The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936)

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Director: Frank McDonald.

Following on yesterday’s mystery The Phantom of Crestwood, I picked another one that puts its star Ricardo Cortez to work solving a crime. This time he’s in a hospital soap opera, playing Dr. George Lambert, who’s first trying to get Nurse Sally (Kay Linaker) to accept his marriage proposal, then helps her prove that she’s no murderer. Dr. Lambert remains calm and charming as he pieces together the convoluted events and motivations of the many characters whose paths cross that fateful night at Melady Memorial.

It all begins when ornery hospital administrator Peter Melady (Robert Strange) declares to media and colleagues that the time has come to test “his” (if by his, you mean stolen) safe new anesthetic on himself. He schedules surgery for the morning, makes great show of hiding his only copy of the drug’s formula under his pillow, and asks his bitter enemy and chief developer of the drug, the talented and doomed-by-the-title Dr. Harrigan (John Eldredge) to operate. Melady’s many other investors feel cheated out of their share of credit and potential profit, and his most loyal guinea pig feels the most slighted after having subjected to so many experiments hoping to get a piece of the success. All through the film people are after that formula and willing to kill to get it.

There are other potential killers milling about, since to know Dr. Harrigan is to be disgusted by him. There’s his spurned former love Nurse Cooper (Mary Astor), his unfaithful wife (Joan Blair) in hospital recovering from a car accident, the wife’s boyfriend Kenneth (Bill Elliott), the stern chief of staff (Frank Reicher) who feels his power slipping away, and Melady’s daughter Agnes (Anita Kerry), admitted for sunburn and concerned for her father’s well-being. Those with unclear intentions but plenty of opportunity include Agnes’ persistent but unwanted suitor Dr. Simon (Philip Reed), a staff of wisecracking and capable nurses (Mary Treen, Joan Barclay, Mary Lowe), an annoying alcoholic patient who guzzles anything that pours, including rubbing alcohol, and an excitable case (Johnny Arthur) who realizes he has no hope of recuperating among all the other nutty, high strung characters.

In the run up to Melady’s morning surgery, our cast keeps busy romancing each other in the ambulance, the halls or dark rooms, the nurses gossip about juicy overheard secrets, and the chief of staff forbids Harrigan from operating. They scatter for supper, to attend to random emergencies and other unknown reasons, and assemble in time to find Harrigan’s body in the elevator. Nurse Sally’s dependability and good intentions make her look increasingly guilty as we learn that she helped Agnes hide the anesthetic, escorted Mrs. Harrigan’s boyfriend away to prevent a confrontation, raced from floor to floor looking for the missing Melady and Harrigan, and tried to discover why the elevator was out of order.

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It’s a fast and elaborately plotted mystery made fluffy by some unbelievable elements. It’s never convincingly explained how so many important Harrigan and Melady family members happen to be patients at the same time. It’s certainly not because the place is an inviting and cushy luxury clinic–this is a hospital where I’d be afraid to get so much as a band-aid. Harrigan jokes about how easily a deadly slip of the knife could happen during surgery, the interns yuk it up while pumping the wrong patient’s stomach, Dr. Lambert invites the police to browse around the supply room and help themselves to drugs and alcohol, officers investigate by abusing and belittling the patients, and you might get a hernia from groaning because nobody passes up an opportunity to crack dumb and obvious jokes (“we checked from the maternity ward to the morgue: from cradle to grave”).

Luckily it goes by quickly and makes good use of the setting, so you get echoed screams and searches of those long halls and dark stairwells, there’s a dead patient whose move to the morgue is a chance for the killer to hide a body, a clever ambulance diversion staged by Lambert and Sally, and a shootout that crashes out a window and ends up on the roof. So many people have a hand in the evening’s events that the murderer ends up being the last straw on a stack of preliminary actions, and then yet another character helps cover things up, so between the soap and the investigation, almost everybody gets a moment to glance furtively, deny energetically, cast doubt on each other and/or confess dramatically.

This was an adaptation of a Mignon Eberhart story and one installment of the Warner Bros./First National “Clue Club Picture” series, a promotional tie-in with Black Mask Magazine (not to be confused with Crime Club books and Universal movies) which also involved audience contests and prizes. Linaker’s character Sally Keating would be played by Marguerite Churchill in another Clue Club movie, Murder by an Aristocrat (1936).

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6 thoughts on “The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936)”

  1. You make this sound like a half-whacked blast! I work at a hospital…this might be a fun one to watch, if only to see comedic inaccuracies or anachronistic medical practices!

    1. Hoo boy, this is not an exemplary hospital, just aside from the missing patients and murders! They had saloon-style swinging doors on the rooms which allowed for some quality eavesdropping :). It is fun, the mystery is fluffy but with the relationships and drama it makes an early version of ER or Gray’s Anatomy.

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