Filmsite Movie Review
Meet John Doe (1941)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

A montage sequence illustrates the hoopla surrounding the radio-speech event, a 9 pm show on W.B.N. Posters are displayed with John Doe's picture and an announcement of the speech. Telephone operators tell callers that all the tickets have been sold. When he arrives in the crowded sea of people, he has misgivings about being packaged for the public for a media event, pressured by various interest groups, and reading words he has never seen before. In the greenroom, Ann primes John for his performance for "the big night." She encourages him before the program airs to avoid being nervous: "All you have to remember is to be sincere." She expresses her love for the fictional "John Doe" that she has created:

Ann: John, when you read that speech, please, please believe every word of it. He turned out to be a wonderful person, John.
John: Who?
Ann: John Doe, the one in the speech.
John: Oh.
Ann: You know something, I,...I've actually fallen in love with him...

Connell barges in with two last-minute, ludicrous photo opportunities for John Doe ("cheap publicity" according to Ann): one with a bathing beauty (a ribbon across the model's bathing suit reads MISS AVERAGE GIRL): "If that guy lays an egg, I want to get something out of it. I'm getting a Jane Doe ready"; the other with two midgets ("a half a heelot" according to the Colonel), cynical "symbols of little people" that John holds in his arms during the pose. When the room has finally been cleared of people and there's one minute until the broadcast, Ann takes her turn to emotionally pressure him as she combs his hair and straightens his clothes - she admits that the words in the speech are her father's while coercing him to take on the characteristics of "the real John Doe." Then she kisses him good luck after using a baseball metaphor:

Now please, John, you won't let me down, will ya? Will ya? Of course you won't. If you'll just think of yourself as the real John Doe. Listen, everything in that speech are things a certain man believed in. He was my father, John. When he talked, people listened. And they'll listen to you too. Funny, you know what my mother said the other night? She said to look into your eyes and I'd see father there...Now, listen, John. You're a pitcher. Now get in there and pitch. Good luck.

"John Doe" - completely impassive and non-reactive (except for obvious sweating and anxiety) is led to the imposing microphone (blurry in the foreground) in the studio - actually he's on a stage with an opened curtain, a live audience and an orchestra behind him. The fanfare of the orchestra at the appointed hour startles John, and then an announcer introduces him as "something entirely new and different."

Standing beside me is the young man who has declared publically that on Christmas Eve, he intends to commit suicide, giving as his reason, 'I protest against the state of civilization.'

The stage manager encourages applause from the audience and motions them to rise in their seats. Hesitant and awkward, John is pointed to the microphone with his prepared text for the memorable radio speech. He first explains who a typical Mr. John Doe is - the average little man:

I am the man you all know as John Doe. I took that name because it seems to describe...the average man - and that's me. (He clears his throat.) And that's me. Well, it was me before I said I was going to jump off the City Hall roof at midnight on Christmas Eve. Now I guess I'm not average anymore. Now I'm getting all sorts of attention, from big shots too, the mayor and the governor, for instance. They don't like those articles I've been writing...

When a heckling voice from the rival newspaper (in the audience) accuses him of being an imposter, police haul the agitator away to quell the disturbance. The beginning of the speech is delivered in a straightforward, amateurish and honest style. [The scene is quickly cross-cut from backstage onlookers, to individuals in the audience, to a gloating Norton listening to the broadcast in his home (and witnessing his servant-help enthusiastically gathered around a radio in the kitchen), back to Doe, and to the clock on the studio's wall as time passes.]

Well, people like the governor and that fellow there can stop worrying. I'm not going to talk about them. I'm gonna talk about us - the average guys, the John Does. If anybody should ask you what the average John Doe is like, you couldn't tell him because he's a million and one things. He's Mr. Big and Mr. Small, he's simple and he's wise, he's inherently honest but he's got a streak of larceny in his heart. He seldom walks up to a public telephone without shovin' his finger into the slot to see if somebody left a nickel there...

He describes the universality of John Does through time and history:

He's the man the ads are written for. He's the fella everybody sells things to. He's Joe Doakes, the world's greatest stooge and the world's greatest strength. Yes sir, yes sir, we're a great family, the John Does. We are the meek who are supposed to inherit the earth. You'll find us everywhere. We raise the crops, we dig the mines, work the factories, keep the books, fly the planes and drive the buses, and when the cop yells, 'Stand back there you,' he means us - the John Does. We've existed since time began. We built the pyramids. We saw Christ crucified, pulled the oars for Roman emperors, sailed the boats for Columbus, retreated from Moscow with Napoleon, and froze with Washington at Valley Forge. Yes sir, we've been in there dodging left hooks since before History began to walk. In our struggle for freedom, we've hit the canvas many a time, but we always bounced back because we're the people - and we're tough. (Applause)

Then as he becomes more earnest and effective as his own feelings come to the forefront (and he simultaneously reacts to Ann's words), he appeals for all the John Does ("the little punks") in the world to get up on their feet and pull together as a team. He speaks of his faith in the essential goodness of the common man and promotes brotherly love with one's neighbor (the guy next door, one's teammate):

They've started a lot of talk about free people goin' soft, that we can't take it. That's a lot of hooey! A free people can beat the world at anything, from war to tiddlywinks, if we all pull in the same direction.
I know a lot of you are saying, 'What can I do? I'm just a little punk. I don't count.' Well, you're dead wrong. The little punks have always counted because in the long run, the character of a country is the sum total of the character of its little punks.
But we've all got to get in there and pitch. We can't win the old ball game unless we have teamwork. And that's where every John Doe comes in. It's up to him to get together with his teammate. And your teammate, my friends, is the guy next door to ya. Your neighbor - he's a terribly important guy, that guy next door. You're gonna need him and he's gonna need you, so look him up. If he's sick, call on him. If he's hungry, feed him. If he's out of a job, find him one. To most of you, your neighbor is a stranger, a guy with a barkin' dog and a high fence around him. Now you can't be a stranger to any guy that's on your own team. So tear down the fence that separates you. Tear down the fence and you'll tear down a lot of hates and prejudices. Tear down all the fences in the country and you'll really have teamwork.
I know a lot of you are saying to yourselves: 'He's askin' for a miracle to happen. He's expecting people to change all of a sudden.' Well, you're wrong. It's no miracle. It's no miracle because I see it happen once every year and so do you at Christmastime. There's something swell about the spirit of Christmas, to see what it does to people, all kinds of people. Now why can't that spirit, that same warm Christmas spirit last the whole year round? Gosh, if it ever did, if each and every John Doe would make that spirit last 365 days out of the year - we'd develop such a strength, we'd create such a tidal wave of good will that no human force could stand against it. Yes sir, my friends, the meek can only inherit the earth when the John Does start loving their neighbors. You'd better start right now. Don't wait till the game is called on account of darkness. Wake up, John Doe, you're the hope of the world.

"John Doe" creates a furor with the fifteen-minute speech (interrupted at one point when the microphone flops over). He is mobbed by well-wishers, but escapes and retreats to one of his old vagabond haunts by a riverbank under a bridge with the Colonel. After running away and becoming disillusioned, he expresses his misgivings about turning down the $5,000 offer and becoming a sucker: "I could have been on my way to old Doc Brown." The Colonel is especially cynical about Ann ("She's a heelot just like the rest of us. Lucky you got away from her") and John's idealistic speech ("Tear down all the fences! Why, if you tore one picket off of your neighbor's fence, he'd sue ya!") They ride the rails toward the Columbia River, playing another duet of the carefree Hi Diddle Dee Dee (An Actor's Life for Me) [from Disney's animated film Pinocchio (1940)], while Norton orders a search for his new-found "terrific" sensation.

The two are instantly recognized by a cafe counter clerk Dan (Sterling Holloway) in the small town of Millville during their independent journey, although baseball player Willoughby denies any connection other than his "spitting image" resemblance. He is quickly mobbed in the town where a chapter of the nationwide chain of "John Doe" clubs has already sprung up. As Norton's entourage arrives to reclaim John, Mayor Hawkins (Harry Holman) distrusts his own 'John Doe' constituents on his city hall's 'front porch,' cautioning them:

Now everybody on your dignity. Don't do anything to disgrace us. We're a little town, but we got to show off.

Before their arrival, Norton advises Ann: "Present it to him as a great cause for the common man." Norton and Ann are led into the mayor's office where John is surrounded by piles of home-made cooking and female admirers, while the mayor tells them: "The people were so excited they nearly tore his clothes off." [John Doe is significantly positioned before framed portraits on the back wall of Lincoln and Washington.] Doe wants to be left alone to return to his unrecognized life - uninterested in the results of the newspaper's "circulation stunt." He hears that people have been deeply influenced by his speech and have begun forming clubs "to carry out the principles" he espoused. With his "ability to influence people," Norton encourages him to join a lecture tour for the "glorious movement." But John Willoughby reluctantly and skeptically resists them: "Baseball's my racket and I'm stickin' to it." He urges the Colonel to leave with him: "Come on, Colonel, let's get outta here."

Uneasy, ambivalent and "all mixed up," Doe listens to a presentation from local John Doe club members. The Colonel is obviously disinterested by the sentiments expressed. In appreciation, Bert Hansen (Regis Toomey), a self-conscious soda jerk and his embarrassed but proud wife (Ann Doran) tell Doe how his message of 'love thy neighbor' has changed their lives with their cranky elderly neighbor "Sourpuss" Smithers (J. Farrell MacDonald). They formed a John Doe Club in the schoolhouse and suddenly became friends with their neighbors:

It's a shame how little we know about our neighbors...The reason we wanted to tell you this, Mr. Doe, was to give you an idea of what you've started. And from where I'm sitting, I don't see any sense in you jumping off any building....You're a wonderful man, and it strikes me you can be mighty useful walkin' around for a while.

Ann enticingly implores John to change his mind and be convinced to return to public life and the good-will campaign: "Don't you see what a wonderful thing this can be, but we need you, John." John consents, but his partner, the Colonel, flees from the hordes of heelots.

Meanwhile, the strong John Doe Brotherhood Movement, only present in the Midwest, is being orchestrated and manipulated by Norton to spread across the entire country - to further his own political ambitions and the establishment of a police state. A rousing montage of campaign activity illustrates the spread of the movement (and chartering of clubs) like a "prairie fire," with its catchy slogan emblazoned on buttons: "BE A BETTER NEIGHBOR." Norton and other politicians realize the voting-bloc value of the supporters: "We've got to get to them. They represent millions of voters."

Norton plans to steer the supporters of the National John Doe Clubs toward his own political goals through a convention. Charlie Dawson (Charles C. Wilson), one of John Doe's bodyguards, believes that Doe has "great yokel appeal," is "beginning to believe he really wrote that original suicide letter," thinks Ann is "Joan of Arc" and is infatuated ("nuts") over her. But Ann has doubts about her complicity and questions herself: "We're all heels, me especially."

In her bedroom as she packs for the convention (folds clothes into her suitcase on the bed), John enters, sits down in the doorway and tells Ann about a "crazy dream" he had the night before in which Ann is about to marry Norton's rich nephew. The dream is both cryptic and symbolic (John appears as both Ann's father and as the justice of the peace), as he chases the young child Ann across building tops and finally catches her, after she grows up and just before she recites her marital vows to Ted Sheldon. He punishes her for marrying Ted (a man who represents values opposed to her father's values) by spanking her:

It was about you...It was crazy. I dreamt I was your father. There was something that I was trying to stop you from doing. So I got up out of bed and I walked right through the wall here right straight into your know how dreams are, and there you were in bed. But you were a little girl, you know, about ten, and very pretty too. So, I shook you and the moment you opened your eyes, you hopped out of bed, and started running like the devil in your nightgown. You ran right out the window there and you ran out over the tops of buildings and roofs and everything for miles, and I was chasing you. And all the time you were running, you kept growing bigger and bigger and bigger - and pretty soon you were as big as you are now. You know, grown up. And all the time, I kept asking myself what am I chasing her for, and I didn't know. Ain't that a hot one? Well, anyway, you ran into someplace and then I ran in after you, and when I got there, there you were getting married [Ann looks up and freezes] and the nightgown had changed into a beautiful wedding gown. You sure looked pretty too. And then I knew what it was that I was trying to stop you from doing. Dreams are sure crazy, aren't they? Well, would you like to know who it was you were marrying?...It was that fellow who sends you flowers every day. What's his name - Mr. Norton's nephew?...But here's the funniest part of it all. I was the fellow up there doing the marrying - you know, the justice of peace or something. (Ann: You? I thought you were chasing me.) Well, yes I was, but I was your father then, you see. But the real me, John Doe, or that is, Long John Willoughby, I was the fellow up there with a book, you know what I mean?... Well, I took you across my knee and I started spanking you. That is, I didn't do it. I mean, I did do it. But it wasn't me, you see. I was your father then.

As John acts out her spanking, he describes the kind of man that would be best for Ann - a knight-in-shining-armor person with moral authority and responsibility toward his fellow man, holding values similar to the ones that Ann's father had:

Well, I laid you across my knee and I said, 'Annie, I won't allow you to marry a man that's just rich or that has his secretary send you flowers. The man you marry has got to swim rivers for you, he's got to climb high mountains for you. He's got to slay dragons for you. He's got to perform wonderful deeds for you.' Yes sir, and all the time the guy up there, you know, with the book - me - stood there nodding his head. And he said, 'Go to it, Pop. Whack her one for me, because that's just the way I feel about it, too.' So he said, 'Come on down here and whack her yourself.' So I came down and I WHACKED you a good one...

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