nfuriated at being told to write one final column after being laid off from her newspaper job, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) prints a letter from a fictional unemployed "John Doe" threatening suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of society's ills. When the note causes a sensation and the paper's competition suspects a fraud and starts to investigate, the newspaper editor rehires Mitchell who comes up with a scheme of hiding the fictional nature of "John Doe" while exploiting the sensation caused by the fake letter to boost the newspaper's sales, for which she demands a bonus equal to 8 months' pay. After reviewing a number of derelicts who have shown up at the paper claiming to have penned the original suicide letter, Mitchell and editor Henry Connell (James Gleason) hire John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a former baseball player and tramp who is in need of money to repair his injured arm, to play John Doe. Mitchell now starts to pen an article series in Doe's name, elaborating on the letter's ideas of society's disregard of people in need.
Willoughby gets $50, a new suit of clothes, and a plush hotel suite with his tramp friend (Walter Brennan), who launches into an extended diatribe against "the heelots", lots of heels who incessantly focus on getting money from others. Willoughby is hired to give radio speeches, guided by Mitchell who is promised $100 a week to write his speeches, paid by the newspaper's publisher, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold). Willoughby turns down a $5,000 bribe to admit the whole thing was a publicity stunt, gives Mitchell's speech, and dashes off to the countryside with "The Colonel". They ride the rails, playing the harmonica and ocarina until they show up in Millsville, where John Doe is recognized at a diner. He's brought to City Hall, where he's met by Hanson, who gives a five-minute monologue about how he was inspired to start a local John Doe club.
The John Doe philosophy spreads across the country, developing into a broad grassroots movement whose simple slogan is, "Be a better neighbor". Far from being an altruistic philanthropist, however, Norton plans to channel the support for Doe into support for his own national political ambitions. As a culmination of this plan, Norton has instructed Mitchell to write a speech for Willoughby in which he announces the foundation of a new political party and endorses Norton as its presidential candidate.
When Willoughby, who has come to believe in the John Doe philosophy himself, realizes that he is being used, he tries to expose the plot, but is first stymied in his attempts to talk his own mind to a nationwide radio audience at the rally instead of reading the prepared speech, and then exposed as a fake by Norton, who claims to have been deceived, like everyone else, by the staff of the newspaper. Frustrated by his failure, Willoughby intends to commit suicide by jumping from the roof of the City Hall on Christmas Eve, as indicated in the original John Doe letter. Only the intervention of Mitchell and followers of the John Doe clubs persuades him to renege on his threat to kill himself. At this point in the movie, a reference to Jesus Christ is made, that a historical "John Doe" has already died for the sake of humanity. The film ends with Connell turning to Norton and saying, "There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!"
Walter Brennan, Gary Cooper, Irving Bacon, Barbara Stanwyck, and James Gleason in Meet John Doe
Gary Cooper as John Doe/Long John Willoughby
Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell
Edward Arnold as D. B. Norton
Walter Brennan as The Colonel
Spring Byington as Mrs. Mitchell
James Gleason as Henry Connell
Gene Lockhart as Mayor Lovett
Rod La Rocque as Ted Sheldon
Irving Bacon as Beanie
Please watch: "An American in Berlin? - Oliver Hardy ~ with Philip Hutchinson"
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