Every month, Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.
Being the horror movie fan that I am, I almost went with White Zombie (on TCM Mar 21) for this month’s pick, but seeing as I’ll be writing about a creepy movie this time next month for the Pre-Code blogathon, I decided for the sake of variety to skip that genre. I thought with it recently being Oscar time, it would be fun to choose a movie that features a more serious and challenging role for an actor cast against the type most Pre-Code viewers are familiar with. So I came up with a movie that I really like, Gregory La Cava’s Symphony of Six Million (1932). I’m almost certain it was in one of Mick LaSalle’s Pre-Code books where I read the fun fact that Ricardo Cortez was the most murdered actor in the movies of that era, and little wonder. He was usually cast as a slick, sometimes predatory lover who invariably disappointed, cheated or ruined women. You can have a great time tracking all the ways he got it; my favourite Cortez demise was on the ship in Mandalay (1934), where Kay Francis poisons him and chucks his body overboard. Even where he wasn’t bad and slimy, like when he played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1931), he was still sharp and tough and had no trouble being threatening.
That’s why I enjoy the completely different role he plays in Symphony of Six Million, that of a bighearted and kind gentleman, a dedicated, ambitious expert surgeon, and a faith- and family-first man who’s devastated and ashamed of himself when he strays from his convictions and life’s work, and believes he’s failed that family. This is a character who puts achievement first, but for him, achievement is quality and skill measured by amount of needy served and healed. When he’s nudged by his profit-driven brother to sell that skill to richer customers, and told that it’s his duty to turn his talent into money that will give the family a better life, Cortez dutifully but reluctantly moves from the local clinic into a ritzy practice. He feels that all he does there is cater to hypochondriacs and “neurotics,” but he does gets rich and famous.
Soon it’s clear that the more money he provides to make his parents’ life easier, the harder it gets for him to stick to his principles and do the good he originally intended. It’s not that his family uses him; sure, they enjoy moving out of the crowded noisy ghetto to Park Avenue, they love the wearing fur and showing off that luxury car, and it’s a wonderful thing when a child can give such comfort to their grateful parents. But the generosity takes something valuable from Cortez. He’s so busy and distracted that he mistakes his father’s health concerns for another request for funds, and so busy that his childhood sweetheart and love of his life, played by Irene Dunne, can’t get an appointment to see him when there’s a dying child back in the ghetto. She finally busts into his office to tells him some hard truths about the way he’s sold his soul and let down the kids that idolize him. When his own father needs surgery for a brain tumour, things go wrong and Cortez ends up blaming himself, wandering about despondently and questioning his life choices. The brilliant doctor is suddenly beset by insecurity and self-doubt, and hates those “million dollar hands” that have been featured in society magazines. Once again it will be Irene Dunne who helps him find his way.
This is not a great film, it has a melodramatic, soap opera tone, and Cortez sometimes overdoes it showing us his feelings, especially when things fall apart, but both he and the movie are convincingly decent, and I like seeing Cortez in this likable and heroic part. The other thing I find interesting is the straightforward depiction of Judaism and Jewish life and culture. There are some stereotypes, things like the doting mother and the stressed out dad, but nothing objectionable or offensive. There’s a major sequence featuring a religious ceremony (Redemption of the First Born) where the family is present and Cortez’ late arrival speaks to the distance he’s put between him and his heritage. Just having an ethnic group and the religious parts of their lives so central in a Hollywood movie shows that the era’s ability to expose viewers to a range of ideas and cultures were not just limited to shocking naughtiness, nightclubs and lingerie.
Here you see Irene Dunne before her screwball days, and if you’re an Irene completist like me you’ll want to see this movie for her alone. She’s so sweet, earnest and touching as the saintly teacher of blind children. Her lifelong spinal affliction gives her a limp and periods of paralysis, which you feel is the main motivation for Cortez’ dedicating himself to medicine in the first place, and you know will come up again in the story as he gains the skill to finally help her. They have some cute scenes together, reminiscing about the times they sat on the stoop and dreamed about their futures. Gregory Ratoff, the actor and director, is lovable as the father who hardly has two pennies to rub together but manages to bring his kids nice gifts that feed their interests, like sheet music for the daughter, a baseball for the brother and white cotton gloves to protect the hands of his little aspiring surgeon. It’s a house of love and good values from beginning to end, even if it is so lively and noisy that Ratoff loses his mind trying to find some quiet to play chess in. Despite his Latin lover persona, Ricardo Cortez was Jewish, (born Jacob Krantz) so for him the film must have been a welcome opportunity to play something positive related to his heritage (movie trivia: his brother was cinematographer Stanley Cortez). Symphony of Six Million is no essential but it is a nice, heartwarming, different kind of movie to add to your Cortez, Dunne and general Pre-Code knowledge, and you can watch it on TCM, March 10.