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Richard Connell's short story "A Reputation," which was reprinted in a collection of his fiction entitled Apes and Angels (New York, 1924), was being developed as a stage production by Connell and Robert Presnell at the time that Capra bought the rights to the treatment in 1939. The title of the treatment, "The Life and Death of John Doe" was used as a working title for the film, as was The Life of John Doe. According to a pre-production news item, the title was changed to Meet John Doe in order to avoid giving the impression that the film was based on a biography. Meet John Doe was the first film that Capra produced under his newly formed Frank Capra Productions, Inc., a company he co-founded in 1939 with writer Robert Riskin.
Although the national release date for this film was May 3, 1941, the film played at selected theatres around the country following its 12 March premieres. According to his autobiography, Capra acknowledged that five different versions of the ending of Meet John Doe were filmed and audience-tested before he arrived at the decision to release the fifth one for the 3 May national release. Capra also admitted that he was not satisfied with any of the endings that he shot, and that at one point, during the film's first run, following its 12 March premieres, three different versions of the film were playing in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington. One of the five versions ended in John jumping from the City Hall roof, while another had Ann and D. B. Norton talking him out of suicide. The fifth and final version of the end was suggested to the director by way of an anonymous letter, signed "John Doe," which read: "...I have seen your film with many different endings...all bad, I thought...The only thing that can keep John Doe from jumping are the John Does themselves...if they ask him." In an interview, Capra admitted that "for seven-eighths of the picture we had a fine, fine thing going for us there; the very end collapsed like a brick sock."
As noted in Capra's autobiography, the mystery surrounding the story details of the film, both before and during production, was the result of the director's deliberate attempt to shield Bank of America and Jack L. Warner from the fact that the script was not completed at the time of production. Production files on Meet John Doe indicate that Capra financed this picture by using his house as collateral for a $750,000 loan from Bank of America. The loan agreement specified that the remaining funds for the picture (estimated to cost $1,312,500) would be loaned to Capra by Warner Bros., which was to furnish the director with all the necessary equipment, props, facilities and contract players. The studio also negotiated a twenty-five percent cut of the picture's revenue after it grossed its first two million dollars. Other legal documents pertaining to the film indicate that part of Capra's debt to Warner Bros. was settled by a payment of $13,835.31, which the studio secured from the profits made on his next picture, Arsenic and Old Lace. Frank Capra Productions, Inc. was dissolved on December 29, 1941, and its assets were distributed to Capra and Riskin.
Pre-production news items note that Ann Sheridan was first announced for the part of Ann Mitchell, and that Fay Bainter was considered for the role of Ann's mother. Hollywood Reporter production charts listed Granville Bates, Henry O'Neill, Frank Orth and Russell Simpson in the cast, but Bates died shortly after he was announced for the role. There is no indication that O'Neill, Orth or Simpson, who was mistakenly credited with the role played by Walter Soderling in the New York Times review, were in the released film. Other actors announced in contemporary news items for roles, but who did not appear in the film, were: Charles Coburn, Lasses White, Donald Crisp, Dudley Digges and former silent film director Bruce Mitchell. Contemporary sources also note that "Daisy," the dog, was borrowed from Columbia's Blondie series for this picture. As noted in his biography, Dimitri Tiomkin, the film's scorer, became disillusioned with Capra when the director canceled the version of the film's ending that he had scored, which included a paraphrasing of the black spiritual "Deep River" and "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
The New York Times review of Meet John Doe incorrectly lists Mrs. Gardner Crane's character as Mrs. Webster, and erroneously credits Pierre Watkin with the role of Weston and Stanley Andrews with the role of Bennett. According to the Meet John Doe pressbook, Capra paid 350 extras to view and critique two versions of a speech written for John Doe, and decided which one to use based on the results of the survey. Dorothy Andree, who made a brief appearance in the film as the "Average American Girl," was selected from over 12,000 young females who wrote in from all over the country to apply for the part. A total of 137 players were assigned speaking parts in this film, which boasted the use of over 4,000 extras. Much of the filming took place on some fifty-seven sets that were designed by art director Stephen Goosson.
About two hundred plumbers were hired to keep the rain falling at the Gilmore Field baseball park in Los Angeles for eight nights during the filming of John's speech. William Erbes supervised the rain effects, which cost an estimated $300,000 to produce. Studio publicity material also indicates that actor Gene Morgan died soon after completing his part in the film. One modern source credits Jo Swerling and Robert Presnell with the original treatment on which this film was based, and another includes Charles K. French (as a fired reporter) and Cyril Ring in the cast. Modern sources also peg the final production cost at $1,100,000. Suzanne Carnahan, who played an autograph seeker in this film, changed her name to Susan Peters and later went on to become a leading lady in a number of 1940's features.
Meet John Doe was filmed at Warner Bros. Studio and at the following locations: Gilmore Field, Los Angeles; Griffith Park, Los Angeles; Pasadena, CA; and a Los Angeles icehouse. This film was nominated for an Academy Award for its original story, and was chosen by Film Daily as one of the ten best pictures of 1941. Gary Cooper appeared on the cover of Time magazine on March 3, 1941. Two remakes of Meet John Doe were put into development, but were never produced: one in 1962 at United Artists, and another in 1982 at Columbia Pictures Television for CBS-TV.