Classic Films

Meet John Doe (May 3, 1941)

A journalist writes an editorial but says it was written by a fictional persona (John Doe) who is going to kill himself if the world doesn’t get better. They hire a homeless man to play John Doe and a movement forms around his down-home, community-focused ideology until the whole charade comes crashing to the ground, taking John with it.

This is the other movie Frank Capra directed about a man attempting suicide on Christmas Eve (the other being, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life). It’s not to be confused with the Capra films in which people attempt suicide at other times of the year (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Miracle Woman) or in which characters successfully commit suicide (You Can’t Take it With You). Was this fascination with suicide just a thing in the ‘30s and ‘40s? Or was it unique to Capra? I did read that Capra added the suicide attempt in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, much to the chagrin of (Minnesota-born!) screenwriter Sidney Buchman, so maybe it was just him. Hmm…

This movie isn’t great. Capra films often have a generic quality but there’s enough specificity and focus to make it feel like it’s about something. But this one is just too ambiguous. Capra clearly didn’t know what idea he was trying to make–was he trying to make a statement about religion? Politics? Capitalism? Socialism? The power of the press? And what statement was he trying to make about any or all of these things? I don’t think even Capra knew, as evidenced by the fact that he shot multiple endings and didn’t know how he wanted the story to conclude. As is, there’s a lot of interesting ideas, but it’s not cohesive or confident enough to be as great as the director’s best work.

That same ambiguity, however, makes me think this movie would be perfect for a remake. There are enough ideas that are still pertinent today (like those listed above) that a few of them can be shaped into a really interesting story, and with the proper ending this could be something great, timely and timeless. Maybe I should get on that.

Favorite Scene
Some members of a local John Doe Club explain to Joe why he needs to keep being the figurehead of the movement. I was genuinely captivated and convinced. The rest of the movie never returned to that level of sincerity or meaningfulness.

Worth Watching?
Yes. It’s thought-provoking, if a little rough around the edges. 7/10


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