Meet John Doe (1941)

Genres - Comedy Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Americana, Media Satire  |   Release Date - Mar 12, 1941 (USA)  |   Run Time - 132 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

Meet John Doe is the Frank Capra movie that spoke most directly to the mood of the United States at the time that it was made. It's a fundamentally pessimistic film, without a positive resolution, and also an astonishingly mature movie -- virtually groundbreaking as a "message" movie aimed at a mainstream audience. Appearing in 1940, it closed out a decade that had been dominated by despair, disillusionment, dislocation (economic and personal), and desperation, a period characterized by a reliance on often inept government officials or duplicitous would-be leaders. All of these elements are present in Meet John Doe from its opening scene (a mass layoff at a newspaper), and they get addressed over and over again as the plot unfolds. The movie also had the courage to put some very attractive stars -- Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck -- in some very unattractive roles, as two people putting over a huge fraud on a public that trusts them. It wasn't considered a very successful film in its own time, being a little too dark and mature amid the ominous reality of the European war being waged at the time, but it is probably the best of Capra's "message" pictures and his best slice-of-life drama other than It Happened One Night. One scene, in which Cooper's Long John Willoughby tries to address the crowd and is cut off, was mimicked (some would say perverted) in real life during the 1980 presidential campaign, when Ronald Reagan defiantly resisted being cut off during the New Hampshire debates. It was life imitating art, and Reagan played it even better than Cooper did in the movie.