Saturday, March 09, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Meet John Doe (1941) at UCLA

It was a most enjoyable evening at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater!

The occasion was the second night of the UCLA Film & Television Archive's current series Fay Wray + Robert Riskin. The five-night series was inspired by the publication of Victoria Riskin's new book on her parents, FAY WRAY AND ROBERT RISKIN: A HOLLYWOOD MEMOIR. I reviewed the book earlier this month and thought it was excellent.

Victoria signed her book before the screenings, and it was very nice to have the opportunity for a brief chat, including discussing favorite Fay Wray roles in films such as THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (1934), THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI (1934), and HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955). She said she hadn't seen HELL ON FRISCO BAY recently and that it had been recommended to her by more than one person.

MEET JOHN DOE (1941) was directed by Frank Capra and written by Victoria's father, Robert Riskin, based on a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell Sr. (Presnell Sr. was, incidentally, the father-in-law of actress Marsha Hunt.)
Connell also wrote the classic short story which inspired the second film of the night, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932).

MEET JOHN DOE was screened in 35mm. While the first couple three reels had a faint vertical line down part of the picture, the second half of the film was stunningly beautiful, a perfect picture with rich, inky blacks. Like the print I saw last summer of THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1941), if I didn't know better I would have guessed I was looking at a nitrate print. The cinematography was by George Barnes.

I'm sure many classic film fans are familiar with MEET JOHN DOE, in which starving John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) agrees to impersonate a non-existent man, "John Doe," who supposedly wrote a letter to a newspaper threatening suicide in protest of societal conditions. The letter was actually created by newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who's attempting to save her job in the face of layoffs under a new owner.

The "John Doe" story escalates, with citizens across the country inspired to get to know their neighbors and do good, while politicians seek ways to corral the new movement and use it for success at the ballot box.

Although I've rewatched most of Capra and Riskin's films multiple times over the years, I hadn't seen this one since I was a teenager, and this viewing, while enjoyable, reminded me why I hadn't been anxious to get back to it; though I love individual aspects of the film, especially the actors, I just don't find the story that appealing. It's a fairly dark, cynical movie.

I'm not sure Stanwyck ever looked more beautiful on screen than she did in this film -- her hair is utter perfection! -- but so much about her character is inherently negative. While it might be understandable that she would write a phony letter in an attempt to keep her mother and sisters from ending up in the same sort of plight as John Willoughby, her enthusiasm to continue the charade, piling lie on lie, is distasteful. It's the original "fake news," and she never seems to stop to self-examine what she's doing, until quite late in the film.

Of course, she eventually wakes up, but she spends far too much of this too-long 122-minute film happily immersed in unethical behavior. That said, it's to Stanwyck's credit that she was willing to portray a fairly risky character and even make her likeable, to the extent that for periods of time the viewer might forget that what she's doing is wrong.

Cooper is just beautiful in this role and, having seen him actually faint with starvation, the viewer may be more able to forgive his going along with the charade; I know that was the case for me. He also tunes in to the power and the problems with his new role much earlier on in the film.

The film is blessed with a superb cast. Edward Arnold, starring as the newspaper owner and political player, is always compelling, whether he's good or evil. When he breaks the quiet of the final scene and speaks to John I almost jumped at the sound of his voice!

Spring Byington, as Ann's mother, has a beautiful scene with Cooper in which he inarticulately tries to describe his love for Ann. I loved the moment when she gently describes to Cooper how her husband proposed ("I love you, will you marry me?").

The movie also has two of my very favorite character actors, Regis Toomey and Ann Doran, seen in the still to the left; they play a couple inspired by "John Doe" to get to know their neighbors, leading to a sort of rebirth of their town. Toomey has a long speech to make but does well; he and Doran come across as very authentic, and their reappearance in the final sequence is welcome as well.

MEET JOHN DOE is populated with the kinds of amazing faces which make this era so unique. I haven't even mentioned James Gleason yet, who has a memorable drunk scene, and Walter Brennan, Gene Lockhart, Sterling Holloway, Irving Bacon, Rod La Rocque, Warren Hymer, Stanley Andrews, Pierre Watkin, and J. Farrell MacDonald are just a few of the marvelous character actors who turn up in the movie.

UCLA's Jan-Christopher Horak interviewed Victoria Riskin after the film; they touched on various aspects of the movie including the difficulty of how to end it and her father's penchant for making up words, "helot" being the memorable creation in this film.

In discussing how the film was meant to warn pre-WWII audiences against fascism they also drew parallels with modern U.S. politics; as I wrote here last month after a screening of THE MORTAL STORM (1940), it frankly gets kind of old hearing one-sided political comments at screening after screening. There are many perfectly reasonable people in the world who see things differently, and I'd personally rather the focus was on the things which unite all of us, chiefly our love for classic films. Just my two cents on that aspect.

Otherwise, it was a lovely interview and I was glad to hear about some of Victoria's experiences in person, including how she coped with her father's absence as a young child. I think it's very interesting she ended up as a psychotherapist, and as I wrote in my review, I felt that her background added to the insights she was able to share in her book. Incidentally, it appeared several members of her extended family were present, and I was very glad they could enjoy the work of Riskin and Wray in this setting and see how much they continue to be appreciated by so many of us.

MEET JOHN DOE was produced by Capra and Riskin's own company and distributed by Warner Bros. It fell into public domain and over the years has been shown on TV or issued on DVD in some pretty poor prints. The best DVD, according to my reading, is the 2010 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition from VCI.

It's also shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.

Coming soon: A look at the second film of the night, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932). Update: Here is the review!


Blogger barrylane said...

I think it is a worthwhile film, both as entertainment and a jumping off point for discourse. The fascism always seems, I npopular culture to mean hostile governments of the right, but in fact, there have been no hostile right wing governments in the twentieth century and beyond. Only the other kind.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I would agree with you about the film; while it might not be a favorite story and I've only felt the need to see it a couple times to date, it's worth watching and does make a good "jumping off point" for discussing the issues it raises -- at least if one is able to have an actual dialogue with back-and-forth sharing opinions.

Best wishes,

6:43 PM  

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