A columnist inspires people with an unemployed man protesting social ills; but the newspaper owner tries to take over the movement he financed.
Fired after D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) bought the paper, in her last column Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) writes that an unemployed man is going to commit suicide off city hall. Mayor Lovett (Gene Lockhart) calls editor Henry Connell (James Gleason), and Ann tells Connell she made it up but suggests they continue it with protests. Ann gets a $1,000 bonus, and they pick the bum John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to be John Doe. He and the Colonel (Walter Brennan) are fed. Connell has John sign a contract, and they are put in a hotel. The Colonel warns John that money will ruin him because of a lot of heels. Ann writes John's protests, and people are aroused. Connell and Ann argue before Norton, who backs Ann to gain power. Norton hires her to write radio speeches. Ann's mother (Spring Byington) asks Ann for money to help people. John hopes to pitch when his arm is fixed, but bodyguard Angelface (Warren Hymer) says John is in a racket and offers him $5,000 to deny the story. Ann gives John a positive speech; he reads it, and the Colonel returns the money to Angelface. The man calling John a fake is removed. John speaks for the "little punks" and says to love their neighbors.
John runs off with the Colonel. At a lunch counter John is recognized. Ann arrives with Norton, and soda jerk Bert Hansen (Regis Toomey) speaks for the John Doe club about how he made friends at a meeting. They thank John and tell him not to jump. The Colonel leaves, and Norton has John charter clubs. Norton organizes a convention. Charlie tells Ann that John is nuts about her. John says he dreamed he chased Ann to a wedding to rich Ted and spanked her. John tells Ann he is lonely. Norton gives Ann a fur coat and jewels, saying they will start a third party to nominate him. John goes to Ann's mother and asks for her help in proposing. Drunk Connell sends Beany (Irving Bacon) for the speech and tells John that Norton is a skunk. John says the clubs can't be used by politicians; but Connell says that Ann sold out. John goes to Norton and hears their plans to control votes. John rips up the speech, but Norton threatens to destroy the clubs. John says he will speak, socks Ted (Rod La Rocque), and leaves. In the stadium newspapers announce John is a fake. When John starts to speak, Norton's troopers stop him and let Norton speak. John admits the fakery, and his wire is cut.
Clubs disband. On Christmas Eve Ann fears John will jump. Connell and the Colonel keep watch. Bert and Sourpuss (J. Farrell MacDonald) go to stop him. Norton and his men go to the tower at 11:52 p.m. while Ann climbs the stairs. At midnight John arrives with a letter. Norton says his death will not be known. John says he mailed a letter to Connell. Ann pleads with John, and so do Bert and others. Ann collapses in John's arms, and he carries her.
Director Frank Capra explores how the common people
can improve the world if the powerful rich are not allowed to
mislead them; but unfortunately the whole movement is based on
a gimmick to sell newspapers and can be manipulated by those owning
the media. Has this changed or become worse?