Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Meet John Doe (1941) - Film Locations

Frank Capra is one of those directors where I can watch just about any one of his films and be entertained. Many of Capra's movies are heavily sentimental, wholesome message pictures which some critics have dismissively referred to as "Capra-corn." Although Capra's filmmaking style may seem a bit old-fashioned, for me personally it's one of the qualities I enjoy about Capra's films, and regardless of Capra's style, the subject matter in his films from the 1930s and 1940s, are just as relevant now as they were then. Whether it be a naive scout leader who thinks by becoming a senator and going to Washington he can help his country in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) or a presidential candidate who struggles to stick by his ideals and not sell out to special interest groups in State of the Union (1948), Capra's films touch on subjects that still strike a chord as a contemporary viewer watching the current political circus taking place.

The film Meet John Doe (1941), starring the always wonderful to watch Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, is another Capra classic portraying a "common man" fighting greed and corruption for the greater good of society. In this story, Stanwyck is a reporter who finds out that she is being laid off. For her last column she publishes a letter from a fictional "John Doe" who threatens to kill himself on Christmas Eve in response to society's inattention to people in need. When the letter is printed it causes a sensation and newspaper sales spike.  Stanwyck is kept on at the newspaper to continue her charade and to exploit the popularity of John Doe to sell more papers. After interviewing several hobos, Stanwyck discovers John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a former baseball player in need of cash to repair an injured arm, to portray her John Doe.

With Cooper as the face of John Doe, Stanwyck continues to be John Doe's voice through her typewriter, publishing a series of letters from John Doe in the newspaper. With people all over the country stirred by John Doe's philosophy, the newspaper's publisher, D.B. Norton, decides to take things further and hires Cooper to give radio speeches which Stanwyck will write. A grassroots movement begins with John Doe supporters around the country creating John Doe clubs, with the simple philosphy of "Be a better neighbor."Intending to capitalize on John Doe's growing popularity, Norton plans to use John Doe to endorse him as a presidential candidate. Cooper himself begins to believe the John Doe philosophy, realizes he is being used and attempts to make things right with the public by exposing the entire scheme.

There is no real life city mentioned in the film, only a fictional town called "Millville" but the exterior scenes were all filmed in the Los Angeles area, including the Warner Bros. Studio backlot in Burbank. Here are a few of the Meet John Doe filming locations as they appear today.

Looking south down Vine Street just above Yucca Street.

Looking down Vine St. above Yucca St. as it appears today.

When John Doe is going to make his premier on radio, the scene opens with a shot of a guy hammering an advertisment to a pole that is on Vine Street in Hollywood. The camera gives us a view looking south down Vine Street from just above Yucca Street. We get a glimpse of the Broadway Hollywood building on the right. Just behind the bill advertising "Hear John Doe TONIGHT 9 P.M. W.B.N." is where today stands the Capital Records building, which wasn't finished until 1956, fifteen years after Meet John Doe was made.

NBC Studios, corner of Sunset Blvd. and Vine St.

Former site of NBC Studios at Sunset and Vine.

The location where Cooper gives the radio speech as John Doe is NBC Studios in Hollywood, located at the northeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street. The art deco NBC building opened in 1938 and was the West Coast headquarters for NBC Radio Networks. In 1962 NBC moved to a new building in Burbank and in 1964 the Hollywood location was demolished. Today the site is the home to a Chase bank.

The "Millville" town square is Midwest Street at Warner Bros.

Midwest Street at Warner Bros. Studio, Burbank, Ca.

Later in the film, after Cooper realizes he is being used and decides to go back to obscurity, he is recognized in a diner in the small town of "Millville." Millville is really part of the Warner Bros. Studio backlot area known as Midwest Street. In the screenshot above the people of Millville frantically run across the town square to get a glimpse of John Doe. Midwest Street has appeared in numerous films including The Hard Way (1943), East of Eden (1955), The Music Man (1962), Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? (1970) and The Monster Squad (1987) to name a few.

Millville City Hall

The city hall building on Midwest Street.

Looking across the Millville town square.

Looking across Midwest Street.

Near the end of the film, Cooper is supposed to give a big speech as John Doe endorsing Norton for president. Instead, Cooper plans to expose the whole deceptive scheme. The big speech takes place in a stadium and the stadium that was used for filming was Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. The stadium was located on 10 acres between San Pedro Street to the west, Avalon Blvd to the east, E. 41st Place to the north, and E. 42 Place to the south. The stadium opened on September 29, 1925 and for 33 seasons was the home to the Angels and for 11 seasons it was also the home to the rival Hollywood Stars. The stadium was eventually demolished in 1969.

Wrigley Field Los Angeles as seen in Meet John Doe.

Aerial view of Wrigley Field's opening in 1925.
Image from Los Angeles Public Library.

Aerial of the site of Wrigley Field as it looks today.

In the two images above, the first yellow rectangle shows the portion of the stadium that appears in the film and in the second image the yellow rectangle shows where that portion of the stadium would be if the stadium were still standing.

In the two images just below, the first is a screenshot showing the inside of Wrigley Field as seen in the film and the second is a clearer vintage photo from 1937, during a game of Hollywood comedians against Hollywood leading men.

Inside view of Wrigley Field as seen in Meet John Doe.

1937 Comedians vs. Leading Men game.
Image from Los Angeles Public Library.

The end of the film involves Cooper contemplating jumping from City Hall on Christmas Eve. Although Los Angeles is not mentioned as the location of the story, the city hall that is used for the story is the Los Angeles City Hall as seen in the screenshot below. However, it looks like the LA City Hall was recreated in one of the Warner Bros. Studio sound stages. For one, the skyline is different and second, although possible, its not likely to be snowing in downtown Los Angeles.

City Hall as seen in Meet John Doe.

The Los Angeles City Hall.

I highly recommend this film. If you haven't yet seen this classic, ClassicFlix currently has Meet John Doe available on DVD to buy or to rent.

Images (c) Warner Bros. Entertainment, (c) 2013 Google, (c) 2013 Microsoft Corporation Pictometry Bird's Eye (c) 2012 Pictometry International Corp.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Welcome, Foolish Mortals: The Life and Voices of Paul Frees

First up as part of my participation in the classic film book summer reading challenge is Welcome, Foolish Mortals: The Life and Voices of Paul Frees by Ben Ohmart. The name Paul Frees may not be immediately recognizable but, as the title suggests, you're more than likely familiar with one of his many voices. Some of my favorites include his voices as the Ghost Host in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion attraction, as John Lennon and George Harrison for The Beatles TV series (1965-1969), the Pillsbury Doughboy, as various characters in those Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas specials, as well as various voices on Rocky and Bullwinkle. Prior to reading this book I knew of many of Frees' voice credits but I knew little about the man himself.

Born in Chicago, Frees got his start in entertainment in the 1930s doing impressions. He then got established in radio and developed the reputation as a talent you could count on. He appeared on popular radio programs such as Suspense and Crime Classics. Many times Frees was called in to fill in as the voices of popular celebrities such as Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart. According to Frees, Bogart once told him that "you sound more like me than I do." Later in his career, once while seeing Sammy Davis Jr. perform in Vegas, Davis admitted to the audience that he was embarrassed to do impressions for them because there was someone who was sitting in the audience they probably didn't know that was considered the best at doing impressions - referring to Frees.

Frees was known to antagonize his coworkers on occasion and one of my favorite stories involves a time he worked at NBC in Hollywood with Lionel Barrymore on the Dr. Kildare radio program. Frees explained, "Oh, the terrible things I used to do to Lionel Barrymore. He was in a wheelchair and outside of NBC at the corner of Sunset and Vine across the way there was a place called The Key Club we used to go to. I would wheel the old man behind there, and I would start running and I would wheel his wheelchair so fast down the ramp. I'd be wheeling him at 30, 40, 50 miles an hour and he'd be shouting, 'You sonofabitch, if you don't stop this chair...!" I can just picture a perturbed Barrymore yelling at Frees.

Paul Frees with Fred MacMurray in the Shaggy Dog (1959).

Frees did appear in some films, but mostly in minor roles. Some of his film credits include Reverend Morrison in A Place in the Sun (1951),  Corley in His Kind of Woman (1951), and as one of Sinatra's thugs, Benny in the film Suddenly (1954). However, Frees never got beyond minor roles and was more likely to be hired to do voice-over work and provide dubbing for films. For example, in Patton (1970) he provided the voices for a war correspondent, one of Patton's staff members, and the voice of a sheik. He also dubbed for Humphrey Bogart in Bogart's last film role, The Harder They Fall (1956).

Paul Frees in one of his three-piece suits.

I was most interested in learning some of the quirky things about Frees. Like how Frees grew a big, Edwardian looking mustache and how he was always impeccably dressed. Frees often wore three piece suits and had a large collection of pocket watches, along with a large collection of different watch fobs. Frees was short but would talk like he was the biggest person in the room. Because he was short and he dressed flashy, Frees always carried a gun for protection. During the 1960s, he had a side gig working as an undercover narcotics agent for the DEA in Marin County. In addition to voice talents, Frees was also a gifted painter, writer and singer. He got around in a Rolls Royce and frequently had someone else drive him. Frees purchased one of the first VCRs and recorded thousands of tapes worth of TV and movies. He was a homebody who loved watching TV.

After establishing himself in Hollywood Frees moved to Tiburon, California near San Francisco. Frees built his dream house, a multi-story home on the side of a cliff. Frees no longer needed to be in Hollywood to find work. The work came to him. At his peak Frees would make the claim that he earned more per hour than any other star in Hollywood. He could go into his home studio or fly down to a studio in LA, and in less than an hour be finished, earning sometimes as much money in that time as some actors would for working through a whole film. Meanwhile Frees was ready already on to the next gig.

The highlight of Frees career was the work he did for Rankin/Bass such as the animated version of The Hobbit or the stop-motion Christmas classics Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970), or Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976) and the work he did for Jay Ward Productions including The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and Dudley Do-Right.

One of the many advertisement characters Frees voiced - the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Providing his voice to advertisements was another lucrative gig. In addition to the Pillsbury Doughboy, Frees voiced Toucan Sam, the 7-Up bird Fresh Up Freddie, the Little Green Sprout from the Jolly the Giant commercials, and as the announcer for the Mr. Goodwrench advertising campaign just to name a few.

For me, I'm reminded of Paul Frees every time I go to Disneyland. His voice can be heard on the Haunted Mansion ride and the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and he also lent his voice to numerous other Disney projects.

I really enjoyed reading about the interesting life of Paul Frees. The book was filled with plenty of fun facts, and the author, Ben Ohmart, has also released an updated edition with additional information and photos.


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