Meet John Doe

Though a mostly dark and troubling movie, this film by Frank Capra has long been one of my favorites. I adore Barbara Stanwyck, who appears three times in our Christmas cinema catalog in indispensable films: Remember the Night (1939) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945) are the other two. Gary Cooper does a magnificent job as the shy, tongue-tied tramp who becomes a national hero and is exposed as a fake but then gains a confident voice. He stars in Good Sam (1948) also on the holiday watch list. There are many echoes of Capra’s other Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946,) in this masterful film, which layers a large group of fine character actors onto its meaningful story.


Fired from her newspaper job, Barbara Stanwyck writes one last column, a fake letter from an unemployed man named John Doe, who threatens to commit suicide by jumping from the top of city hall on Christmas Eve.  The fake letter causes a sensation, and Stanwyck convinces the corporate baron with political ambitions who now owns the paper to find someone to pretend to be the John Doe who wrote the letter.  Gary Cooper, an unemployed baseball player, agrees to the charade and soon becomes a national sensation reading speeches written by Stanwyck about the nation’s problems.  The John Doe Movement becomes a juggernaut, funded by the corporate baron (Edward Arnold), who plans to use it to be elected president.  Cooper threatens to reveal the manipulation, but before he can Arnold exposes him as the fraud.  Months later, the depressed and defeated Cooper aims to commit suicide, as the fake letter had promised, to resurrect the John Doe Movement.


Though much of the action takes place in a large city, it is clearly not New York, as at one point D.B. Norton says that holding the John Doe Convention in the city will “put it on the map.”


The closing portion of the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, as John Doe’s friends and enemies all try to stop him from committing suicide by jumping from the top of city hall at midnight. There is a large but lonely Christmas tree in D.B. Norton’s mansion, and a group of carolers outside, and a few Christmas decorations in the vacant lobby of city hall on Christmas Eve.


Irving Bacon, who plays Beany, was seen as Gus the cab driver in Holiday Inn. He appears in Bachelor Mother (1939) and in Good Sam (1948), also with Gary Cooper. Pat Flaherty, the Chronicle agent who tries to bribe Gary Cooper appeared in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) and The Thin Man.

Rod La Rocque, who played the Broadway producer in Beyond Tomorrow (1940), appears here as Ted Sheldon, the nephew of D.B. Norton.

Edward Arnold, who plays baron D.B. Norton, was a favorite player of malevolent roles for Frank Capra, appearing in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

Regis Toomey, who plays Bert, one of the John Doe Movement followers, had roles in numerous classic films, including The Big Sleep (1946) and His Girl Friday (1940). He also appeared in Come to the Stable (1949) and The Bishop’s Wife (1948).

J. Farrell MacDonald, who plays Sourpuss, is on our holiday watch list in Christmas Eve (1947), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as the owner of the tree hit by Jimmy Stewart.

Cyril Thornton, who plays D.B. Norton’s butler, shows up in The Thin Man (1934) as Tanner the accountant.

Gene Lockhart, who plays the mayor, plays Bob Cratchit in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol and also appears as the judge in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

James Gleason, who plays Henry, the new editor of the Bulletin, appears in The Bishop’s Wife (1948) as the cab driver, Sylvester. He also appeared in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). One of his best roles was as boxing manager Max Corkle in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Gleason had worked on Broadway after World War I as an actor, director, and playwright. With the coming of sound films, he moved to Hollywood, where he co-wrote the screenplay for the first film musical, The Broadway Melody (1929).

Walter Brennan, who plays the Colonel, won three Best Supporting Actor Oscars. Meet John Doe is one of four movies he did with Gary Cooper: Sergeant York (1941), The Pride of the Yankees, (1942) and The Westerner (1940).

Sterling Holloway, who plays Dan the cook in the diner who recognizes John Doe, appears in Remember the Night (1940), also with Barbara Stanwyck. His distinctive voice made him a favorite cartoon voice artist, including roles as the Cheshire Cat in Alice and Wonderland (1951) and Winnie the Pooh.

Warren Hymer, who plays Angelface, appeared with Gary Cooper as Kid Mulligan in the Lubitsch comedy Blackbeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and as a bodyguard in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

Charles Wilson, who has a small part as Dawson, appeared as the newspaper editor in Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Edward McWade, who plays Joe the newspaper layout technician early in the film, appears in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and as a stage doorman in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

Harry Holman, who plays the mayor of Millville, is the high school principal in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). For Capra, he also played the auto camp manager in It Happened One Night (1934).

Ann Doran, who plays Regis Toomey’s wife, appeared in several Capra films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).  She had a small role in His Girl Friday (1940), but her most notable role was as James Dean’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).


Walter Brennan appeared with Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). Gene Lockhart appeared with Astaire at the Actors Dinner Club Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria on December 31, 1932.

Edward McWade appeared with Astaire as the army induction doctor in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941)

James Gleason was a fellow member of The Lambs Club and appeared with Astaire in the club’s 1925 Spring Gambol at the Metropolitan Opera House.


Each time I watch this film there are three scenes that absolutely blow me away. First is James Gleason’s drunken scene with Gary Cooper that starts the film’s final sequence. Gleason mixes the comic business of repeatedly trying to light a broken cigarette while he explains to Cooper the John Doe conspiracy and his love for American democracy. It is one of three long, serious monologues at the end of the film, but Capra’s layering it with small comic touches is one of his techniques that make me admire his filmmaking so much. The crowd scene at the rainy stadium where we see how Cooper is betrayed by those who were trying to use him and shunned by his former supporters and friends is both painful to watch but an admirable piece of filmmaking. Capra, who is a master of intimate scenes, shows himself capable of creating powerful crowd segments as well. The rain-soaked mass of humanity reminds me of the downpour in the run-on-the-bank scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s another weather echo with It’s a Wonderful Life in Meet John Doe’s closing scene atop the snowy city hall, connecting with the snowy bridge suicide attempt in It’s a Wonderful Life. The quiet, resigned but confident voice of Gary Cooper, the anguished cries of Barbara Stanwyck, and the pleading apologies of Ann Doran and Regis Toomey make this one of the most powerful closings of any film on our Christmas cinema watch list. And I always love the cocky confidence of James Gleason’s prophetic last line: “There you are Norton … the people. Try and lick that!”