Thursday, January 13, 2011

MEET JOHN DOE (WB 1941) VCI/Laureate Home Video

The last collaborative effort between director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin, and the first independent production for Capra (who saw to it that the film became a minor masterpiece of social consciousness away from his alma mater - Columbia Studios), Meet John Doe (1941) tells the story of a downtrodden everyman tempted by personal profit. While the theme itself was nothing new for Capra and Riskin, the approach to the material was decidedly unique.

For starters, Capra was motivated by a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell; based on Connell's 1922 published short story 'A Reputation'. As a screenplay, the property first became known as 'The Life and Death of John Doe' (and later 'The Life of John Doe') before finally ending up as 'Meet' John Doe. Used to sketching out his own stories for Capra, Robert Riskin was equally enamoured by the Connell/Presnell treatment - enough to be inspired to adapt it for the screen.

Although Gary Cooper had always been the director's first choice to headline the cast, the part of wily newspaper columnist/opportunist Ann Mitchell was first offered to Warner contract star Ann Sheridan and then Olivia De Havilland, before ultimately going to Barbara Stanwyck.

At Columbia, mogul Harry Cohn had tried to woo Capra back into the fold with a plum renewal contract. However, Capra, weary of Cohn's constant tyrannical meddling on previous projects, had already made the decision to venture forth on his own - a daring gesture that prompted Cohn to begrudgingly mutter - "You'll be back!" Capra, however, was on a winning streak and Meet John Doe arguably remains the greatest of his pre-WWII slice of life comedy/dramas.

At Warner Bros., producer Jack L. Warner gave Capra unprecedented autonomy and most of the money to make the picture. However, after Capra's expenses went over budget, Warner refused to top up the till, forcing Capra to dip into his personal savings in order to finish the film. The gamble paid off handsomely. Meet John Doe was an immediate smash hit with audiences and for obvious reasons.

The Riskin/Capra plot begins in earnest with an absorbing (near silent) opening scene. A newspaper page (Benny Bartlett) emerges from Editor Henry Connell's (James Gleason) office with a list of names whose employment with 'The New Bulletin' have been terminated. One by one, the page gleefully draws an index finger across his throat, making a knocking sound with his tongue against his lips to signify their terminations.

Cub reporter, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) emerges from Connell's office; perplexed, torn and bitter. She pleads for her job, even at a drastic pay cut. But Connell has a heart of stone. He instructs Mitchell to pack her things and collect her final cheque, though not before she puts her final story for the paper to bed.

In retaliation, Ann writes her final column on the fly - a fake letter from an unemployed 'John Doe' who threatens suicide by jumping from the roof of City Hall in protest of society's ills. The note causes a sensation with the Bulletin's readership and Connell is forced to rehire Mitchell to continue the 'human interest' series. One problem: John Doe doesn't exist. But Mitchell has a solution for that problem too. The paper will find a derelict who embodies the noble qualities of John Doe and exploit him for pure profit. After running the gamut of possibilities, Ann and Henry settle on John Willoughby (Gary Cooper); a onetime baseball player who agrees to the rouse, but only if the paper will pay for the surgery necessary to restore his chipped elbow - the cause of his demise as a professional athlete.

Doe's compatriot, The Colonel (Walter Brennan) is leery of this arrangement. He explains his philosophy as that of the 'He-lots' - in reference to the way society judges those who have financial prosperity as opposed to those who do not. People are polite and sympathetic but ultimately unhelpful to a poor man, the Colonel reasons, but those same people suddenly become quite chummy when they realize that man has come into some money. They look for handouts from the rich.

A further damper is cast on Doe's plans to return to baseball after his surgery when bodyguard Angelface (Warren Hymer) explains that sports heroes are looked up to by children and no one will want to even know Doe after he pulls his stunt for the paper.

The rouse planned by The Bulletin has John fake his own death on Christmas Eve by jumping off a tall building. Thereafter, John will be paid to get out of town and disappear to a quiet life far away from the furor of the John Doe movement. There's just one problem: the localized 'love thy neighbour and give him a hand' homespun philosophy becomes a national craze, spawning 'John Doe' societies across the United States.

Ruthless newspaper tycoon, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) taps the John Doe following in the hopes of using John as his pawn to channel support for his own political ambitions. He relieves Connell of his duties on the John Doe campaign and further instructs Ann to write her prose for him directly - an edict that Ann willingly complies with for the sake of social climbing.

Meanwhile, Spencer (Andrew Tombes) of rival newspaper, The Chronicle offers John a $5000 bribe to throw his first radio press conference and admit that he is a fraud. At first it looks as though John will comply, thereby securing the money he needs for his arm surgery immediately. However, brought to the brink of acknowledging his own greed, John pulls back at the last minute when he is humbled by the thousands who have come to witness his latest speech.

Norton's political machinery moves into high gear and John is made a celebrity of considerable clout and power. The trick of it is that John actually believes in his own words and the John Doe philosophy while Norton is interested only in securing his own political office. By the time John realizes he has been used as a fop for an unscrupulous and power hungry tyrant, he is too late to stop the ravenous machinery behind him.

During a nationwide broadcast, the coast to coast hook up is sabotaged by Norton who exposes John as a fraud. The crowd becomes an angry mob and John's reputation as their saviour is destroyed. Unable to recover from under Norton's landslide of destructively manufactured public opinion, John resigns himself to go through with the initial promise of suicide that began his rise to prominence. His death will prove him to not be a fraud.

But Ann has fallen in love with John. She forsakes the materialistic happiness that Norton has provided her and on Christmas Eve amasses followers of the John Doe movement to storm the rooftop of City Hall. Mercilessly, Ann begs John's forgiveness and asks him to spare his own life, explaining with Christ-like reverence that an historical John Doe already died for the sake of humanity. The film concludes with a proud Connell trumping Norton by declaring, "There you are, Norton...the people. Try and lick that!"

Meet John Doe is powerful entertainment - less well known than other Capra classics of its vintage if only due to an oversight that has caused the film's rights to fall into public domain. To date, numerous bootleg copies of this film have surfaced on home video - none up to par for the digital format. That includes this latest DVD incarnation from VCI Entertainment. Although modestly improved over other releases, this edition of Meet John Doe is inconsistently rendered at best.

The B&W image exhibits a gray scale with bumped contrast levels. Fine detail is lost under a fuzzy, slightly out of focus image that suffers from frequent missing frames - resulting in jump cuts either from scene to scene or in the middle of specific scenes. Grain isn't an issue, but the image wobbles occasionally. And there is also the slightest hint of combing, resulting from an image that has not been altogether progressively mastered. The audio is muffled in spots and elsewhere exhibits hiss and pop consistent with minimal restoration.

VCI has laughingly referred to this edition as having been "digitally restored to its present condition" - a vague reference whose only claim can be that the video noise and bleeding seen in other copies of this film on DVD have been eliminated for this outing. Disc One includes a very rambling audio commentary from Laureate Home Video's Ken Barnes with archival audio sound bytes from Frank Capra.

Disc Two houses three slap shod featurettes on Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Capra, the original Lux Radio broadcast of Meet John Doe, a 'restoration comparison' that is pretty hard to distinguish from before and after shots, plus what has been billed as 'extensive' cast and crew profiles - actually, brief bios and filmographies assembled without much care or planning.

In the final analysis, Meet John Doe is worthwhile viewing. Regrettably, Warner Home Video has failed to rescue this title from public domain as they have previously done with such titles as Till The Clouds Roll By and Royal Wedding. Note to Warner Brothers - "Please rescue Meet John Doe and that other wonderful classic that belongs in your catalogue - 'Topper' starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett from public domain hell!" There. Enough said.

This DVD is not recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We just watched this over the holidays.