The two most ambitious American films of 1941 share an interest in the power of the media. It was a natural subject both for Orson Welles and Frank Capra, for it was their power. Both men had shaken the nation, Welles with his War of the Worlds hoax broadcast, Capra with his borderline sacrilegious Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which had been criticized by some people in 1939 for besmirching American democracy before a hostile world. More so than Citizen Kane, Meet John Doe is the director's troubled meditation on his own power. On another level, I think, it's also about Orson Welles. Capra was the one established Hollywood director in a position to answer the challenge of the wonder-boy newcomer from New York -- the top dog in his own mind, the "name above the title" man who had already established to his satisfaction that a film should reflect the will of the director more than anyone else. Some of the Doe advertising took the director-as-star principle so far as to include Capra's face alongside those of the stars or the picture. While others presumably sulked enviously over Welles's incredible deal with RKO, Capra made a deal of his own with Warner Bros, breaking loose from Columbia Pictures. It was arguably a better deal than Welles's because Frank Capra Productions would own Doe. On the other hand, Capra was playing with his own money, while Welles was not. In any event, I assume that Capra's objective, in part, was to top whatever Welles was working on.
Edward Arnold as D. B. Norton gets a huge buildup as a man of mysterious menace before putting in his first appearance at the 28 minute mark while reviewing the D. B. Norton Motor Corps.
The screen darkens ominously as Ann (Barbara Stanwyck) invents John Doe. Below, things go dark for Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) after he's recruited to play Doe.
The convention scene is a suspenseful demonstration of Willoughby's failure to master the media that made him. Here, with time running out before Norton arrives to denounce him, Long John is stuck waiting, after having to stand through an anthem, for an well-meaning but oblivious minister to call a moment of silence for the "John Does of the world." By the time the moment is over, so is the John Doe movement.
Meet John Doe's problematic nature is a mark of Capra's ambition at a turning point in his career. If not his masterpiece, it is certainly his epic, and as such it's a major though underrated American film. I can't bring myself to call it a better film than Citizen Kane, but I like it better for its more expansive political consciousness and its more thoughtful exploitation of the two films' common media-mogul subject matter. Doe doesn't advance the narrative art of film the way Kane does, but with Capra still at the peak of his power and with Slavko Vorkapich montages, his film is state of the pre-Kane art. The two films complement each other quite nicely, though they're rarely seen as peer works. Welles's more humanistic approach has helped Kane stand the test of time better even though the films share many common concerns of their time. But I won't be the first to note in the era of Tea Parties and alleged "astroturfing" of grass-roots movements that Meet John Doe might be more relevant now than it's been in a long time. Just right now, however, it's relevant because it's Christmas.