Meet John Doe, starring Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, and Walter Brennan. 1941.
Director Frank Capra originally examined the idea of a desperate man saved by his friends and family in his 1941, in his film Meet John Doe.
The film is about Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who, in protest over being fired from the newspaper where she works, writes a letter from “John Doe,” who threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve due to perceived social ills. Mitchell gets her job back and hires “Long” John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to portray the fictional John Doe, so the newspaper can profit from the support Mitchell’s fake letter received when it was printed.
The newspaper is a theme, topic and tool that occurs repeatedly in Capra’s films, including The Power of the Press (1928), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).
While a newspaper played a role in telling the story of George's brother Harry, It’s a Wonderful Life draws a great deal of direction and other inspiration from Meet John Doe.
As the film progresses, people across the country create chapters of the John Doe Club, which supports the ideals purportedly created by “Long” John Willoughby. While he does believe in those ideals, there is a problem: He did not create the initial push for the support of them. Instead, being down on his luck, Willoughby was paid to become the character of John Doe and to claim the thoughts and ideals as his own. Payment for that acting job came in the form of money and a posh place to stay.
His friend, The Colonel (Walter Brennan), warned Willoughby that he was becoming a “Helot” – someone who is more concerned with money and comfort than the truth – but Willoughby ignores the warnings. Eventually, he realizes that The Colonel was correct, and becomes despondent over the lie he is living, and that people are falling for it and coming in droves (in mobs?) to see him, as if he were a movie star. It is an interesting exercise to watch this happen and compare it to the modern American craze to idolize people who are not stars, but famous "personalities" and stalk them through "reality" TV shows.
Distraught over the lie, Willoughby decides that he really will commit suicide on Christmas Eve, and threatens to jump off of the high rise that houses the newspaper office. He writes his own letter addressed to “All John Does.”
While standing on the ledge, he pulls the letter out of his trench coat pocket. It is a combination of scenes that we will see a few years later in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra will have George Bailey pull his life insurance policy out of his overcoat, and later in the film, George will stand on the bridge, on Christmas Eve, with snow falling around him, on the brink of suicide.
While Ann cannot convince Willoughby not to jump, Capra invokes the It’s a Wonderful Life image of the “whole town” coming to support him. It is similar to when seemingly all of the residents of Bedford Falls (except Potter) cram into the Bailey home and give George money to save the building and loan.
There are many other connections between Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life. The antagonist in Meet John Doe is D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), whose name is somewhat similar in form to Henry F. Potter due to the constant presence of the initials. The same is true of Arnold’s other Capra film character, Anthony P. Kirby, in You Can’t Take it With You. Speaking of Potter, Willoughby is told that if he jumps, he will be stripped of identification and buried in a Potter’s Field. A reference to Potter’s Field, along with the character of Potter, also appear in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Near the end of Meet John Doe, one character apologizes for the actions of the club members, saying, “We just lost our heads and acted like a mob.” This mob mentality has been seen before in American Madness and will be seen again in It’s a Wonderful Life. In both of those cases, the mob action takes place during bank runs.
To cap off the comparison of these two films, both of them end with the image of bells ringing.