There’s something off with Meet John Doe. Director Capra can’t find a tone for the film, but he also can’t find a pace for it. He tries to find the tone, over and over, usually with excellently directed sequences, but he just throws up his hands as far as finding the pace. If Robert Riskin’s script didn’t have strong moments for background characters, it would just be a bunch of great monologues for the actors. But Capra wants to step too far back from it all–John Doe has a wonderful cast and all Capra wants to do is rant about the Illuminati.
At its start, John Doe is simple. Barbara Stanwyck is a reporter. She loses her job. Angry–because John Doe takes place in a time when it seems like the Great Depression isn’t actually going to end, a forlorn attitude permeating throughout the film–she fakes a letter from someone fed up with the state of the world and promising to kill himself. Turns out the letter’s a hit, so Stanywck has to turn up the writer. She hires Gary Cooper. It’s Gary Cooper after all.
There’s a little humor with Cooper and sidekick Walter Brennan getting into a posh hotel and doing nothing. Riskin’s really good at these scenes. Well, then something happens and Cooper quits for a bit then he joins back up for a bit then it turns out the Illuminati have plans for him so he has to make a big decision. Along the way, he falls in love with Stanwyck (it’s Barbara Stanwyck after all), losing Brennan, and falls under the spell of Edward Arnold, the evil Mr. Big running this nameless city’s Illuminati chapter.
The nameless city should’ve been a bigger giveaway for the film’s problems. Capra doesn’t want anything to have personality except the concept.
Only, Riskin’s script has those amazing monologues I mentioned. James Gleason, who plays Stanwyck’s editor and Arnold’s reluctant stooge, gets at least two great scenes. His second one, where he gets wasted and talks about the Great War, is phenomenal. Gleason’s great and all, but that scene is phenomenal. Riskin’s dialogue is great, Capra’s patience is great, everything’s great. It just doesn’t belong in the movie. John Doe’s so lost, having every actor (except Cooper) directly address the camera when talking to Cooper’s character might work better. First person for the audience. Why? Because, while Capra’s interested in shooting the film well, having fantastic performances from his cast, he’s not actually interested in the film. It’s like he’s avoiding the lack of story.
Unfortunately, the rocky pace means no one gives an overall great performance. Brennan disappears, then comes back with nothing to do. He’s good, often really good, but the film doesn’t give him enough time later on. It never establishes who’s supposed to get the most time–even Cooper and Stanwyck manage to disappear from the story. The present action’s a mess. The film goes on for months and months and doesn’t let the characters grow.
It’s too much story. There are a half dozen points throughout the two hour runtime where Riskin and Capra could’ve focused for a far better experience.
Capra’s direction is outstanding. Riskin’s monologues are great. Cooper, Stanwyck, Gleason, Brennan, all great. Arnold’s not, but it’s hard to fault him. He’s got no part. He’s not even a caricature. He’s just “rich bad guy.”
Dimitri Tiomkin’s music has a few missteps, but it’s generally okay. It tends to stumble through the parts where everything else stumbles. Except maybe George Barnes’s photography and Daniel Mandell’s editing, their work is always strong.
Meet John Doe doesn’t work out. I wish it had, but it’s still one heck of a swing.
This post is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.