Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (VCI)
Frank Capra’s last feature before leaving Hollywood to contribute his filmmaking talents to the war effort is his most populist piece of social commentary, a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement.
Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over and leaves a kiss-off piece that starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people. Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe, the voice of the people whose “letters” she writes for the paper. He becomes the public voice, his lazy delivery, lanky body language and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.
It’s pure Capra, run through with the tension between idealism and corruption, faith in the goodness of the common man and acknowledgment in the easy manipulation of people and processes by the rich and powerful for their own gain. Industrialist turned publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold, a favorite Hollywood fatcat) is the puppetmaster here, an industrialist who buys a newspaper to serve his ambition for public office. Capra makes his priorities clear in the first shot of the film: the first letters blasted off the bronze plaque at the paper’s entrance read “Free Press.” The promise of that phrase is replaced with a new plaque that reads: “The New Bulletin: A Streamlined Paper for a Streamlined Era.” When the John Doe clubs start sprouting spontaneously across the country, Norton happily sponsors them, and not just to boost the prestige of his paper’s golden goose. When this non-partisan movement becomes a social force, Norton is ready to harness their energy and redefine their agenda for his own political aspirations.
Hard to believe that screenwriter Robert Riskin wasn’t writing about the Tea Party and Fox News but the parallels are striking and a little alarming: a popular movement adopted and sponsored by what should be an objective news organization that pillories all opposition with screaming headlines, while the membership buys all the lies the paper feeds them. Capra’s idea of a populist movement is not political anger but social connection, transcending politics with neighborly concern and patriotic benevolence, and he makes a point of stating that these common folk are outside of politics, but nonetheless it is hard not to make a connection. It’s still salt of the earth citizens trying to make their voices heard, the same narrative ascribed to the Tea Party, and somehow this grass-roots organization standing against the system becomes funded by corporate interests while longtime political aspirants hitch their ambitions to the movement, whether or not they really belong to it.
Capra isn’t on the side of the publisher, to be sure, but his faith in the common man comes with some ambivalence and more than a little patronizing. Like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, two key populist Capra films of the thirties, the gee-whiz innocence of his simple American folk make the common man little more than a naïve rube played as a patsy by the politicians and industrialists until the final reel, where their perseverance finally pays off. Even here, the happy ending is cast in shadow, not so much a victory as a defiant stance against the callousness of the rich and powerful trying to play them for fools. I supposed that’s a victory of sorts, but for Capra, it’s always the naïve but pure “people” versus the smart, calculating, manipulative men running the system. For him, instinct finally wins out over intelligence. In the real world, that’s not always such a happy ending.
Meet John Doe has been widely available in substandard (and in some cases downright terrible) public domain editions since the birth of home video. It’s one of those odd Hollywood orphans, a big-budget, star-fronted hit released by a major studio but produced independently and the rights fell through the cracks of renewal that studios meticulously kept up on. And as no company had financial stake in the film, there was no incentive to protect the original elements. That was common to poverty row companies and independent producers of B-movies and programmers and in many ways is the only reason hundreds of forgotten film have been rescued in any condition. But in the case of a film like Meet John Doe, a film that would otherwise have been protected in studio vaults, it means we’re left with whatever prints have been rescued by collectors and archives. This new edition, restored by Laureat Productions from appears to be multiple sources (none of them the original negative), isn’t as sharp as the best studio classic releases and appears to be a PAL transfer from a British digital master. Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver notes that the image is interlaced (which I didn’t note but did notice on my viewing) and is more critical of the disc. It is weakly mastered from what appearance to be better original materials than previous editions, but it is still an improvement over previous DVD releases, with generally stronger image and clear sound (without the incessant chorus of hiss and white noise of much-worn PD prints and 16mm reductions) throughout most of the footage. I did notice one overt mastering flaw in my copy of the disc, a video distortion running down the left side of the screen staring about the one-hour mark and lasting a few minutes. We’re still a long way from a definitive edition of the film, but it is likely the best we’re going to get without some major archival discovery or exhaustive restoration effort.
The two-disc set features commentary by historian Ken Barnes interspersed with archival audio recordings of Frank Capra, which is informative enough but not particularly engaging; too often, the Capra quotes have only a vague connection to the scene on screen or the point being made by Barnes. Also includes short featurettes on Cooper, Stanwyck and Capra, audio-only “Lux Theater” radio productions of “Sorry Wrong Number” (with Stanwyck) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (with Cooper) and cast and crew profiles.