouring of “community-tempered individualism” was left behind with the Depression, in light of a new enemy on the horizon, which would require not only the coming together of individuals as communities, but also the rich industrialists to drive the economy forward with the production of the machines of war. It is not hard to imagine that this new society would also require the allegiance of critically minded individuals such as the Colonel, in order to freely challenge society’s evolving beliefs and values.

 

Meet John Doe (1941 USA 123 mins)

Prod. Co: Frank Capra Productions Liberty Films Prod: Frank Capra and Robert Riskin Dir: Frank Capra Scr: Robert Riskin Phot: George Barnes Ed: Daniel Mandell Music: Dimitri Tiomkin Prod. Des: Stephen Goosson Snd: C.A. Riggs

Cast: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Brennan, Edward Arnold, James Gleason.

 

Endnotes

  1. K.L. Dooley “ De Tocqueville’s Allegorical Journey: Equality, Individualism and the Spread of American Values” The Journal of American Culture (37.2 June 2014): pp. 172-181.
  2. Ibid., p. 178
  3. Ibid., pp. 160-178.
  4. Ibid., p. 180.
  5. Ibid., pp. 178-180.

About The Author

Sandra Lim currently lectures part-time on Politics and Film at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She recently completed a PhD in Art and Design for film, from the University of Brighton in the UK. Her writing on film and art can be found in the journals JMP Screenworks and Reconstruction.