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Meet John Doe

Frank Capra first arrived on the fringes of the thriving American film industry in the 1920s, well before talkies appeared. He directed his final film in 1961 (A Pocketful of Miracles), but lived in retirement for another 30 years until his death in 1991. The man who directed It's a Wonderful Life in many respects lived a long and charmed one, but it's curious that his most popular films arrived in a radically short space of time. It's a Wonderful Life debuted in 1946, after Capra had finished five years of shooting the Why We Fight documentaries for the Allied war effort, but the majority of his notable films came just before the Second World War. And as such, most use the Great Depression as a backdrop, if not an overt theme — the multi-Oscar-winning It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), amongst others, all came in a rush, only for Capra's career to take a sharp turn in the '40s and then go into a steady, regrettable decline. American movie attendance was never higher than during the Great Depression as audiences flocked to movie theaters to escape the dreariness of their daily lives, but perhaps what made Capra so unusual was how he worked against expectations. While most moviegoers were looking for an inexpensive bit of escapism, Capra brought the outside world into the movie theater, making it very clear that the Depression was going on right now, albeit with a relentless optimism about the American people and the future of the nation — a nation that soon would be dragged into another costly world war, but which also would enjoy unprecedented prosperity just a few years later. Meet John Doe, shot in 1940, was the last of Capra's depression-era films, exploring the popular frustrations of the decade more overtly than any other. Barbara Stanwyck stars as newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell, who is laid off when her paper is bought out by a new owner (it seems corporate downsizing is nothing new), but she manages to work her way back into the job when, as a stunt for her final column, she prints a bogus letter from one "John Doe," a man who plans to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall to protest the world's injustices. But when the letter creates a storm of controversy and editor Henry Connell (James Gleason) doesn't know what to make of it, Ann convinces him they should hire a real person to portray John Doe and then use him to drive circulation straight through the holidays. John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a former bush-league baseball pitcher with a bum shoulder and no job prospects is recruited to play the part, but he comes with a flesh-and-blood conscience — his fellow hobo "The Colonel" (Walter Brennan), who is perhaps the only person in America since Huck Finn to believe abject poverty is a pretty good deal. "John Doe" quickly becomes a celebrity, but John Willoughby can't possibly know what competing political forces are at work behind the scenes — nor can he know who is plotting to expose the scheme, or why.

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Along with being the film that would close Capra's most successful decade, Meet John Doe was one of the last he would do with longtime collaborator Robert Riskin, who penned the majority of Capra's films up to that point. Some have seen Riskin's tale as a Christ allegory (which, if true, isn't all that clear), but there are direct parallels to the political climate of the age, and particularly in Europe. Capra is most frequently described as a "populist" director, but Meet John Doe illustrates that populism — the unification of common people for a common purpose — is a double-edged sword, something that can bring people together in a country that's dealing with economic hardship, or blind them with fascist loyalty to a leader or a hero, one who promises to lead them from suffering (as Hitler was doing at that very moment in Germany). In Meet John Doe, the same motivations that caused the Weimar Republic to embrace National Socialism are what drives the "average" American to John Doe, and then eventually to turn on him at the first hint of betrayal. According to Capra and Riskin, the national malaise of the time might not necessarily have to do with a lack of community (although that can feed into it), but instead a lack of self-worth among common people, which leads them to embrace the reluctant Doe — an out-of-work schlub with not much in the way of self-confidence either. As Meet John Doe is a film in the public domain, several versions exist on DVD from a number of "budget" vendors, all with varying degrees of quality (and some are not very good all). Fortunately Image Entertainment, working with the Hal Roach Studios Trust, has delivered a new transfer to DVD from restored materials, and the overall result is excellent. The disc comes bare-bones (so bare-bones in fact that the single menu screen offers nothing more than chapter selection), but the source print is in very good shape with strong low-contrast details and only minor collateral damage (and some extra wear and tear around reel changes), while the audio is crisp and fully intelligible in the original mono. A great many Frank Capra films are already on DVD — in particular the excellent restored packages from Columbia TriStar — and those who are collecting Capra on disc should not hesitate to add this edition to their personal libraries. Snap-case.

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