Richard Barthelmess is a medical genius who can’t get a break.
Continuing with Pre-Code Michael Curtiz movies*, today’s picture is Alias the Doctor (1932), a curious and frustrating drama, but thankfully a short, stylish and efficient one. Richard Barthelmess dreams of working the family farm, but his foster mother (Lucille La Verne) nudges him to develop his natural gift for medicine and surgery, and she hopes his hard work and discipline will serve as a model to her far less promising real son (Norman Foster). Marian Marsh plays the daughter who loves Barthelmess and plans to be with him after he finishes medical school. Predictably, Barthelmess impresses everyone with his talent and ends up valedictorian while Foster spends his time binge drinking and running down his health. On the eve of graduation, Foster kills his girlfriend in a drunken and botched attempt to operate on her after a fight, and Barthelmess takes the blame to save mother the heartache of seeing her real son jailed. After years in prison, Barthelmess returns home to find Foster has drunk himself to death, and only minutes later a car wreck in his front yard has him saving a dying child. At mother’s urging, he assumes his brother’s identity and lands a cushy hospital position where he treats and heals the masses until he’s exposed as an ex-con and an unlicenced impostor.
I can’t say I enjoyed this story because events seemed so pointless. How unlucky and unfair that every time much-deserved success, reward, love or happiness are in Barthelmess’ reach, some terrible thing occurs in which he’s the only man willing and qualified to help. His attempts to do the right thing either ruin his career or divert him from from his dream. If there’s a moral to this story, the contradictory motives and statements of mother La Verne didn’t help me find it. First, she says it was all her fault for forcing him to go to med school instead of letting him just plow the fields like he wanted, but her husband was a promising doctor who died young and she wanted another one in the family. One shouldn’t try to go above their station, is essentially where she ends up in that line of thought. But next she talks Barthelmess into impersonating Foster because she believes he has a duty to help people with this gift God has given him. When Marsh’s love for Barthelmess complicates things, mother writes a letter exposing him to the medical board, and then has a stroke when she realizes it will put him back in prison.
So I didn’t get much from the story but Curtiz, an uncredited Lloyd Bacon and company told and presented it well enough that I found many things to like. Barthelmess usually keeps me interested and he anchors this movie just fine with nobility and kindness as well as believable gravity and skill. He gets nice scenes where he bears the burden of his sacrifices, glowers and scowls as only he could, and in the end he lets loose with frantic pleas to the boardroom suits to let him go save his dying mother and delay their debate over the legal implications. That’s a juicy scene indeed, but in a subtler and to me, more touching one, Barthelmess returns to his beloved farm after prison, winds up a music box, smiles and relaxes as he takes in his surroundings while the pretty tune plays. There’s no doubt that’s where he’s happiest.
I always enjoy a good look at that era’s medical practices and implements, which here also includes an amusing depiction of a two-tiered health care system that works; let people who can afford to, pay for their care so the needy can get the same quality treatment for nearly nothing. As in the other Curtiz films I watched this week, the sets are massive, angled, sparsely furnished spaces which look great in the hospital, and still great but unrealistic at the farm house or the student dorm. There’s great use of shadow to show lovers embracing, patients being treated, or family members waiting for news. A skull paperweight foreshadows Foster’s death and pops into Barthelmess’ memory years later when he learns Foster is gone. The coroner’s inquest is shot through bars just before Barthelmess is locked up, and the “autopsy man” (Nigel De Brulier) who waits eagerly by the operating rooms, has light focused on his eyes to make him look positively ghoulish. And what’s not to like about a movie that rewards me with a glimpse of Tyrone Power. At least I’m fairly sure this was him, in a bit part, watching surgery from the balcony–you be the judge (excuse the phone pic).
screenshots (other than Tyrone) from http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film3/dvd_reviews53/alias_the_doctor.htm