Thus begins Meet John Doe (1941), one of director Frank Capra's most well-regarded films. Number 49 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Cheers, it's one of the films that helped to invent the term "Capraesque" - films about the ability of the honest underdog to achieve his goals through courage and perseverance (sometimes called Capra-corn). Capra's abilities as a director held such trust with his actors that Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, James Gleason and Spring Byington all agreed to appear in the film without a completed script. Capra went into the project without a satisfactory ending, and actually test marketed FIVE different endings (TCM). The one we see today is the one that garnered the most public appeal, and was suggested in an anonymous letter to Capra from someone who had seen the multiple endings (AFI catalog).
Originally, Capra thought in terms of Jean Arthur and James Stewart for his leads. He also considered Ronald Colman (who would have been all wrong!), and he tested both Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland as well. Barbara Stanwyck came on board when Warner Brothers refused to allow Ms. Sheridan to do it (she was being punished).
We are indeed lucky that the stars were willing to take on such a nebulous project, because the casting is spot-on. Cooper is able to convey the innocence and confusion of John, without making him into a complete idiot. And then there is Stanwyck. The role of Ann is a difficult one - we have to understand her desire for money, but still like her and root for her. The rapport between her and Spring Byington (as Ann's mother) is essential; there bond in the film is undeniable. As a result, we root for Ann, even when we know that she has really gone over the edge in the push for John Doe's stardom.
Spring Byington provides the focus that we need to understand Ann. Generous, kind, loving; a mother who adores her children, and whose love for her late husband ventures almost into adoration, Mrs. Mitchell is both inspiration for Ann as well as motivation. Ann sighs as her mother donates money to those she feels are in need, even as the family is on the verge of being penniless. And, as Ann struggles with the motivations needed to make John Doe convincing, it is Mrs. Mitchell who suggests her late husband's diary as a source of inspiration. With 119 film and television credits to her name, Byington was a dependable and much admired character actress, usually playing a mother or older relative of the lead character. She started on Broadway; her first feature film role was as Marmee in Little Women (1933) (We've discussed her films When Ladies Meet (1941) and My Love Came Back (1940)). She worked in both film and television until 1968. She died in 1971, aged 84.
Interestingly, this was one of the first films to deal with Fascism in America (this glowing New York Times review is very appreciative of the "inspiring message for all good Americans" that is present in the film. Capra, who had been born in Italy (he had settled in Los Angeles by age five, so it is unlikely that he remembered much of his birthplace), may be reacting to the fact that it had already been overtaken by fascism.
Though the fact that the ending was an afterthought is often evident when you watch Meet John Doe, it doesn't detract from your enjoyment of the film or of the performances of these amazing actors. We'll leave you with a trailer: