Meet John Doe
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Director Frank Capra had dominated most of the 1930s with his popular American comedies, such as It Happened One Night (1934) and You Can't Take It With You (1938). The release of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) ended Capra's contract with Columbia Pictures and the tyrannical studio chief Harry Cohn. Afterwards, Capra formed an independent company in partnership with Robert Riskin, an old friend and screenwriter. Capra and Riskin were in need of a studio to set up shop until Jack Warner agreed to meet the new team's financial and artistic demands. Eventually, their first venture under the Warner Bros. umbrella would be Meet John Doe (1941). The film was meant as a warning against homegrown fascism, the cousin of the kind that was spreading across Europe in the form of Hitler's Third Reich. Even in America, Bund leaders were appearing, and pseudo-intellectual talk about "the wave of the future" had its fashionable proponents. With just such a hard-hitting story, Capra wanted to prove his considerable weight as a director of serious, message-laden films.
One of the reasons Capra attached the project to Warner was to have access to the studio's impressive roster of stars. But when Capra got the idea for Meet John Doe, he knew that he could only use Gary Cooper for the lead role or no one else. Other sources on Capra's career say that the master filmmaker was initially thinking of Ronald Colman for the role, which is curious since Colman doesn't strike anyone then or now as the quintessential "common man" that Meet John Doe called for. For the lead female part of cynical newspaper writer Ann Mitchell, Capra tested several top-notch actresses, including Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. His first choice was Sheridan, whose casting was announced in May 1940. After Sheridan was eventually vetoed by Warner Bros. because of a contract dispute, Capra finally hired Barbara Stanwyck, with whom he had not worked with since The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). Capra directed Stanwyck in five other pictures, starting with her star-making turn in Ladies of Leisure (1930). Stanwyck later said of working with Capra: "You make other pictures to live, but you live to make a Capra picture."
In addition to Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, other actors, such as Edward Arnold, James Gleason, Walter Brennan, and Spring Byington, echoed the same high esteem for Capra by enthusiastically agreeing to appear in Meet John Doe. Capra commented that this was the highest compliment anyone could give him, to agree to appear in his movie, even without seeing a finished script. But in fact, it is fortunate they thought so highly of Capra's merits, because no script for the motion picture Meet John Doe existed. Long before principal photography began, Meet John Doe had stirred up worldwide press speculation, primarily because Capra and Riskin wouldn't tell anybody what the film was going to be about. It was a secret because it was still a secret to Capra and Riskin. To admit this to Jack Warner might give him and Warner Bros. second thoughts about Capra and Riskin's independent venture. The production of Meet John Doe was also noteworthy in the press because the director and writer put a hefty sum of their own money on the line, besides the money that Warner Bros. was providing. Capra had to mortgage his home in order to partially finance Meet John Doe. This was a difficult and risky decision, since he was suffering from a severe cash shortage due to heavy taxes. (Capra paid the second highest income tax in Hollywood - $240,000 - second only to Louis B. Mayer.) But his money problems were only going to get worse if he and Riskin couldn't shape a screenplay around a brilliant story idea, one that would hopefully convince important critics that not every Capra film was syrupy Capra-corn that could have been, as Capra put it, "written by Pollyanna."
Because of this resolve for dealing in a different fashion with a sobering topic, he and Riskin eventually cornered themselves once it came time to write a satisfying and logical ending. Screenwriter and renowned script doctor Jules Furthman was brought in to assess the screenplay. Once Furthman looked at their story, he declared, "You guys can't find an ending to your story because you got no story in the first place." Furthman's diagnosis was not met with much relief, simply because it didn't solve the writers' dilemma over a conclusive ending. Eventually, several endings were considered, shot and edited into various rough-cuts of the film. Some sources say that Capra actually shot four different endings, with only two previewed to audiences. Other sources say that only two endings were actually shot, with two other alternate endings created in the editing room.
In one preview ending, the film ended with a comment by James Gleason commenting, "Well, boys, you can chalk up another one to the Pontius Pilates." Too bleak, said the test audience. Another ending had John Doe jumping to his death, with the film closing on Walter Brennan cradling Doe in his arms. Riskin argued for this ending, but Capra didn't take to it. Yet another possibility came to Capra in an anonymous letter sent to him from an early test viewer who thought that only the real John Does of the world could talk the symbolic Doe off the edge to suicide. By the time Capra realized this was the answer to the ending quandry, a print of the film was already in release in major cities. So Capra recalled all the existing prints and attached the fifth and final ending on a film that would become a favorite of the critical establishment at the time. In the end, Capra proved himself capable of much more than just Capra-corn audience pleasers.
Director: Frank Capra
Producer: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Richard Connell & Robert Presnell (story), Robert Riskin
Cinematography: George Barnes
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Gary Cooper (John Doe/ Long John Willoughby), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Mitchell), Edward Arnold (D.B. Norton), Walter Brennan (The Colonel), Spring Byington
BW-123m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee