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USA 1941
Directed by
Frank Capra
123 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Meet John Doe

Following in the footsteps of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Frank Capra once again mythologises the power and goodness of the common man in his first independent film production (in partnership with writer Robert Riskin), based on the Richard Connell 1922 Century Magazine story, A Reputation.

Gary Cooper, who had been Mr Deeds, plays the simple-hearted guy (this time he's a baseball player with a crook arm) who we know will prevail against evil moneybags and get the girl (Barbara Stanwyck) the go-getting reporter who creates the fictional John Doe that Cooper's character has to embody. Walter Brennan, as ever the trusty sidekick, provides some entertaining moments in what would otherwise be a very sentimental affair.

Capra is often praised (and derided) for the populist values of his films but beyond their easy idealism they bear little scrutiny in general and this film even less so. In the first respect the idea that "the little people" can make a difference to the tide of progress is a purely cinematic fiction perpetuated by gee-schucks naifs and silver-haired little old ladies and has no kind of structural reality. In this instance the John Doe Clubs, the grass-roots movement of ordinary folk is bank-rolled by the wicked media baron D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold). This is eventually exposed by his managing editor (James Gleason) who we initially saw sacking long-term employees but who has been turned around by his emotional belief in American values (Norton's group is a notional portrait of the pro-Fascist forces present in America at the time notably in the form of the Bund movement). Whilst this change of heart may be accepted, Capra's finale, complete with a hysterical avowal of love by Stanwyck for her John Doe whom she now sees as a Christ-like figure, offers no more than a well-meaning sentiment, a sentiment that perhaps audiences found credible at the time but today will be generally regarded as having the chance of a snowflake in Hell.

FYI: The original theatrical release had a run time of 132 mins although most prints and the video release are based on 123 minute re-release.




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