Meet John Doe


$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, James Gleason, Spring Byington, Gene Lockhart, Rod La Roque, Irving Bacon, Sterling Holloway, Vernon Dent.

As the tagline suggests, ClassicFlix is a boutique label specializing in, “Only the Classics.”

In the past, this column had waxed indifferent over their suboptimal DVD pressing of Vogues of 1938, part of the distributor’s Silver Series line. One stellar restoration is generally not enough to excuse a past stumble, but if their spiffed up Blu-ray presentation of director Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe is any indication, they’ve successfully redeemed themselves from their past misstep.

Under current law, “copyright protection begins on the date of publication … and continues for 28 years from that date; it may be renewed for a second 28 years, making a total potential term of 56 years in all cases.” Produced by Frank Capra Productions and distributed by Warner Bros. in 1941, the original copyright was never renewed. The film fell into the public domain in 1969. Five years later, Capra’s beloved holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, followed suit. All of a sudden, anyone with a print — 16mm, 35mm, or fifth-generation bathtub dupe — was free to screen the film without kicking back a cent in royalty fees. There was a period in the mid-1970s when three months didn’t pass without one of Chicago’s UHF affiliates airing at least one, if not both of Capra’s suicide-themed Christmas staples.

One can almost understand Plan 9 From Outer Space or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians lapsing into the public domain, but choice Capra? He lived to be 94 and was still alive and kicking when the P.D. vampires came and claimed his children. IAWL was plucked from the public domain graveyard thanks to a copyright issue over the story upon which the film was based. (For more on how the film went from public domain limbo to NBC holiday staple, visit the “Ownership and copyright issues” chapter of the film’s Wikipedia entry.) Home video had yet to pay the film its proper due. This was not the first time I took a chance on a Blu-ray pressing of the third in Capra’s Everyman’s Trilogy. (Meet John Doe was preceded by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.) The Turner Classic Movies brand that graces the lower-right corner of the frame several times throughout the picture is a strong indication of where the Sloppy Seconds Sales bootleg was sourced. Still, they did such a superb job of rejuvenation, one wonders why Warner Archive didn’t deem it worthy of their collection.

Before the newly-sacked Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) lets the door to the newspaper office hit her on the backside, editor Henry Connell (James Gleason) demands one more column out of her. Connell asks for fireworks and Mitchell gladly complies. How does she go about convincing D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), her publisher, looking to clean house, to rehire her? Mitchell pens a letter from an imagined “John Doe” threatening to take his life on Christmas Eve as a form of social protest. Unlike Smith and Deeds, ‘Long John’ Willoughby aka John Doe (Gary Cooper) isn’t an unwitting rube plucked from obscurity to play pawn to a bunch of fatcat kingmakers. He’s the bum with the bum arm, a down-on-their-luck former Bush League pitcher who hit rock bottom and it didn’t look good on him.

What started as a publicity stunt to sell newspapers quickly spreads to become a national phenomenon. Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin’s final collaboration is a masterclass in blending sentimentalism with cynicism, and populism with intellectual depth, making it a shining example of crackling movie dialogue from Hollywood’s Golden Age. (If people spoke this way in real life, there’d be no need for movies.) The witty banter and cleverly crafted character interactions are delivered to perfection by a cast of well-known character actors, showcasing Capra’s ability to fashion engaging stories that resonate with audiences. Here is a darker shade of Capra that calls for his lead to choose between character suicide and the real thing. Of all his films, Meet John Doe is Capra’s strongest clapback against his detractor’s cries of “Capra-corn”

A title card that greets us informs viewers that ClassicFlix, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, spent “over 400 man hours removing millions of instances of dirt, mitigating flicker and persistent scratches, correcting severe warping and performing image stabilization — all to give Frank Capra’s beloved everyman drama an unparalleled home video presentation in HD.” This deserves a prime spot in the library of every serious collector.


One thought on “Meet John Doe”

  1. Mr. Marks, you are a talented writer. I love the articles when you talk about going to the movies when you were a kid.

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