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25 Days of Christmas: ‘Meet John Doe’ is familiar, but fun

Throughout the month of December, TV Editor Kate Kulzick and Film Editor Ricky D will review classic Christmas adaptions, posting a total of 13 each, one a day, until the 25th of December.

The catch: They will swap roles as Rick will take on reviews of classic television Christmas specials and Kate will take on Christmas movies. Today is day 8.

Meet John Doe (1941)

Screenplay by Robert Riskin
Story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, Sr.
Directed by Frank Capra

What’s it about?

A journalist, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) dreams up an article to save her job and winds up entangled with John Doe, her fictional creation, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), the man hired to play him, and the men who seek to exploit them all.

How is it?

Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life may have the holiday locked down, but this pleasing entry deserves a look as well. Starring the ever-likable Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, Meet John Doe centers on many themes close to Capra’s heart and may feel familiar to fans of his work, but as ever, his execution of these ideas is what sets the film apart.

Riskin sets aside plenty of time in the screenplay to the kind of getting-to-know-you scenes often missing from current films. He’s not afraid to pause the action to give the audience insight to the characters or to allow them to just be and trust the performers to make the scenes interesting. One such scene involves Willoughby and his buddy, The Colonel, the delightful Walter Brennan, playing some baseball, complete with imaginary ball, batters, and fielders. Touches like these are what gives the film its charm and makes the viewer happy to spend a few hours with these characters.

Riskin also doesn’t shy away from some of the more awkward and potentially troubling elements of the Stanwyck/Cooper relationship, primarily the fact that John Doe is in many ways based on Ann’s father. There’s some question as to who she’s in love with- Willoughby or her creation, Doe. In this vein, there’s a decidedly strange bit of dialogue mid-way through the film where Willoughby details a dream to Ann that is practically teeming with less-than-vanilla subtext.

The performances are universally strong, from the leads to Brennan, to the scheming D.B. Norton, Edward Arnold (whom some will recognize from his memorable turn in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and Stanwyck’s editor, Henry Connell, whose mid-film about-face is very believably portrayed by James Gleason. From top to bottom, this is a charismatic and fun cast, though admittedly several roles are far more types than characters.

The overall message of the film, the importance of neighborliness- particularly in hard times, resonated at the time and is still relevant today, though some may not be impressed by its straightforward, unsubtle presentation. Meet John Doe is a rather predictable film and anyone familiar with Stanwyck, Cooper, or Capra will know exactly what to expect. One’s enjoyment comes down to their expectations; fans of these kinds of films will probably enjoy themselves. Those less interested may well not.

There are two main problems with the film. Firstly, it’s a bit long and, more than anything, it has trouble at the end. Capra knew this too- he shot six different endings before settling on the one seen in the film. The ending Capra used works, but not as well as one may like and a few bits of dialogue are clunky and far less polished than the rest of the script. Despite these flaws, however, Meet John Doe is overall very entertaining and one that classic film, Capra, and Stanwyck and Cooper fans should seek out.

How Christmassy is it?

Though the entire film is based around John Doe’s proposed suicide on Christmas Eve night and despite Stanwyck’s impassioned film-ending speech relating the film’s themes to Christ and the meaning of Christmas, this connection feels tenuous at best. On the Christmas movie scale (1=Brazil, 5=A Christmas Story), this gets a 1.

You May Like It If…

You like other Stanwyck/Cooper or Capra films or just need a dose of Walter Brennan. (Really, who doesn’t?)

Final Thoughts

Meet John Doe is a straightforward addition to the Capra canon elevated by entertaining performances from its charismatic leads.

Kate Kulzick