A Movie A Day: Quint on DOCTOR BULL (1933) I tell you it’s Typhoid Fever and Susie’s got it. I can smell it!
Published at: Nov. 10, 2008, 6:03 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
I don’t know, guys, but I’m thinking these early John Ford comedies aren’t up my alley. Maybe these just aren’t the best examples… I know I like comedy of this era… hell, we’ve already covered a handful of Busby Berkeley films in the AMAD and I love the hell out of those.
When DOCTOR BULL started, I got the same warning from Fox’s DVD distribution arm that the movie was presented with the “best materials available.” Yesterday that meant a beat up, scratched, splicey 16mm print. DOCTOR BULL is much better, at least there’s no splices and you hear every line of dialogue.
Now, I’d definitely say I enjoyed DOCTOR BULL a lot more than I did UP THE RIVER, but I have to be honest and say I never connected with it at all. I laughed a couple of times, I really enjoyed the premise and I frankly loved Will Rogers’ work here, but that wasn’t enough to make the movie work.
Rogers plays the title character, a small town Doctor back when they used to… you know… help people, making little money, doing lots of housecalls. Of course Doctors today help people, but in a much less personal way. I don’t know if I’ve been in a doctor’s office in my life where I felt like I had the Doctor’s full attention.
This little town is filled with gossipers, mostly the old bible-thumping biddies, and none of them like ol’ Doc Bull too much. Mostly because he associates with a widower. It’s completely innocent, but the fact that he spends a few days a week at her house is too much for many of the community to handle.
The reality is Doctor Bull is the most bothered man in town. He can’t sleep without the phone ringing with someone complaining of a bellyache or some miniscule worry, he can’t eat without being given a list of symptoms. He can’t have a life, he can’t have any rest and his only real escape is the cider at the Widow Cardmaker’s house.
DOCTOR BULL skirts on pushing the envelope… there’s one teenage girl character who I was sure was knocked up when she met her out of town college-aged boyfriend. She gets drunk, crashes her car, thinks her life is over and the only person she feels she can talk to is Doctor Bull. Then she tells him she had a fight with her boyfriend, which is what put her in such a depression. Uh… what? A little research shows that the original novel, by James Gould Cozzens, actually went where they seemed to be setting up the character in the movie and the original intent was for them to film it, but the censors wouldn’t release it if they did.
Will Rogers is the one and only complete stand-out in this movie (with one notable exception, which I’ll get to in a minute). His performance is fantastic. Doctor Bull feels like a real person, a super nice guy… getting well into middle-age at this point. He’s light-hearted, but compassionate.
I might have personal reasons to take to his character here in that his physical appearance and temperament is pretty strikingly similar to that of my grandfather. I must admit ignorance to most Will Rogers’ work. I knew his cowboy personality, knew his name, but this is the first time I’ve seen a film of his, unless I’m overlooking an obvious one.
But he made me a fan with is performance here.
Also MVP for this movie has to be shared with Andy Devine. When I covered IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD a few days ago in this column I spent many paragraphs gushing over Buddy Hackett and how his voice just makes me happy. I think my heaven would be a world where everybody is voiced by either Buddy Hackett, James Hong’s Lo-Pan or Andy Devine.
Most of you will recognize Devine as the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney’s animated ROBIN HOOD. He’s just great as the biggest pain in Doc Bull’s ass, a soda-jerk who is the definition of psychosomatic and will chase the doc all around town, even barge in at him at home, over the tiniest twitch of a muscle or discomfort in his body.
Those two are what elevate the movie out of what would have surely been a boring experience.
The whole thing comes to a head as the Doc is blamed for an outbreak of Typhoid Fever, which he can prove he didn’t do, but it really is just an excuse for the uppity town elders to kick him out of town. And if they weren’t such dicks about it, that might be a good thing. His main medical recommendation is always a swig of Castor Oil afterall.
But the man still might have a trick or two up his sleeve… including, miraculously, discovering the cure for paralysis, which is just kind of a bookend to the movie, not the amazing revelation it should be. So I guess the old coot’s a genius afterall, but he is tired and the impression you get is that he’d be more than happy to give up his day job for a retirement filled with lazy days, cat-naps and complete meals.
Final Thoughts: Despite my really liking Devine and Rogers in this movie, it was still difficult for me to get though and it was only 77 minutes long. I’m sure a lot of value can come out of watching this movie as a film of its era, but I always hope for a little more out the work of masters like Ford. I mean, his Westerns have that, why not his comedies? Once again, I’d recommend this only to film students of John Ford completists.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Monday, November 10th: JUDGE PRIEST (1930)
Tuesday, November 11th: TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965)
Wednesday, November 12th: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
Thursday, November 13th: DANIEL (1983)
Friday, November 14th: EL DORADO (1967)
Saturday, November 15th: THE GAMBLER (1974)
Sunday, November 16th: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)
Ooohhh, looks like we're getting to a biggie come next Sunday. I love, love, love Sergio Leone movies and I'm practically giddy to finally work around to seeing his ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA!
Tomorrow we cap off our early John Ford comedies with JUDGE PRIEST, which I hope is my favorite of the three. I could stand to hit one of these in that box set that I can solidly recommend. See you tomorrow for JUDGE PRIEST, also starring Will Rogers!