“I have an M.D. from Harvard, I am board certified in cardio-thoracic medicine and trauma surgery, I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea. So I ask you; when someone goes into that chapel and they fall on their knees and they pray to God that their wife doesn’t miscarry or that their daughter doesn’t bleed to death, who do you think they’re praying to? Now, go ahead and read your Bible, but if you’re looking for God, let me tell you something: I AM GOD!” [Alex Baldwin in “Malice” (1993)]
So there! As you might have surmised from my subtle quote, this month’s post is about the assorted members of the medical profession. This has been a popular subject in movies and on television shows for ages. However, how they have been portrayed has definitely changed throughout the years. The nineteen thirties presented doctors as idealists which was manifested by a series of nine movies starring Lew Ayres as “Dr. Kildare” and which were originally based on a series of stories by pulp writer Frederick Schiller Faust (also known as “Max Brand”). Although they were B films (meaning they were cheaply made and usually with less popular actors) they were extremely popular, and the character of Dr. James Kildare continued to thrive as a radio drama long after movies about the character stopped being made. However, as many of you who are of my age may remember, “Dr. Kildare” came back as a Network NBC TV show from 1961-66 with Richard Chamberlain becoming a star as a young intern and later “doctor” with Raymond Massey providing able assistance (especially acting wise) as Kildare’s superior/mentor Dr. Gillespie. Despite the soap opera storylines and the fact that Chamberlain, at this time in his career, was not much of an actor (although he certainly became a fine one years later), this show was wildly popular, and the episodes raised public awareness of various health issues like drug addiction, sickle cell anemia, epilepsy, leukemia, and others.
As a youngster I enjoyed this show basically because, at times, it touched on controversial subjects like one episode about a Christian Scientist couple’s husband (Dennis Weaver) having to decide whether to allow his wife to be operated on when she was badly injured in a car crash, or another about a surgeon (Jack Lord) with developing arthritis deciding to secretly use an unproven drug with serious side effects to stop his arthritic pain. Now, of course, Network censors (you just knew I just had to kick that particular can again) banned anything about venereal disease, the birth control pill or homosexuality so some subjects were still “verboten”. At the same time, we had dueling doctor shows with ABC’s “Ben Casey” (1961-66) starring Vince Edwards as neurosurgeon “Casey” and Sam Jaffe as Dr. Zorba, his mentor. Although Jaffe could rival Larry from “The 3 Stooges” with his hairdo, he, like Massey, was terrific on the show. Unfortunately, Edwards (a bad actor), looked more like a surly bouncer at a cheap roadside dive bar than a neurosurgeon. However, Jaffe and the storylines on the show held your interest despite Edwards always looking like he’d rather be punching out his patents (including Dr. Zorba) rather than helping them.
A doctor trying to help individuals despite society, the medical establishment, or the doctor’s own weaknesses, hindering him was also a popular theme. One such film which highlighted all three of these issues was “The Citadel” (1938) starring Robert Donat and Rosaland Russell and based on the novel by A.J. Cronin. The film followed the life of Andrew Manson (Donat), a young idealistic Scottish doctor who, at first, while trying to treat the poor Welsh coal miners while conducting meaningful research into their aliments, is opposed by both the medical establishment and the workers themselves. Disheartened, he goes to London where he becomes a cynical member of a clinic catering to the rich where assembly line medicine and borderline quackery abounds. However, ultimately, after a tragedy, he realizes his mistake and tries to return to his better ideals and beliefs.
Besides being a novelist, A.J. Cronin was a physician in real life and did research into the illnesses effecting miners which he used to good affect in this novel as well as in some of his other novels. His research was later utilized for the creation of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS). Although time has dated both his novel and this movie, it is still powerful and Donat, ably assisted by a young Rosalind Russell as his wife, gives a subtle, yet powerful performance. Director King Vidor, a multifaceted director who could do films highlighting contemporary social issues as well as anyone got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Director, and both Donat and the movie itself also received Oscar nominations. One year later Donat would win his Oscar for Best Actor for “Goodbye Mr. Chips” despite Clark Gable acting in a little thing called “Gone with the Wind”. Donat, whom Lawrence Oliver once said would have been a greater actor than he, unfortunately, was plagued by chronic asthma as well as other health issues which harmed his career (he only did 20 movies in all) and which also shortened his life. He died in 1958. He was only 53 years old!
Now, let us move on from the sublime to the ridiculous with the medical drama, “Not as a Stranger” (1955). Based on a bloated near thousand-page novel that topped the best-seller lists for two years, it was about another young idealistic physician’s conflicts with the medical profession while dealing with his own personal weaknesses. Acclaimed film producer Stanley Kramer (“Champion”, “High Noon”, etc.) chose this novel to make his film directing debut. Bad move Stanley! Playing the brilliant, driven, yet sensitive Dr. Lucas Marsh, you’d think that Kramer would have picked someone like Montgomery Clift or a young James Stewart or Henry Fonda type to play the role, wouldn’t you? His choice: Robert Mitchum (!!!) It doesn’t get any better later Dear Reader. It gets worse! He then made an even bigger mistake with his choices for the rest of the cast which consisted of Frank Sinatra, Broderick Crawford, Olivia DeHavilland, Lee Marvin, Charles Bickford, Gloria Graham, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Myron McCormick. This bunch might have possibly been the biggest collection of drunks, substance abusers, philanderers, bar room fight starters, troublemakers, and all around Hellraisers in motion picture history, and with maybe, the wildest of them all being Broderick Crawford. Everyone on set referred to Crawford as the “Brod” except Mitchum who nick-named him “Crawdad” (maybe because, at times, Crawford could get so drunk that he would literally be crawling on the floor). One famous late-night excursion involved Sinatra, Mitchum, Marvin, Crawford, and Joe DiMaggio (Don’t Ask!) having to break down an apartment door so they asked Crawford if he could do it. His response: “I can do anything!” and he might have been capable of just about doing anything too! Between Crawford getting pissed off at Sinatra on set (maybe because Sinatra kept calling Crawford “Lennie” from “Mice and Men”) and, while attacking him, ripping off and partially eating Sinatra’s toupee, to Crawford, during the same set altercation picking up Mitchum like a sack of potatoes and throwing him through a window, is it any wonder that Stanley Kramer summed up his directing experience for his first film as “ten weeks of Hell”. Honestly, a turgid turkey like “Stranger” really shouldn’t have been labeled as a medical drama about physicians at all. It probably would have been better if it was labeled as a movie about a bunch of lunatics in a Psycho Ward!
Nevertheless, medical dramas broke out like some sort of super-spreader event for the movies and on Network TV in the nineteen sixties. For the movies you had “The Young Doctors” (1961) (The Dumb Doctors, The Old Doctors…) and then you had “The Interns” (1962), “The New Interns” (1964) (The Newer than New Interns, The Old Interns, The New Podiatrists, The… I’m getting so confused!). For TV during Casey and Kildare’s time you also had “The Nurses” (1962-64), “The Doctors and the Nurses” (1964-65) (The Doctors and the Nurses, and the Orderlies, and the… Just Kidding) and even… wait for it… a new television version of “THE INTERNS” (1970-71) with, of all people, Broderick Crawford (probably after he finally sobered up) as the chief doctor over a bunch of young interns (I’d wouldn’t trust that guy to hold a cup of coffee steady let alone a scalpel). However, maybe the final culmination of all of these doctor shows came with ABC’s long running “Marcus Welby, M.D.” (1969-76) starring Robert Young and who, in real life, was also a bad drunk (maybe it was a pre-requisite for playing a doctor on TV or in the movies). This might also have been the only science fiction doctor show ever made for TV. Why would I ever say that, Dear Reader? Well, it was because dear saintly Dr. Welby even made house calls! If that doesn’t qualify it as being science fiction, then nothing else ever will! The great Oscar winning writer Paddy Chayefsky (“Network”) hated “Marcus Welby, M.D.” so much that when he wrote his original, Oscar winning screenplay for the dark satirical comedy, “The Hospital” (1971), which ripped the guts out of the medical profession, he named a surgeon in the film (who was an incompetent that cared more about his investments than his patients) Dr. Welbeck as a veiled insult to the TV show. Members of the American Medical Association probably had wet dreams for years thanks to “Marcus Welby, M.D.”
There were all types of novel and film portrayals of physicians behaving badly or doing experiments that would drastically go wrong. This was especially prevalent for a film genre like “horror”. A large number of these types of films were done during the nineteen thirties, maybe, as some sort of offshoot from the grim reality of the Great Depression. Although some films like “Dracula” (1931) or “The Mummy” (1932) didn’t qualify, some of the ones that definitely did were:
- “Frankenstein” (1931) – Starring Boris Karloff in a star-making performance as old bolt neck himself, AKA “The Monster” who is pieced together from body parts by good old Dr. Frankie… stein (Colin Clive, another drunk who died from alcoholism in real life).
- “The Island of Lost Souls” (1932) – Based on the H.G. Wells novel, with Charles Laughton hamming it up while conducting surgical experiments on animals to turn them into semi-humans (some of which are currently roaming around in Congress) with Bela Lugosi as one of them (and looking like one of the GEICO cavemen, except less well-groomed!)
- “Mad Love” (1935) – With Peter Lorre as bald, brilliant, and Batty surgeon Dr. Gogol who transplants the hands of a dead murderer onto pianist Colin (Dr. Frankie) Clive after his own hands are ruined from an accident resulting in his new hands starting to do strange things (like maybe playing Boogie-woogie Rock and Roll instead of Beethoven?)
- “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931) – The best of them all with Fredric March deservedly winning the Oscar as the Doc with a “real” double life. Brilliantly directed by Rouben Mamoulian and, for its time, revolutionary cinematic transformation scenes, this is still the best version of “Jekyll and Hyde” ever made [And still the only “horror” movie to ever have someone win an Oscar for Best Actor (and no, “The Joker” doesn’t count!)]
Another one that I want to mention, although it was made in the nineteen forties, was “The Body Snatcher” (1945) which was from a short story by Robert Lewis Stevenson (who also wrote Jekyll and Hyde). “Snatcher” stars Boris Karloff as Mr. Gray, a cab driver and graverobber who provides cadavers to Dr. Wolfe MacFarline (Henry Daniell) a surgeon who needs cadavers for his research and his teaching position at a medical college. However, he has a darker secret that Gray uses to both blackmail and torment Wolfe. Namely, that Wolfe’s mentor, Dr. Knox, obtained corpses from the notorious Burke and Hare who murdered individuals and sold the bodies to Knox, and that Wolfe was also involved. Worse, Gray is also killing people and selling their bodies to him too. In Mr. Gray, Karloff maybe gave the best performance of his career. His Mr. Gray is soft-spoken, polite, and with a constant skeleton smile on his face. Yet he radiates menace constantly, whether it’s by how he towers over Wolfe or his jokingly taunting manner while always reminding Wolfe that “you will never be rid of me.” The film is another early gem by Director Robert Wise who captures the dark streets and interior shadows of rooms which create an atmosphere of unease, dread, and fear. Producer Val Lewton (“Cat People”, “Isle of the Dead”, etc.) was a master at generating an atmosphere of chills with what was unseen as being more terrifying than what was actually seen. “Snatcher” was one of the best of a series of films that Lewton produced for RKO Studios. Actor Daniell, who usually played villainous roles, had a rare sympathetic role (sort of) as the tormented surgeon Wolfe and the final shocker of an ending is still memorable even after all of these years. Physicians behaving badly indeed!
Lastly, numerous films and TV shows were made with medical professionals actually crossing the line into illegality. For Network TV there was NBC’s “Medical Story” (1975) which was an anthology series about issues in the medical field which, at times, touched on doctors breaking rules that endangered patents health. For British TV there was the far better BBC series, “Bodies” (2004-06) centering on specialist Rob Lake (Max Beesley) who, when starting a new job at the Obstetrics and Gynecology department of a British hospital quickly discovers that his highly respected head consultant is an incompetent surgeon that is being protected by the hospital establishment with potentially deadly consequences for any patient that he sees. “Bodies”, which was created by Jeb Mercurio (“Line of Duty”), pulls no punches in showing some of the most graphic and borderline gruesome operating scenes ever shown on TV and how everyone involved, even Rob, is complacent to some degree in not only allowing mistakes to be made, but to also cover them up when it suits their purposes. It’s a Damning portrait of the medical profession with no easy resolutions, and Beesley gives a powerful performance as the ethically conflicted Rob.
For motion pictures, some examples of other medical professionals behaving badly were:
- “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) abusively running a mental hospital which harms rather than helps patients and her battle of wills with a new patient, Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who just won’t bend to her will.
- “Coma” (1978) with surgical resident Dr. Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold) discovering, after a close friend’s death during a routine surgery, that there is a murderous ring of physicians in her hospital killing patients while harvesting their body parts for sale (“Body Snatcher Redux” anyone?).
- “Side Effects” (2013) where psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) after prescribing an experimental antidepressant drug to a suicidal patient (Rooney Mara) with sleepwalking as a “side effect”, finds that after she commits murder during one of her sleepwalking events, he now has to determine whether it was due to the drug or something else.
All of these films are fine examples of medical professionals acting badly but there is one that I particularly want to mention in further detail and which, I feel, didn’t get the recognition that it deserved when it was first released. That film is the psychological thriller, “Malice” (1993). “Malice” starred Bill Pullman as newlywed Andy Safien, an associate dean at a small New England college near Boston with Nicole Kidman as his wife Tracy, who teaches art to young children and desperately wants children of her own. Besides having to deal with a serial rapist who is terrorizing the students at his college, Andy also has to put up with Dr. Jed Hill (Alex Baldwin), a former high school classmate who is a brilliant surgeon but new to town after accepting a post at a nearby hospital, and who temporarily rents a room in their home. Jed’s arrogance, late night carousing, and sexual escapades cause strain for Andy and especially, Tracy, which lead to further complications when Tracy later collapses requiring Ted to perform an emergency operation to save Tracy’s life. From that point on, the plot twists and red herrings fly so thick and heavy that you’ll need a scorecard to keep track of them all.
Malice got mixed reviews when it was first released which was a shame maybe due to its complex thriller plot which was hard to pin down as to what sort of film it really was intended to be. Also, some critics complained that the storyline was farfetched and full of holes. My own honest (and unbiased) opinion is that, “The critics are full of Shit!” Underrated director Harold Becker (“Sea of Love”) helmed by a great production team consisting of a top-notch screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, impressive dark color cinematography by Gordon Willis, and another fine music score by the always great Jerry Goldsmith is one reason why this film holds your interest. Another reason is the cast with people such as Bebe Neuwirth, Peter Gallagher, Josef Sommer and cameos by Anne Bancroft, George C. Scott and a young Gwyneth Paltrow providing strong acting support to the storyline. However, maybe the best thing about “Malice”, besides the strong dramatic turn by Pullman, are the incredible performances by Kidman and, especially, by Alex Baldwin as Dr. Jed Hill. Baldwin is alternatively, charming and chilling with a “God Complex” bigger than the universe. You do not know whether to be amazed or repulsed by his sheer audacity and infallible belief of his own self-importance. It’s a great performance (And Yeah, he should have been Oscar nominated but wasn’t!). He may have been a physician behaving badly, but, boy, was he ever an entertaining one!
To conclude, there really is not much of an interest now for films pertaining to the medical profession. However, for Network TV, there has been a huge renewal of popularity for the genre. Such fine shows as “St. Elsewhere” (1982-88), “Chicago Hope” (1994-2000), “ER” (1994-09), “House” (2004-12), and maybe, the new NBC medical drama, “Transplant” show that there is still life rather than death in those hospital corridors. I do not know what the possible future may be for medical dramas in movies and on TV but I’m optimistic that they will continue to be popular. However, there’s just one thing that I hope never occurs…
That nobody ever gets the bright idea to use CGI to bring back Broderick Crawford as a physician for ANYTHING!!!