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Sunday, November 4, 2007

More Movie Docs (originally published 1/99)

Those of us who grew up watching television are accustomed to thinking of drama in terms of continuing series. We're used to being introduced to a cast of characters who will be the principals in a new story every week, playing out conflicts involving characters who will appear in this week's episode only. This blending of the familiar with the new makes for a satisfying mix that keeps us coming back week after week, assuming that the continuing characters have sufficient appeal.

This trick of recycling characters by creating fresh storylines for them was not invented by television, however. Literature abounds with such narrative series based on characters with proven appeal, from Sherlock Holmes to Tarzan. Filmmakers were quick to pick up on the practice, building series around popular characters almost from the very beginning.

For the last couple of weeks we've been looking at movies about physicians, a long tradition most recently carried on by "Patch Adams." As we saw, there have been lots of movies about real doctors and even more movies built around entirely fictional doctors. What we haven't yet considered is those fictional healers who were popular enough with audiences to spawn a whole series of movies. On television, of course, the examples are abundant, from "Ben Casey" to the doctors of "E.R." If you're interested in how the movies handled similar medical dramas built around continuing characters, look for these titles on home video.

"Meet Dr. Christian" (1939). One of the most beloved figures of popular culture is the kindly country doctor. In 1936, Jean Hersholt memorably played that role in a picture entitled, simply enough, "The Country Doctor." In that film, Hersholt was playing the part of an actual physician, Dr. Allan R. Dafoe, fictionalized in the film as Dr. John Luke. Dafoe had gained national prominence as the doctor who delivered the famous Dionne Quintuplets, fictionalized in the film as the Wyatt Quintuplets. Hersholt repeated the role of Dr. Luke in a sequel, "Reunion" (1936), but beyond that point Dr. Dafoe declined to endorse any further screen representations of his life and career, even behind the fig leaf of a fictional name. Hersholt nevertheless kept the franchise going by simply taking on the role of another country doctor, an entirely fictional one this time. In 1939, he appeared in the title role of "Meet Dr. Christian," building on the success of his continuing role in the "Dr. Christian" radio series. The success of this film, along with the continued success of the radio show, which ran for seventeen years, gave rise to a series of five sequels. In the initial film of the series, Dr. Christian clashes with the mayor of his small town, who declines to use public funds for badly needed hospital renovations. When the mayor's own daughter is severely injured, however, his shortsightedness about the importance of public health facilities comes back to haunt him.

"Dr. Kildare's Strange Case" (1940). In contrast to the small town career of Dr. Christian, Dr. James Kildare (Lew Ayres) chooses not to follow in the footsteps of his father, who practiced medicine in a small town in Connecticut. Instead, he goes to work at Blair General Hospital in New York. There he is adopted as a protégé by the crusty Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore). Fans of "Chicago Hope" and "E.R." will find themselves right at home with the Dr. Kildare films. Unfortunately, out of the nine films starring Ayres as Dr. Kildare, only the fourth film of the series, "Dr. Kildare's Strange Case," is currently available on video. In it, Kildare gambles on a risky therapy to cure a mentally disturbed patient.

"Doctor in the House" (1954). On the lighter side, this British comedy about the antics of medical students was popular enough to give rise to six sequels. Dirk Bogarde stars as Simon Sparrow, a first year medical student who immediately falls in with the wrong crowd, a group of repeating students who weren't able to pass their exams. Their irreverent antics clearly paved the way for "M*A*S*H," both the movie and the television series.

If you're the type who can't get enough of doctor shows on television, I can confidently prescribe any of these three series. Best of all, you don't need prior approval from your HMO to see them.

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