by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
Since I had the Ford at Fox box out already -- the sheer size and elaborateness of that thing has been a major discourager towards us actually watching the discs contained in it -- I decided to run the 1933 film Doctor Bull, the first of three of Ford's Will Rogers vehicles included in it (the others were Judge Priest and Steamboat 'Round the Bend). I'd been a bit nervous about these entries in the box because, as much as I admire Rogers as a comedian, a personality and a fellow progressive (his radio broadcasts and recordings from the 1920's and 1930's sound incredibly premonitory of live issues today, including the conditions of Native Americans -- Rogers was part-Cherokee and he was fond of joking, "My ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower; they met it" -- the environment and greed as a political force), I worried that the combination of him and Ford would produce almost unbearably sentimental stories of small-town Americana.
That's exactly what this one is -- supposedly based on a 1933 novel by James Gould Cozzens called The Last Adam (24 years later Cozzens would produce a magnum opus called By Love Possessed, all about a fancy clock and the generations of an upper-class family that had owned it, which would be hailed as the Great American Novel until veteran progressive scolds Dwight Macdonald and Dorothy Parker would savage it in their reviews, so it was surprising to see him credited as a story source this early), Doctor Bull has a striking plot similarity to One Man's Journey, made by RKO the previous year with a less impressive director (John Robertson) but a more "dramatic" actor, Lionel Barrymore (13 years after Robertson handled brother John in the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, probably his most famous credit). Both are about small-town doctors who are the subjects of gossip, who are nearly fired by the town elders but are redeemed when they invent new sera that create miracle cures and stop major epidemics that are threatening the towns. Doctor Bull benefits from Ford's direction -- the opening scene, which depicts a mail delivery to the fictitious town of "New Winton," Connecticut (at least we presume it's Connecticut because just after it stops in "New Winton" the train stops in a genuine Connecticut city, New Haven) and its sorting in an office that's also the home of the local telephone switchboard, features some virtuosic direction and moving-camera shots (George Schneiderman, the man who shot Ford's great silents at Fox, returns as his cinematographer) that are all rather beside the point in this sentimental and straightforward story.
The plot deals with Doctor Bull's rather diffident courtship of widow Janet Cardmaker (Vera Allen) and the opposition of her relatives, the Banning family (Banning was her maiden name), most especially her brother Herbert (Burton Churchill), who inadvertently caused the typhoid epidemic that threatens the town when he located a new power plant too close to the reservoir, over Dr. Bull's objections, and the rain washed untreated sewage from the workers' encampment into the reservoir. Dr. Bull also treats a young man (Howard Lally) who got paralyzed from a 50-foot fall, and Herbert Banning's daughter Virginia (Rochelle Hudson, a year after she played a similarly "ruined" girl in Mae West's vehicle She Done Him Wrong, and she turns in another quiet, understated and subtly moving performance here), who got pregnant from a night with a college football player who turned out to be the son of a Senator. In Cozzens' original novel Dr. Bull gave her an abortion, but even at the end of the so-called "pre-Code" period that was too much for a Hollywood movie.The censors also forced Ford and screenwriters Philip Klein, Jane Storm and Paul Green to change the character of soda jerk Larry Ward from an STD victim to a harmless hypochondriac, played for comic relief by Andy Devine.
Doctor Bull is a likable movie but there's not much dramatic meat on those old cliched bones, and according to the American Film Institute Catalog Ford got so frustrated with the project that a Motion Picture Daily reporter said that when two of the writers suggested that Ford reshoot a scene from a different angle, Ford said, "Better consult Mr. Rogers. He does most of the directing on this picture." That didn't stop Ford from continuing to make Will Rogers-style films even after Rogers died in a plane crash in 1935 and was therefore no longer around to star in them; Tobacco Road (1941) is clearly an attempt to do a Rogers film with Charley "Uncle Henry" Grapewin in what would undoubtedly had been Rogers' role if he'd still been alive, and in 1953 Ford even did a direct sequel to Judge Priest, one of his Rogers films, as The Sun Shines Bright with Charlie Winninger in Rogers' old role.