AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Meet John Doe
Alternate Title: The Life and Death of John Doe
Director: Frank Capra (Dir)
Release Date:   3 May 1941
Premiere Information:   Concurrent Hollywood and New York premieres: 12 Mar 1941
Production Date:   8 Jul-18 Sep 1940; also 14 Nov and 18 Nov 1940, 3 Jan, 24 Jan and 23 Mar 1941 at Warner Bros.
Duration (in mins):   123, 125 or 129
Duration (in feet):   11,109
Duration (in reels):   14
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Cast:   Gary Cooper (John Doe, assumed name of Long John Willoughby)  
    Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Mitchell)  
    Edward Arnold (D. B. Norton)  
    Walter Brennan (The "Colonel")  
    Spring Byington (Mrs. Mitchell)  
    James Gleason ([Henry] Connell)  
    Gene Lockhart (Mayor Lovett)  
    Rod La Rocque (Ted Sheldon)  
    Irving Bacon (Beany)  
    Regis Toomey (Bert [Hansen])  
    J. Farrell MacDonald ("Sourpuss" [Smithers])  
    Warren Hymer (Angelface)  
    Harry Holman (Mayor Hawkins)  
    Andrew Tombes (Spencer)  
    Pierre Watkin (Hammett)  
    Stanley Andrews (Weston)  
    Mitchell Lewis (Bennett)  
    Charles Wilson (Charles Dawson)  
    Vaughan Glaser (Governor)  
    Sterling Holloway (Dan)  
    Mike Frankovich    
    Knox Manning    
    John B. Hughes (Radio announcers)  
    Hall Johnson Choir    
    Dave Miller and his New York French Casino Band    
    American Legion Band    
    St. Brendan's Boys Choir    
    Walter Soderling (Barrington)  
    Pat Flaherty (Mike)  
    Gene Morgan (Mug)  
    Mrs. Gardner Crane (Mrs. Brewster)  
    Ann Doran (Mrs. Hansen)  
    Sarah Edwards (Mrs. Hawkins)  
    Aldrich Bowker (Pop Dwyer)  
    Ed Stanley (Political manager)  
    Bennie Bartlett (Red)  
    Bess Flowers (Mattie)  
    Gary Owen (Sign painter)  
    Harry Davenport (Former owner of The Bulletin)  
    Carlotta Jelm (Ellen, Ann's sister)  
    Tina Thayer (Irene, Ann's sister)  
    Cyril Thornton (Butler)  
    Edward Earle (Radio M. C.)  
    Paul Everton (G.O.P. man)  
    Forrester Harvey (Bum)  
    James McNamara (Sheriff)  
    Mary Benoit (Secretary)  
    Mildred Coles (Secretary)  
    Emma Tansey (Mrs. Delaney)  
    Frank Austin (Grubbel)  
    Ed Kane (Tycoon)  
    Ed Keane (Relief administrator)  
    Melvin Lang (Associate)  
    Alphonse Martell (Foreign dignitary)  
    Lafe McKee (Mr. Delaney)  
    Edward McWade (Joe)  
    Wyndham Standing (Associate)  
    Guy Usher (Bixler)  
    Fred Vogeding (Associate)  
    Isabelle La Mal (Chamber of commerce member)  
    Alfred Hall (Chamber of commerce member)  
    George Melford (Chamber of commerce member)  
    Henry Roquemore (Chamber of commerce member)  
    John Ince (Doctor)  
    Gail Newbray (Telephone operator)  
    Earl Bunn (Policeman)  
    Jack Cheatham (Policeman)  
    Eddie Cobb (Policeman)  
    Billy Curtis (Midget)  
    Johnny Fern (Midget)  
    Lew Davis (Electrician)  
    James Millican (Electrician)  
    Carl Ekberg (Henchman)  
    George Pembroke (Henchman)  
    Eddie Fetherston (Reporter)  
    Jack Gardner (Photographer)  
    William Gould (Sergeant)  
    Kenneth Harlan (Publicity man)  
    Max Hoffman (Publicity man)  
    Eddie Hearn (Mayor's secretary)  
    Frank Jaquet (Police sergeant)  
    Richard Kipling (Police commissioner)  
    Hank Mann (Ed)  
    Frank Meredith (Guard)  
    Jack Mower (Guard)  
    Cliff Saum (Guard)  
    Don Turner (Guard)  
    Forbes Murray (Legislator)  
    Suzanne Carnahan (Autograph hound)  
    Maris Wrixon (Autograph hound)  
    Frank Mayo (Attendant)  
    John Hamilton (Governor's associate)  
    William Forrest (Governor's associate)  
    Selmer Jackson (Radio announcer)  
    Dorothy Andree ("Average American Girl")  
    John Tettemer (Cleric at John Doe rally)  
    Charles Trowbridge    
    Wedgewood Nowell    
    Howard Chase    
    Floyd Criswell    
    Vernon Dent    
    Frank Fanning    
    Walter Finden    
    Galen Galt    
    Mack Gray    
    Jay Guedilio    
    Donald Hall    
    Jimmy Harrison    
    Charles McAvoy    
    Larry McGrath    
    Joe McGuinn    
    Tom McGuire    
    Frank Moran    
    Clark Morgan    
    Bob Perry    
    Ed Peil Sr.    
    Hal Price    
    Stanley Price    
    Don Roberts    
    Thomas W. Ross    
    Bernard Wheeler    
    Ed Williams    
    Max Blum    
    Sidney Bracy    
    Glen Cavender    
    Eddie Graham    
    Stuart Holmes    
    Al Lloyd    
    Paul Panzer    
    Jack Richardson    
    Leo White    
    Tom Wilson    
    Jack Wise    
    Evelyn Barlow    
    Fritzi Brunette    
    Lucia Carroll    
    Florence Lawler    
    Evelyn Dockson    
    Ethel Gilstrom    
    Claire Meade    
    Mrs. Wilfred North    
    Elsa Petersen    
    Sada Simmons    
    Bessie Wade    
    Lillian West    
    Inez Gay    
    Bess Meyers    
    Sally Sage    
    Lottie Williams    
    Vera Steadman    
    Ann Luther    
    Daisy, the dog    

Summary: When the metropolitan newspaper The Bulletin is bought by publisher D. B. Norton, he changes its name to The New Bulletin and replaces its motto, "A free press for a free people," with "A streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era." As part of the new streamlining efforts, managing editor Henry Connell fires "sob-sister" columnist Ann Mitchell because she does not produce enough "fireworks" to bring up the paper's circulation. However, Ann resolves to fight for her job by writing a phony letter to her column, claiming to have received it from a man protesting the degenerated state of affairs in the world and announcing his plans to jump from the roof of City Hall at midnight on Christmas Eve. She signs the letter "John Doe," and its publication results in an explosion of public interest in the fictitious man. Mayor Lovett, who is sensitive about the publicity a suicide from City Hall would generate, publicly offers the mysterious John Doe a job to prevent the suicide, and marriage proposals begin to pour in from concerned women. As a result of the overwhelming interest in her creation, Ann is able to convince Connell that The New Bulletin should continue to print stories about "John Doe" or be forced to admit fraud. Ann is quickly reinstated at the paper, with a thousand dollar bonus, and the search begins for a real person they can use as their John Doe stooge. After reviewing a number of derelicts who have shown up at the paper claiming to have penned the original suicide letter, Ann and Connell decide upon a former bush league baseball pitcher named Long John Willoughby, who is in need of money to repair his injured arm. The naïve John is hired for the job and treated to expensive gifts by the paper, while his hobo friend, The "Colonel," voices his disapproval of the arrangement and tries to warn him about the dangers of becoming one of the "heelots" who, like a lot of heels, sacrifice character for comfort and wealth, and lose compassion for those less fortunate than themselves. No sooner does the John Doe ideal gain widespread notoriety, than the unscrupulous Norton plans to use its potential to further his political goals. Norton commissions Ann to write a radio speech for John, paying her generously for the effort, but she anguishes over the content of the speech, until she finds inspiration in the idealistic writings of her father's diary. Before John makes his speech, however, Mike, an emissary from The Chronicle , Norton's chief competitor, tries to persuade the baseball player to expose the hoax by telling him that if he continues the scam, his baseball career will be over. John considers this, but despite an offer of five thousand dollars and a guaranteed hasty exit from the performance, he tremblingly reads the speech written by Ann, with whom he is infatuated. Later regretting the incident, John and The Colonel flee, but Ann and Norton quickly catch up with them in Millville, where Ann asks John to hear out local members of one of the newly formed John Doe Clubs, hoping that they will convince him to go on as their spokesman. John agrees to continue after being moved by the sincerity of a local John Doe Club chapter leader, Bert Hansen, who tells a heartwarming story about how the movement has been a true inspiration for him and his neighbors. While John, who is now in love with Ann, seeks advice from her mother about how to propose to her, Norton showers Ann with expensive gifts and coerces her into persuading the baseball player to announce the creation of a new political party, which the publisher plans to exploit as a stepping stone to the presidency, at the planned John Doe convention. Disillusioned by the whole affair, Connell gets drunk and exposes Norton's plans to take over the minds of the American people to John, who immediately marches over to Norton's, where he finds Ann and Norton's cohorts meeting to decide the future of the John Doe movement. After upbraiding them for their misdeeds, John announces that he plans to reveal the truth about Norton and his sinister plot at the convention that evening, and then storms out. Ann rushes after him to explain her unwilling involvement in the plan, but John refuses to listen, and police detain her until after the convention. That night, John is outwitted by Norton, who foils his attempt to expose him by distributing printed propaganda that portrays John as a fake and cutting the microphone wires before he can explain the situation. The crowd turns on John, and he is forced to leave and go into hiding. John mulls over the debacle and decides that the only way he can redeem himself is by making good on the suicide promise and thus proving his sincerity and devotion to the cause. On Christmas Eve, the now ill Ann, The Colonel, Connell and Norton intuitively gather on top of City Hall and wait for John to show up. John emerges from the darkness just before midnight, and, as he prepares to jump, Norton tries to stop him by telling him that the act will go unnoticed by the public, because he has made arrangements to have his body removed immediately after impact. Ann pleads with John to reconsider, but he appears resolved to go through with it until a delegation of John Doe Club members arrive and persuade him not to jump by convincing him that they had always believed in him and his good intentions. With his faith in the goodness of the human spirit restored, John leaves the rooftop carrying Ann, who has fainted, in his arms. 

Production Company: Frank Capra Productions, Inc.  
Distribution Company: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.  
Director: Frank Capra (Dir)
  Arthur S. Black (Asst dir)
Producer: Frank Capra (Prod)
  Robert Riskin (Prod)
Writer: Robert Riskin (Scr)
  Myles Connolly (Contr to dial and scr const)
Photography: George Barnes (Dir of photog)
Art Direction: Stephen Goossón (Art dir)
Film Editor: Daniel Mandell (Film ed)
Costumes: Natalie Visart (Gowns)
Music: Leo F. Forbstein (Mus dir)
  Dimitri Tiomkin (Mus score)
  Hall Johnson (Choral arr)
  Arthur Turelly (Gary Cooper's harmonica instructor)
Sound: C. A. Riggs (Sd)
Special Effects: Jack Cosgrove (Spec eff)
  Slavko Vorkapich (Mont eff)
Production Misc: William Cameron Menzies (Prod adv)
  William S. Holman (Gen mgr)
  William Erbes (Superintendent of rain effects)
Country: United States

Songs: "America," music by Henry Carey, lyrics by Samuel Francis Smith.
Composer: Henry Carey
  Samuel Francis Smith
Source Text: Based on the short story "A Reputation" by Richard Connell in Century Magazine (Aug 1922).
Authors: Richard Connell

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number Passed By NBR:
Frank Capra Productions, Inc. 5/5/1941 dd/mm/yyyy LP10453 Yes

PCA NO: 6560
Physical Properties: b&w:
  Sd: RCA Sound System

 
Genre: Drama
  Drama
Sub-Genre: Political
  Newspaper
 
Subjects (Major): Athletes
  Fascists and fascism
  Hoaxes
  Impersonation and imposture
  Newspapers
  Self-sacrifice
  Suicide
  Women reporters
 
Subjects (Minor): Blackmail
  Clubs
  Conventions (Gatherings)
  Dismissal (Employment)
  Drunkenness
  Editors
  Harmonicas
  Hoboes
  Politicians
  Publishers and publishing
  Speeches

Note: Richard Connell's short story "A Reputation," which was reprinted in a collection of his fiction entitled Apes and Angels (New York, 1924), was being developed as a stage production by Connell and Robert Presnell at the time that Capra bought the rights to the treatment in 1939. The title of the treatment, "The Life and Death of John Doe" was used as a working title for the film, as was The Life of John Doe . According to a pre-production news item, the title was changed to Meet John Doe in order to avoid giving the impression that the film was based on a biography. Meet John Doe was the first film that Capra produced under his newly formed Frank Capra Productions, Inc., a company he co-founded in 1939 with writer Robert Riskin.
       Although the national release date for this film was 3 May 1941, the film played at selected theatres around the country following its 12 Mar premieres. According to his autobiography, Capra acknowledged that five different versions of the ending of Meet John Doe were filmed and audience-tested before he arrived at the decision to release the fifth one for the 3 May national release. Capra also admitted that he was not satisfied with any of the endings that he shot, and that at one point, during the film's first run, following its 12 Mar premieres, three different versions of the film were playing in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington. One of the five versions ended in John jumping from the City Hall roof, while another had Ann and D. B. Norton talking him out of suicide. The fifth and final version of the end was suggested to the director by way of an anonymous letter, signed "John Doe," which read: "...I have seen your film with many different endings...all bad, I thought...The only thing that can keep John Doe from jumping are the John Does themselves...if they ask him." In an interview, Capra admitted that "for seven-eighths of the picture we had a fine, fine thing going for us there; the very end collapsed like a brick sock."
       As noted in Capra's autobiography, the mystery surrounding the story details of the film, both before and during production, was the result of the director's deliberate attempt to shield Bank of America and Jack L. Warner from the fact that the script was not completed at the time of production. Production files on Meet John Doe indicate that Capra financed this picture by using his house as collateral for a $750,000 loan from Bank of America. The loan agreement specified that the remaining funds for the picture (estimated to cost $1,312,500) would be loaned to Capra by Warner Bros., which was to furnish the director with all the necessary equipment, props, facilities and contract players. The studio also negotiated a twenty-five percent cut of the picture's revenue after it grossed its first two million dollars. Other legal documents pertaining to the film indicate that part of Capra's debt to Warner Bros. was settled by a payment of $13,835.31, which the studio secured from the profits made on his next picture, Arsenic and Old Lace . Frank Capra Productions, Inc. was dissolved on 29 Dec 1941, and its assets were distributed to Capra and Riskin.
       Pre-production news items note that Ann Sheridan was first announced for the part of Ann Mitchell, and that Fay Bainter was considered for the role of Ann's mother. HR production charts listed Granville Bates, Henry O'Neill, Frank Orth and Russell Simpson in the cast, but Bates died shortly after he was announced for the role. There is no indication that O'Neill, Orth or Simpson, who was mistakenly credited with the role played by Walter Soderling in the NYT review, were in the released film. Other actors announced in contemporary news items for roles, but who did not appear in the film, were: Charles Coburn, Lasses White, Donald Crisp, Dudley Digges and former silent film director Bruce Mitchell. Contemporary sources also note that "Daisy," the dog, was borrowed from Columbia's Blondie series for this picture. As noted in his biography, Dimitri Tiomkin, the film's scorer, became disillusioned with Capra when the director canceled the version of the film's ending that he had scored, which included a paraphrasing of the black spiritual "Deep River" and "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
       The NYT review of Meet John Doe incorrectly lists Mrs. Gardner Crane's character as Mrs. Webster, and erroneously credits Pierre Watkin with the role of Weston and Stanley Andrews with the role of Bennett. According to the Meet John Doe pressbook, Capra paid 350 extras to view and critique two versions of a speech written for John Doe, and decided which one to use based on the results of the survey. Dorothy Andree, who made a brief appearance in the film as the "Average American Girl," was selected from over 12,000 young females who wrote in from all over the country to apply for the part. A total of 137 players were assigned speaking parts in this film, which boasted the use of over 4,000 extras. Much of the filming took place on some fifty-seven sets that were designed by art director Stephen Goosson.
       About two hundred plumbers were hired to keep the rain falling at the Gilmore Field baseball park in Los Angeles for eight nights during the filming of John's speech. William Erbes supervised the rain effects, which cost an estimated $300,000 to produce. Studio publicity material also indicates that actor Gene Morgan died soon after completing his part in the film. One modern source credits Jo Swerling and Robert Presnell with the original treatment on which this film was based, and another includes Charles K. French (as a fired reporter) and Cyril Ring in the cast. Modern sources also peg the final production cost at $1,100,000. Suzanne Carnahan, who played an autograph seeker in this film, changed her name to Susan Peters and later went on to become a leading lady in a number of 1940's features.
       Meet John Doe was filmed at Warner Bros. Studio and at the following locations: Gilmore Field, Los Angeles; Griffith Park, Los Angeles; Pasadena, CA; and a Los Angeles icehouse. This film was nominated for an Academy Award for its original story, and was chosen by FD as one of the ten best pictures of 1941. Gary Cooper appeared on the cover of Time magazine on 3 Mar 1941. Two remakes of Meet John Doe were put into development, but were never produced: one in 1962 at United Artists, and another in 1982 at Columbia Pictures Television for CBS-TV. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Daily Variety   13 Mar 41   p. 3.
Film Daily   13 Mar 41   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   6 Nov 39   p. 3
Hollywood Reporter   9 May 40   p. 1, 9
Hollywood Reporter   5 Jun 40   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   13 Jun 40   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Jun 40   p. 1
Hollywood Reporter   26 Jun 40   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   27 Jun 40   p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter   1 Jul 40   p. 3, 6
Hollywood Reporter   10 Jul 40   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   20 Aug 40   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   22 Aug 40   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   19 Sep 40   p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter   13 Mar 41   p. 3.
Los Angeles Times   6 Nov 39   sec 2, p. 14.
Motion Picture Daily   13 Mar 41   p. 3.
Motion Picture Herald   8 Mar 41   p. 73.
New York Times   13 Mar 41   p. 25.
Time   3 Jan 41   p. 78.
Variety   27 Jun 40   p. 3.
Variety   19 Mar 41   p. 16.

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