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Under the Radar DVD of the Week: 'Meet John Doe' (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition)

Dennis King Published: December 20, 2010

This week, the most interesting DVD to appear on release lists is:

“Meet John Doe” (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition)

The holidays are a perfect time to celebrate the work of Frank Capra, one of American cinema’s greatest populist filmmakers. So, it’s fitting that Tuesday brings the DVD release of “Meet John Doe” (70th Anniversary Collector’s Edition).

The 1941 film, which won an Oscar nomination for original story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell Sr., was in its time a dark and biting satire on the travails of Everyday Joes and the cynical manipulation of public sentiment by powerful media forces. Ironically, on its 70th anniversary, the film feels as timely and harshly satirical as ever.

The story features Barbara Stanwyck as a recently fired newspaper reporter who, as a parting shot at her editor, fakes a story about a desperate, down-and-out “John Doe” who threatens a very public suicide in protest of America’s social ills. The story causes as nationwide sensation that forces the editor and reporter to hire a fake John Doe to fully capitalize on their fictional myth.

Gary Cooper (in his second great role of the year, after his Oscar-winning turn in “Sergeant York”) plays Long John Willoughby, a penniless former baseball pitcher lured into impersonating John Doe. And as the John Doe movement morphs into a powerful, populist national phenomenon, the participants are melodramatically transformed by their big lie as the story touches on all manner of familiar Capra themes – including cynical exploitation of the common man by powerful political, business and media forces. It’s in this hothouse environment that democracy can assume some pretty problematic guises and that demagogues can achieve frightening power. Sound familiar?

This special-edition DVD contains several bonus features, including: audio commentary (with archival contributions from Capra); three featurettes (“Meet Mr. Cooper,” “Meet Miss Stanwyck” and “Meet Mr. Capra”); extensive cast and crew profiles and production background; vintage Lux radio productions, and information on the film’s latest digital restoration.

“Meet John Doe” (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition) is not rated and runs 123 minutes. It’s being released by VCI Entertainment.

- Dennis King