I have been reading a book about the production of It’s a Wonderful Life, and naturally thinking about that film a lot. Frank Capra often said in interviews that that his experiences serving in World War II lead him to make a much darker film than his earlier works, a change that was mirrored in his star James Stewart. Reading this book made me want to go back and see some of Capra’s more idealistic pre-War films. I know It Happened One Night very well, but had never actually seen Meet John Doe, and was surprised to find that it contains some of the same dark elements as the later film.
The story of Meet John Doe is well known and involves a newspaper writer (Barbara Stanwyck) penning a fake letter from a disparaged man in order to save her own job, then mastermind a plot to hire a hobo (Gary Cooper) and have him pose as John Doe, which causes a public sensation. The two soon realize that “this whole thing is bigger than the both of us” and try to use his popularity to actually do some good. Many elements of the story are similar to Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with a little man fighting against a big, faceless machine. But will Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff Smith was fighting against a room of politicians, Gary Cooper’s John Willoughby is fighting against the trends in society that has left guys like him downtrodden. For this reason, this is perhaps the film that best represents Capra’s social philosophy.
Before seeing this, I had mainly known Barbara Stanwyck from Double Indemnity in which she fully inhabits a very unlikable character, and I was never much of a fan. He performance here as a quick-thinking, bright and talented woman with a sense of conviction made me realize what a versatile performer she is, and I have to make a point of seeing more of her films soon.