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Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Movie Docs (originally published 1/99)

We saw last week that poor old Patch Adams is not alone. Plenty of other medical careers have been chronicled by the movies, and most of them seem to have been surrounded by the same kind of controversy that has dogged the career of Adams. Naturally, controversy makes for good drama, as does the practice of medicine in general with its daily life or death struggles against disease and disability, so it isn't surprising that so many prominent medical figures have been immortalized in biographical films.

Even so, the fact remains that biographies of actual medical professionals make up only a small fraction of the total number of movies concerned with the world of the physician. Most movie doctors are fictional characters whose exploits are entirely the invention of screenwriters. By way of dropping the other shoe, then, let's look at some of the better examples of fictional screen portrayals of healers. Each is available on home video.

"Arrowsmith" (1931). Having exposed the hollowness of American culture in such novels as "Main Street" (1920) and "Babbitt" (1922), author Sinclair Lewis turned his gimlet eye on the medical profession in "Arrowsmith" (1925). Producer Samuel Goldwyn undertook to translate the novel to the screen with Ronald Colman in the lead role of Martin Arrowsmith and John Ford, one of the screen's great visual poets, in the director's chair. The career of Dr. Arrowsmith, as portrayed on the screen, delineates the conflict that would inform many subsequent medical dramas. Simply stated, that conflict is defined by the tension between a doctor's Hippocratic duty and the natural desire to reap the financial rewards of his professional skills. Although Arrowsmith would like nothing better than to devote himself to medical research, practical impediments seem to conspire to frustrate that noble ambition.

"The Citadel" (1938). Widely regarded as a kind of British version of "Arrowsmith," this film version of A.J. Cronin's novel similarly traces the career path of a gifted physician. Robert Donat stars as Andrew Manson, the idealistic young doctor who gradually succumbs to the temptation of "specializing in diseases of the rich," as song satirist Tom Lehrer once put it. The outstanding supporting cast includes Ralph Richardson and Rex Harrison.

"Panic in the Streets" (1950). In contrast to the glamorous careers portrayed in "Arrowsmith" and "The Citadel," this film shows us the life of a public health doctor played by Richard Widmark. When a murder victim on a New Orleans dock is found to have been suffering from pneumonic plague, it becomes the job of the Health Department to track the disease to its source before an epidemic overtakes the city. The resulting combination of medical drama and detective thriller makes for a tense and entertaining film.

"Not as a Stranger" (1955). Not all doctors are noble, heroic figures, of course. The medical profession, like any other, has its share of heels. This is the story of one of them, an arrogant louse played by Robert Mitchum. His wife (played by Olivia de Havilland) puts him through medical school only to watch him become romantically involved with a wealthy patient.

"People Will Talk" (1951). This portrait of an unorthodox physician's career has much in common with "Patch Adams." Cary Grant stars as Dr. Noah Praetorius, who harbors the radical belief that doctors should treat the patient, not the disease. Worse than that, he teaches at a medical school, passing on this heresy to a new generation of young doctors. Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed the film, fresh from his triumph as writer and director of "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) and "All About Eve" (1950), each of which won him an Academy Award for both script and direction, a rare back to back double win. Here he carries on the level of excellence established by those films, creating a clever, literate script with a satirical edge as sharp as a scalpel.

Each of these films was built around a fictional physician, and each of those characters is, in his own way, interesting and/or engaging enough to carry the picture. But there have also been fictional doctors whose character had sufficient audience appeal to carry not just one film, but a whole series of them. Next week I'll see about getting you an appointment with some of these beloved doctors.

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