The scene is a black tie dinner party, where crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling and flames flicker from a great stone fireplace. In walks Long John Willoughby, a failed baseball player employed by the man seated at the head of the table, newspaper publisher D.B. Norton. John is supposed to be at a political convention, endorsing Norton for president in a rousing speech, but instead, he’s arrived to deliver a different message.
“You sit there back with your big cigars and think of deliberately killing an idea that’s made millions of people a little bit happier,” he snarls at the men in tuxedos. “[This] may be the one thing capable of saving this cockeyed world, yet you sit back there on your fat hulks and tell me you’ll kill it if you can’t use it. Well you go ahead and try! You couldn’t do it in a million years with all your radio stations and all your power, because it’s bigger than whether I’m a fake, it’s bigger than your ambitions and it’s bigger than all the bracelets and fur coats in the world. And that’s exactly what I’m going down there to tell those people.”
John’s words are supposed to be a repudiation of greed and cynicism. It’s the first honest speech he delivers in the 1941 drama Meet John Doe, and the only one he writes himself. It’s also the kind of dialogue viewers had come to expect from the film’s director, Frank Capra, who specialized in stirring everyman movies, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
But this is not Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the next scene, John is nearly killed by a furious mob. He survives, only to make plans to jump off a building. While it has many of the hallmarks of a classic Capra film, Meet John Doe is a surprisingly pessimistic movie, one that paints the media as a tool of manipulation, the rich as craven plutocrats, and the American citizen as a dangerous idiot, easily duped by a good story.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Capra made massively popular movies that swept both the Oscars and the box office. He had a style that his critics called “Capracorn,” hopeful, idealistic, and maybe a little schmaltzy. This tone is on full display in what the Americanist Glenn Alan Phelps calls Capra’s four “populist” movies: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Meet John Doe. In each of these stories, Phelps writes, “a simple, unassuming young man from small-town America is thrust by circumstances into a situation in which he is confronted with the power and corruption of urban industrialists, corporate lawyers, bankers, and crooked politicians.” However, “through the determined application of the virtues of honesty, goodness, and idealism, the ‘common man’ triumphs over this conspiracy of evil.”
Capra’s films carry a distrust of the government and other institutions meant to protect the people. As Phelps argues, the private decisions of the few and powerful are painted as the guiding force in American society, and all too often, the lone man crusading for change is dismissed as crazy or a fraud. But the ultimate triumph of decency over corruption is underlined in the endings of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Senator Jefferson Smith, after filibustering for 24 hours, is vindicated by his guilt-ridden nemesis. George Bailey recoups his family’s lost savings from the community that adores him. Longfellow Deeds is declared sane at his trial and is, as such, free to give away his enormous fortune.
The ending of Meet John Doe is nothing like that. The entire premise, in fact, is much darker. When reporter Ann Mitchell is laid off, she pens a fake letter from a John Doe who rails against the ills of modern society and promises to jump off a building on Christmas Eve. Ann believes the letter will boost readership, and hopefully save her job. But it provokes such a strong reaction that her editors decide to hire someone to pose as the author, so they can milk the story for all it’s worth. They settle on a homeless man willing to do anything for a buck: Long John Willoughby. He poses for pictures and delivers every speech Ann writes, never fully believing any of it.
But as he realizes the effect he’s having on the common people, who are forming “John Doe Clubs” to look out for their neighbors, he starts to feel a little morally queasy. He also discovers the publisher, D.B. Norton, is using him to advance his presidential ambitions. When he tries to expose Norton, the publisher retaliates by exposing Long John as a hired phony, inciting an angry mob. John decides the only decent thing he can do is jump off the building, but he’s talked off the ledge at the last minute by Ann, along with a few true believers.
This “happy” ending rings false, given everything that’s preceded it. Ann’s big speech, which is meant to be inspiring, comes off as hysterical and unconvincing, while John’s decision to live feels maddeningly arbitrary. Neither plot development can overcome the overwhelming impression that Norton and his cronies rule the city, or that the little people John has come to champion actually long for fascism.
According to Capra and his screenwriter, Robert Riskin, the ending was a longstanding issue for both of them. They reportedly tested five different versions, including one where John dies by suicide. “It’s a hell of a powerful ending, but you just can’t kill Gary Cooper,” Capra later said in an interview. What remains instead is something that, in Phelps’ estimation, “lacks finality,” as well as the rosy confidence of Capra’s other films. Did the John Doe movement ever really stand a chance, or was it a suckers’ game from the start? With this film, no one, including Capra, seems convinced either way.