Meet John Doe
Sep 30, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I’ve watched and re-watched many of my favorite classic films during this Summer. I’ve also scoured the Netflix & Amazon Prime archives and felt like I was running out of options. That all changed when a dear friend loaned me some of her favorite movies and this is when I met John Doe. I’ve always enjoyed Frank Capra’s work, but this 1941 masterpiece was unknown to me. Even though Meet John Doe debuted nearly 80 years ago, its message is eerily timeless. The subject matter of the film is sobering and is nothing new (sadly). The plot focuses on the dangers of power-hungry people manipulating the masses for their own selfish political gain. While we’ve seen this story play out both in fiction and reality, Capra manages to create something new with this movie. It’s not just a story of the average person finding their voice or a David versus Goliath tale, it’s a poignant reminder that love is an action word. Funny how some of the most simple truths can seem so revolutionary.
I was captivated for the entire two hours of the film and, as the credits rolled, I sat in the quiet of the evening. I adore movies that make you think, that offer you hope, and that inspire you to rise above difficult circumstances. I can see why the American Film Institute has recognized this film not once, but twice. As with many classics, the story behind the story is just as compelling as the final product. This movie was the first collaboration between Capra and the Warner Brothers studio. A lot was on the line: Capra took out a mortgage on his house to secure financing, the leading lady was recast at the last moment, and the biggest challenge was that the script was in-flight the entire time the camera was rolling!
The movie’s concept came from a 1922 story published in Century Magazine. “A Reputation” was written by Richard Connell, one of America’s most prolific short story writers. (If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of his 1924 piece “The Most Dangerous Game.”) I was able to find an online scan of the original magazine article and I can see how it inspired this big-screen adaptation. Robert Riskin, long-time Capra collaborator, was called in to help develop the script. Even though their professional relationship was fruitful, the strains of success were starting to show. Meet John Doe would be the last act in their partnership. In spite of (or perhaps because of) this tension, the screenplay was nominated for Best Original Story by the Academy.
It seems the fate of a movie’s protagonist can either ruin or make the film. What would It’s a Wonderful Life have been if George Bailey chose not to listen to Clarence’s guidance? Would it still be a cherished holiday tradition? Probably not. The stakes are always high for movie endings and John Doe’s destiny was no different. The script for Meet John Doe was ambitious as it combined elements of humor and romance against a backdrop of a serious message. And, given the timing of this film’s release, the message couldn’t have been more serious. The second World War was in full-swing, regimes were popping up across Europe and freedom was threatened in every corner of the world. Movie-going audiences needed a message of hope, but they were also smart and hardened by the realities of everyday life in the 1940s. The weight of this responsibility must have loomed large.
A specialist (known as a “script doctor”) was called in to address the situation. Jules Furthman was Hollywood’s worst kept secret and a frequent consultant for Howard Hawks who once said “if there are five ways to play a scene, he (Furthman) will write a sixth way.” If anyone could help the team create a rewarding conclusion it was Furthman. I can only imagine the fevered anticipation as he arrived on set. Since his list of screenplays reads like an encyclopedia, I picture his working style as a triage ward (cool and efficient). Given that the script for the film was in perpetual flux, his reaction isn’t surprising: “you guys can’t find an ending to your story because you got no story in the first place.”
Capra and Riskin wrestled with the film’s ending for weeks (maybe even months as some of the versions ended up in the editing room and with test audiences). Capra and Riskin argued over each iteration, trying to make sense of how to send John Doe off into the proverbial sunset. Isn’t this art imitating life? We all struggle with how to wrap up certain chapters of our lives and have trouble saying goodbye to our heroes. I find it poetic that the ending was actually conceived by a test viewer – the common man – John Doe in the flesh. Warner Brothers had already released the film with a different finale by the time the anonymous letter arrived in Capra’s mailbox. Cast and crew quickly mobilized, shot the now-famous ending and recalled the earlier publication.
In many ways, Meet John Doe is a tale as old as time. The history of this world is destined to include times of triumph and times of tyranny. But John Doe shows us that simple acts of kindness can transform an entire society. Gather your popcorn, your friends, and your tissues and get ready for a two hour master class in neighborliness!