Viewer Guide: Meet John Doe and Fireflies in the Garden

March 22, 2019 | Richard Peña


This week’s classic is the 1941 romantic drama Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, directed by Frank Capra.

In Meet John Doe, Barbara Stanwyck plays Ann Mitchell, a nervy columnist faced with losing her job when her newspaper “The Bulletin” is taken over by new owners. As the family breadwinner for her mother and two younger sisters, the headstrong Ann undertakes a daring move for her final column in a last-ditch attempt to save her job, and writes a fictional letter from an unemployed “John Doe” who claims he will jump off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve to protest society’s failure to help out the little guy. Ann’s gamble pays off and generates much attention from the “The Bulletin’s” readership, and the next thing she knows Ann is pitching an ongoing series of John Doe columns to her exasperated new editor Henry Connell, played by James Gleason.

Trouble is, Ann needs to come up with a real John Doe to silence suspicions at City Hall. But with her letter generating a crowd of hobos all claiming to be the author, finding a walking, talking John Doe isn’t that difficult. And when Gary Cooper walks in the door as a homeless former ballplayer named John Willoughby, Ann knows she’s found the perfect embodiment of what her John Doe letter represents to her readers. But so does “The New Bulletin’s” new publisher D.B. Norton, played with stealthy menace by Capra favorite Edward Arnold. Norton knows a larger opportunity when he sees one, and it isn’t long before Ann’s John Doe publicity stunt takes on dimensions she never could have imagined.

Along with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe is one the most powerful political statements by director Frank Capra, and a work that seems sadly prescient today. Although in many of his films Capra expressed his undying faith in the intrinsic goodness and decency of his fellow Americans, Meet John Doe exposes what could be called the dark side of “people power.” Born in Italy, Capra had seen how his native country—as well as many others in Europe—had in those years succumbed to a kind of naïve, and as it turned out, dangerous populism: appeals to the “common man,” to all those who the system theoretically had left out, were a staple of political discourse. In the complex, rapidly changing societies of the twentieth century, it was never too hard to find large groups proclaiming a desire to take revenge against a nation, a government or an economy that had failed them. Once this group had been identified, it was often all too easy to manipulate, as seen in the rise of Mussolini, Hitler and their cohorts. Those looking for contemporary analogies won’t have to search too far.

Famously, Capra’s studio, Columbia, was extremely nervous about the film, and test marketed five different endings, gauging audience reaction to let them know what might work best. The ending we have now is hardly what one might call feel-good, just an admission, really, that the only way to solve the “John Doe” problem is by coming together and working as one.


This week’s indie is Fireflies in the Garden, a 2008 drama directed by Dennis Lee.

Ryan Reynolds stars as Michael Taylor, a successful writer on his way home to attend the long delayed college graduation of his mother Lisa, played by Julia Roberts. But as we soon discover in the film’s flashback structure, all his life Michael has had a complicated, volatile relationship with his father Charles, a demanding English professor played by Willem Dafoe, whose strict family rules were a constant source of friction with Michael. Consequently, visits home are not exactly warm reunions, perhaps even more so now that Michael has written the draft for an autobiographical novel titled “Fireflies in the Garden,” named after the poem by Robert Frost, which details Michael’s traumatic memory of his relationship with his father. Yet that likely explosive confrontation between father and son is up against what should be a happy occasion for the family and especially for his mother, who even in the most stressful time has always been the peacemaker, holding things together even in the most dire circumstances. But then a tragic accident occurs, and everything for the Taylor family changes in an instant. Also featured is Emily Watson as Michael’s aunt Jane, with Hayden Panettiere appearing as the adolescent Jane. Carrie-Anne Moss is featured in a cameo role as Michael’s ex-wife Kelly.

Writers can be dangerous people—just ask anyone who has one in their family. Constantly searching for source material, everything and everyone in their personal lives may end up as “grist for the mill” for their next creative endeavor, with personal stories about themselves, friends and family blended with fictionalized elements for dramatic effect. While finding aspects of your life on the Best Seller List or on the short-list for the Oscars might seem intriguing, then again you may also not exactly like what you read or see. Fireflies in the Garden wrestles with that central issue of creative freedom vs. personal privacy—where should an artist draw the line between the private and the public? Writer-director Brian Lee’s 2013 film Jesus Henry Christ actually approached that theme from another angle, with its tale about a boy searching for the identity of his sperm donor father.

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