Riskin and I had written ourselves into a corner. We knew we were loaded with entertainment; we had a startling opening and a powerful development that rose inexorably to a spectacular climactic wow. But--we had no acceptable SOLUTION to our story. The first two acts were solid; the third act was a wet sock.
We had abandoned our usual formula--a sane, honest "man of the people," thrust into a confrontation with the forces of evil, wins out with his innate goodness. This time our hero was a bindle staff, a drifting piece of human flotsam as devoid of ideals as he was of change in his pocket. When the forces of evil tempt him--fine; no skin off his nose if they call him John Doe, the "Messiah of goodness," in exchange for steaks and fancy clothes. But--discovering he is being used to delude and defraud thousands of innocent people, he rebels. When he tries to tell the deluded people that he had been a fraud, but now believes as they do, the people turn on him, try to tear him limb from limb. So far so good.
But now, what happens to John Doe? to the thousands that believed? to the forces of evil? We didn't know. Up to there the story wrote itself; beyond that point, it balked.
We called in Myles Connolly, my friend and severest critic--but also my ace- in-the-hole story constructionist. Connolly suggested several possible endings but admittedly, he, too, was stumped. We called in Jules Furthman, Hollywood's most sought after story "doctor." Furthman--a noted rarebook collector, he inoculated me with the bug--was in demand not for us inventive originality, but for his encyclopedic memory of past authors and their story plots. Filmmakers would tell him their story hang-ups; nine times out of ten, without recourse to research, Furthhman would say: "Oh, that plot was used by Shakespeare"--or Chekhov, De Maupassant, Sheridan, Goethe, Kipling, Stevenson, Conrad, Cooper, or one of a host of other authors--"and this is the way he solved it." Plagiarism? We like to call it borrowing.
Anyway, "Doctor" Furthman listened; then hemmed, hawed, dredged the fathomless depths of his recall for a plot like ours--novels, plays, poems; legends, myths, sagas; the New Testament, the Old, the Apocryphy; Egyptian writ ers, Sumerian, Sanscrit; hieroglyphics, cuneiform, the Rosetta Stone. Nothing. Annoyed, "Doc" Furthhman fell back on quackery. "Hell, it's simple," he declared. "You guys can't find an ending to your story because you got no story in the first place."
Riskin, Connolly, and I threw him out on his ear. His diagnosis was about to put us all in the hospital. The picture was cast, we had a starting date, our own money was on the line--and he tells us we've got no story in the first place.
Meet John Doe's inside joke was on the bizarre side--"The Mystery of the Unsolved Ending," we called it. It is astonishing, but true; Meet John Doe missed becoming a lasting film classic because we couldn't end it! For seven- eighths of the film, Riskin and I felt we had made The Great American Motion Picture; but in the last eighth, it fizzled into The Great American Letdown.
It was mea culpa, of course. From the first day of script-writing, Riskin fretted about the ending. I didn't. "Stop worrying, Bob. The picture will dictate its own ending."
"But Frank, it's murder to start shooting a picture without knowing how it's going to end."
"Haven't you heard? Everything happens for the best. Wait and see."
Bob waited, but didn't see much. In desperation--setting some kind of a pointless record--I was to photograph five different endings, and then try them out on theater audiences; all collapsed like punctured balloons. Why? Why did the hundreds of scenes integrate into a jigsaw puzzle that had greatness written all over it except for one gaping hole no last scene would plug up? I never found out why.
Of course, the press had a field day with the new phenomenon of playing musical chairs with film endings. Jay Carmody (Washington Star) wrote: "Mr. Capra, whose 'rightness' in disposing of his magnificent little people . . . has been one of the miracles of the screen, finally has landed in the middle of a hornet's nest . . . When his Meet John Doe opens at the Earle . . . it may have any one of four endings . . . a new world's record in indecision . . .
And Beau Broadway quipped in his New York Telegraph column: "The new giggle around town is this:
"Do you know why today is so refreshing?"
"Why, because the sun is out?"
"No. This is the day Capra isn't shooting a new ending for Doe . . ."
How did Meet John Doe finally fare? With some reservations, it finally won me what I long had coveted: acclaim from the intellectual critics. Kate Cameron (New York Daily News) gave it her rare top rating--"Four Stars." William Boehnel (World-Telegram) called it: "The finest film Frank Capra ever made, bar none . . ." Howard Barnes (Herald-Tribune): "The full power of the screen is unleashed in Frank Capra's Meet John Doe . . . With an artist's fine perception he has gone to the heart of the issues which are troubling us so profoundly these days . . . It is a testament of faith as well as brilliant craftsmanship . . .
Those words, "an artist's fine perception," had seldom been applied to my work before. And Bosley Crowther (The New York Times) upped my rating: " . . eloquent with love for gentle people . . . it marks a distinct progression in Mr. Capra's--and the screen's--political thinking . . ."
The hard-nosed Variety seldom used unpragmatic phrases of this sort: "A showman's pride . . . Much comedy, much humor, much sly wit and broad fun . . . Pictorially and technically, the picture is a masterpiece . . . the dramatic narrative is one of the literary milestones of the screen."
Archer Winston (New York Post) felt as I did: ". . . [They] have made seven- eighths of a great and timely film . . ." Leo Mishkin (Telegraph) echoed the appraisal: "At least one may say that the first half of Meet John Doe is undeniably . . . one of the great pictures of any year . . . You'll never see anything better . . "
But the audiences, my John Does, about whom and for whom I made my films, they left the theater somewhat disappointed--no matter which ending they saw. This was shrewdly predicted by movie critic Edwin Schallert (Los Angeles Times) when he first saw the film: "Frank Capra's Meet John Doe . . . an admirable challenge to the spirit of life today, is a picture that should make history and give a new turn to the thoughts of the nation, if--and the IF is very large, indeed--it does not die abornin' . . . [because] it lacks the inspiration of a great ending."
And then--after the film had been playing a couple of weeks in six major cities--I received a letter signed "John Doe." It read: ". . . I have seen your film with many different endings . . . all bad, I thought . . . The only thing that can keep John Doe from jumping to his death is the John Does themselves . . . if they ask him . . ." A large bell rang. I called back all the east and shot Ending Number FIVE!
I called back all the outstanding prints of the film and spliced on ending number FIVE. And that finished our crazy game of "Five Endings in Search of an Audience."
That last ending was the best of a sorry lot, but still it was a letdown. Was an acceptable ending ever possible for John Doe? I still don't know. Perhaps readers will. I do know that at the time, I was much harsher on the film than the critics. I knew Riskin and I had written ourselves into a corner. We had shown the rise of two powerful, opposing movements--one good, one evil. They clashed head 1 on--and destroyed each other! St. George fought with the dragon, slew it, and was slain. What our film said to bewildered people hungry for solutions was this, "No answers this time, ladies and gentlemen. It's back to the drawing board." And the people said, "Oh, nuts!"
But whether Cooper jumped or not, we were not prophets without honor in our own filmland. A sample telegram: David O. Selznick--"ONCE IN A BLUE MOON A PICTURE COMES ALONG THAT MAKES ONE PROUD TO BE IN THE PICTURE BUSINESS . . ."