by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I spent the evening watching two of the films TCM showed in their recent Robert Taylor marathon, both from the early stages in his career: Society Doctor and Small Town Girl. Society Doctor was his fourth feature — after Handy Andy at Fox, There’s Always Tomorrow at Universal and A Wicked Woman and the first Crime Does Not Pay short, Buried Loot, at his home studio, MGM — and though he hadn’t yet made his star-making vehicle, Magnificent Obsession, he was already playing a doctor here — appropriately enough since Taylor’s father, Spangler Andrew Brugh, had been a doctor in real life. (Taylor’s birth name was an even bigger mouthful than his dad’s: Spangler Arlington Brugh.)
Society Doctor was the sort of movie that at any studio other than MGM would have been considered a “B” picture — a label Louis B. Mayer hated and insisted no one in his employ ever apply to an MGM movie — since it runs only 69 minutes, was produced by Lucien Hubbard (the MGM maestro of their low-budget output) and directed by George B. Seitz, who specialized in action films and serials, from a script by Michael Fessier and Samuel Marx. The story source was either a novel (according to Lawrence Quirk’s book The Films of Robert Taylor) or a play (according to the American Film Institute Catalog) called The Harbor by Theodore Reeves, and the actual star of the film was Chester Morris as Dr. Bill Morgan, the head of interns at a big-city hospital. In a plot line Reeves almost certainly borrowed from Sinclair Lewis’s novel Arrowsmith — which seems to have acquired a status as sort of an ur-plot line for stories about young doctors in the 1930’s and 1940’s — Dr. Morgan is a brilliant surgeon but also a fiercely independent, idealistic soul with little or no patience for medical politics and the kind of go-along-to-get-along attitudes towards the upper classes and their hypochondriac complaints exhibited by his immediate supervisor, hospital medical director Dr. Horace Waverly (Raymond Walburn) and Dr. Harvey (Henry Kolker), who isn’t officially attached to the hospital but as the “society doctor” of the title, whose clientele includes most of the rich people in town, carries a lot of weight.
When Dr. Morgan diagnoses Frank Snowden (William Henry), son of influential rich person Harris Snowden (Robert McWade), with appendicitis and insists that an operation is needed immediately, Snowden Sr. wants to wait for Dr. Harvey but Dr. Morgan insists there isn’t time, and when Morgan learns that Frank secretly married a woman who worked at the family business, he gets her to override Frank’s dad and authorize the surgery — which saves Frank’s life but costs Morgan his job at the hospital due to his insubordination and attitude. Morgan’s job is saved by the eccentric widow Mrs. Crane (Billie Burke), who’s taken a shine to him both medically and personally and has offered to set him up in private practice and steer him a line of rich neurotics that will ensure his financial future and his ability to marry his girlfriend, nurse Madge Wilson (Virginia Bruce, as usual playing a part for which this excellent actress is overqualified — too bad she gave her greatest performance in a movie almost nobody saw, the 1934 Monogram version of Jane Eyre). Robert Taylor’s role is as Dr. Tommy Ellis, who works under Dr. Morgan and is also in love with Nurse Wilson (there had to be a romantic triangle in it somewhere!), and though he was second-billed, according to Quirk, “Louis B. Mayer … told his aides that he saw the full-fledged potential and future promise of Taylor for the first time after he sat through that picture; there were to be no more bit parts for him henceforth.”
The film builds to an exciting action climax (in a hospital!) when gangster Butch McCarthy (Arthur Vinton) wangles permission from the police to visit his mother there — only he’s really there to assassinate a rival and his “mother” (or at least the woman who was posing as such) slips him a gun and thus he’s able to escape and go after rival gangster Harrigan (Addison Richards), who had been paralyzed in a previous attempt by McCarthy’s thugs to murder him — only Harrigan’s wife (Dorothy Peterson) had taken his gun and mows down McCarthy, severely wounding Dr. Morgan in the cross-fire. The redoubtable Morgan has himself put under local anaesthetic so he can give detailed instructions to Dr. Ellis as he performs a new surgical technique to remove the bullets and patch up his internal damage, and it ends with Dr. Morgan recovered and on his way to the altar with Nurse Wilson.
What’s curious about Society Doctor is how early the clichés of medical fiction had already hardened — one could relatively easily imagine this as an episode of E.R., Trauma or House with only minimal rewriting — and how much action, intrigue and romance the writers get into the presumably placid setting of a hospital. It doesn’t give much for Robert Taylor to do — Chester Morris not only has the showier role but also by far the more magnetic, exciting screen personality (William K. Everson argued that Morris was playing James Cagney-type roles before Cagney himself ever made a film, and while Morris had a decent career it’s a mystery that he didn’t achieve the superstar status of Cagney) — and Bruce is wasted as usual, but still Society Doctor is a fun movie and a good, solid studio product.