Time once again for the monthly Pre-Code Crazy pick, where Karen of Shadows & Satin and I choose a movie from this era that’s showing on TCM.
This month I pick one of my favourite pre-Codes, the sentimental story of a dedicated country doctor’s selflessness, how easily he’s taken for granted and how such sacrifices are often misunderstood as underachievement, or wasted life and talent. Widowed Eli Watt (Lionel Barrymore) returns to his small town roots with his little boy, and sets up a practice. He always puts himself last to help the townsfolk and their kids, and years pass with no apparent career progress or improvement in his financial situation. Eli’s heroic actions, first during a smallpox outbreak, and again to save a beloved young friend, distinguish him as an expert. But just when doors open to the neuropathology research work he has long dreamed of and deserved, he once again stays back to help the less fortunate and make sure his son Jimmy (Joel McCrea) goes to medical school and greatness.
Eli cares and understands, talks common sense, helps people see the right thing to do, and knows that sometimes the best medicine is love. He never brags or calls attention to his good deeds, and is flabbergasted and deeply touched when he gets any praise. Barrymore makes Eli Watt a likable, dignified soul as unforgettable as the nasty Mr. Potter in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
Eli forgives; he raises Letty, a girl rejected by her father (David Landau) at childbirth, then gives the child back once Landau realizes his error. The adult Letty (Dorothy Jordan) has a touching relationship with Eli and is in many ways like him. She selflessly helps during the epidemic, then is suddenly knocked off her planned life path by a tragic accident. She’s grateful to Eli, hurt on his behalf by any snide comment about his “ambition” and, stuck with a loser husband and in-laws that see her as a hillbilly, knows what it’s like to be unappreciated. Eli’s care for Letty in her times of crisis keeps him from his dream, but later heals her family and gains him the respect of his peers.
Some people in this movie think a doctor treating backwoods poor is a pathetic “old country plug,” when the done thing is to strive to be “known” and rake in cash on Park Avenue. Eli labours “without glory or profit, in an obscure nook,” showing how virtue and good acts for their own sake can be difficult but more rewarding and impactful on lives than any fame and fortune. Jimmy’s sweet, but his self-centered ambition contrasts with Eli’s approach, and almost costs the young man his relationship with Joan (Frances Dee, who married McCrea a few months after this movie came out). Eli fixes that problem too.
I love May Robson as no-nonsense “Aunt Sarah,” who marches right into the empty space she sees in Eli’s life, and works by his side for years as nurse, nanny, and debt collector, reminding everyone how many more of last year’s potatoes they owe. After one too many payments in bushels of turnips and crookneck squash, Sarah wonders, “Why can’t anyone get sick what owns a cow?!”
Watch it on TCM March 26th, and now click here to see Karen’s pre-Code pick for this month.