Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck), a reporter who is about to be laid off from her newspaper, fabricates a letter from a John Doe who says he will kill himself on Christmas Eve to protest the state of the country. Ann's unsuspecting editor runs the letter, and John Doe becomes a media sensation. The newspaper, wishing to exploit the hype, hires a former baseball player hobo, John Willoughby (Cooper), to portray this fictional person in public.
All John wants is some money so he can get his arm fixed for another shot at the major leagues, but Ann writes him a speech which he delivers on the radio, and the "John Doe" movement begins. Unfortunately, the owner of Ann's paper, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), wishes to exploit the John Doe movement for his own cynical political ends.
One of Capra's lesser-known films today, but still highly regarded. Won an Academy Award for original screenplay.
Contains examples of:
- Becoming the Mask: John comes to believe in the "John Doe" philosophy as written by Ann, and sincerely wants to lead a movement for reform.
- Cerebus Syndrome: Things go downhill after the Colonel leaves John.
- Chronic Hero Syndrome: Near the end John actually tries to kill himself, in order to revive the Doe movment.
- Cloudcuckoolander: John and the Colonel, mostly the Colonel.
- The Colonel's theory of "the helots" being responsible for giving decent people a lot of grief is an inversion of the facts. Helots were slaves in ancient Sparta. They were the "John Does" — did all the hard work and were regularly and violently oppressed by the owning class.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Lots of them, unfortunately.
- Despair Event Horizon
- Da Editor: Henry Connell, Ann's cranky, cynical editor.
- The Ditz: John is pretty much an amiable dunce. An operator for a rival newspaper has to explain to him that his participation in the John Doe hoax will make it impossible for him to make it in major league baseball.
- Everybody Calls Him "Barkeep": The Colonel's real name is never revealed.
- The Everyman: The John Does.
- Focus Group Ending: Capra filmed and road-tested four endings to the film, including one in which Norton has a HeelFace Turn and one, arguably the dramatically necessary one, where John follows through and jumps off the roof. After receiving a letter from a test viewer saying that the John Does themselves should save John, Capra filmed and released that. In his autobiography he continued to express dissatisfaction with the ending.
- From Badto Worse: For John, after the halfway point in the film.
- Glasses Pull: A villainous and understated example. Norton has a habit of taking off and cleaning his pince-nez when he's saying something important. He takes them off when he tells Connell to mind his own busiiness, and again when he explains to Ann his plot to use the John Doe Clubs to win the White House, and again when he tells John that he'll destroy John if John doesn't play ball.
- HeelFace Turn / High-HeelFace Turn: Connell's conscience drives him to tell John the truth about Norton's plot. Ann is driven by her conscience and her love of John.
- Heel Realization: Ann finally admits how much they're exploiting John."We're all heels, especially me."
- Heroic BSoD: John and Ann both have one, both equally heartbreaking to watch.
- Hobos: John and the Colonel, among others. John is just down on his luck, but the Colonel sincerely believes in the hobo way of life, with its freedom from responsibilities.
- Informed Ability: John is supposed to be a baseball pitcher who had a shot at the big leagues. Gary Cooper's pitching motion is exceptionally unconvincing. (This also proved a problem when Cooper played Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees.
- Messianic Archetype: Multiple references comparing John Doe and the John Doe idea to Christ. For example, after John is jeered and pelted by a mob at the convention, Connell says "Well boys, you can chalk up another one to the Pontius Pilates." Later, Christ is described by Ann as "The first John Doe."
- Mr. Smith: John Doe, The Everyman, as conceived by Ann.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name: This is a movie made in 1941, a parable about the dangers of fascism. D.B. Norton and his black-clad motorcycle troops are the Nazi stand-ins. Norton talks of bringing "an iron hand" and "discipline", and Connell the editor calls Norton the "fifth column" (a direct reference to Franco's takeover in Spain).
- Pygmalion Plot: Ann goes right out and says she has fallen in love with "John Doe".
- Rousing Speech: Ann writes John a stemwinder of a speech, which kicks the John Doe movement into high gear.
- Running Gag: John and the Colonel's music.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: After Ann and the John Doe fans talk John into sticking around, a disgusted Colonel leaves.
- She's Got Legs: Connell, describing Ann on the phone, makes a point of mentioning that she has "as fine a pair" as "ever walked into this office."
- Strawman News Media: Ann doesn't hesitate to write an entirely fake John Doe letter and pass it off as real. Her newspaper eagerly pushes the hoax along in order to boost circulation. And then newspaper owner D.B. Norton uses the John Doe movement for his own dark political ends.
- Talking Down the Suicidal: Ann, the Colonel, and the founders of the John Doe Clubs meet John atop City Hall, and desperately try to talk him out of jumping.
- Those Two Guys: Long John and the Colonel.
- Throwing Out the Script: A Capra staple trope.
- Time-Compression Montage: One of John criss-crossing the country delivering speeches while John Doe Clubs pop up everywhere.
- Title Drop: Signs for his big speeches saying "Meet John Doe Tonight".
- You Are Not Alone: Ann, and the founders of the John Doe Clubs, meeting John at the top of City Hall, trying to convince him not to jump.Ann: Please don't give up. We'll start all over again. Just you and I. It isn't too late.