Viewer Guide: Meet John Doe and The Dynamiter

August 12, 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 The Dynamiter, a 2011 drama directed by Matthew Gordon.

Set during a sweltering summer in the sleepy town of Glen Allan, Mississippi, the opening images of The Dynamiter featuring two boys playing in a field simultaneously captures the sense of freedom as well as the reality of limitations, experienced on a daily basis by Robbie Hendrick, an adolescent boy from the wrong side of the tracks played by William Ruffin. With his father long gone and his mother more recently departed for California to recover from unspecified personal problems, Robbie has found himself the man of the house at the age 14, devotedly looking out for his younger half-brother Fess along with an infirm grandmother. Convinced of his mother’s eventual return—despite increasing evidence to the contrary—Robbie tries to hide the truth of his parentless home life from his junior high principal, Mr. Curtis. However, in danger of flunking out and being held back a year, Robbie has no choice but to seriously consider the bargain that Mr. Curtis offers him: if Robbie writes a personal essay over the summer on a subject of his choosing, Curtis will allow him to graduate to high school. But the unexpected arrival of his older brother Lucas further complicates Robbie’s precarious situation. A former high school football star, Lucas has drifted into a life of aimlessness and predatory romances, yet another weight around Robbie’s neck just as he is looking for a way out.

Director François Truffaut once remarked that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane probably started more careers in cinema than any other film. Truffaut’s own The 400 Blows might actually be a close second, and here director Matthew Gordon clearly found inspiration for The Dynamiter in Truffaut’s groundbreaking 1959 French New Wave classic, another chronicle of a troubled adolescent looking for a way out. Produced on a budget of just $250,000, The Dynamiter was shot on locations all across the Mississippi Delta; Gordon made it a point to use only local actors and non-actors, feeling that no outsider could convincingly capture the region’s very specific accent. Winner of special jury prize at the 2011 Deauville Film Festival, The Dynamiter also garnered a John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2012.

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