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Meet John Doe / Magic Town

Actors James Steward and Jane Wyman drinking through straws at a counter.
August 7, 2022 - 7:00 pm

Meet John Doe

U.S., 1941

Director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin’s 1941 political fantasy Meet John Doe wasn’t set in the near or distant future but it feels more prophetic by the hour. It’s got it all: a disconnected, alienated (largely white) American working class, fake news, an incipient fascist cabal and, of course, mobs. In Capra and Riskin’s telling, the parting shot of a disgruntled reporter (Barbara Stanwyck)—a manifesto in the form of a suicide note, written by a fictional everyman—inadvertently launches a nationwide political movement after her nervous newspaper finds a patsy to play the everyman (Gary Cooper). Outwardly well-intentioned, the movement is quickly co-opted by corrupt autocrats bent on seizing power. Even Capra and Riskin’s struggle—and ultimate failure—to bring their nihilistic vision to a satisfying resolution seems to resonate with today’s headlines.

35mm, b&w, 129 min. Director: Frank Capra. Screenwriter: Robert Riskin. With: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold.

Preserved by the Stanford Theatre Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Magic Town

U.S., 1947

For his post-war, second take on American populism, screenwriter Robert Riskin leans heavier into the romance than he did in Meet John Doe if only to recast love as the ultimate form of bipartisanship. A Hollywood paean to the pleasures of small town life and the simple grace of being median, Magic Town finds the forces of change— Jane Wyman’s crusading editor—and the forces of stasis—James Stewart’s cynical pollster—locked in flirtatious combat over the fate of Grandview, a pleasant burg that Stewart discovers perfectly reflects the aggregate opinions of the nation as a whole. The media, politicians and all manner of profit-seeking elites are the targets of Riskin’s satire in defense of the common sense folk who inevitably, in Riskin’s view, always end up holding the bag.

35mm, b&w, 103 min. Director: William A. Wellman. Screenwriter: Robert Riskin. With: James Stewart, Jane Wyman, Kent Smith.