Monday, November 17, 2014

Dr. Jack (Hal Roach/Pathé, 1922)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a TCM “Silent Sunday Showcase” airing of a 1922 movie called Dr. Jack, which judging from the synopsis in the TCM schedule (“a naive country doctor fights to save the woman he loves from a crooked specialist”) and the absence of any actors listed as being in the movie, I had assumed would be a melodrama. Surprise! It was actually a Harold Lloyd comedy — and a quite funny one, too, though as Ben Mankiewicz observed in his introduction it kind of got lost in the shuffle back then because it was released between Grandma’s Boy and Safety Last, two of Lloyd’s biggest hits, and it’s been underrated since (but then, at least partly because he owned virtually all his own films and kept them out of circulation for years, all of Lloyd’s work was underrated for quite some time even after Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had been hailed as geniuses). The plot is simple enough: Dr. Jack Jackson (Harold Lloyd) is a small-town physician, relentlessly overworked (his servants have to chase after him with bits of his uneaten breakfast, and in one quite funny scene he bails out of his car and waits while it travels in circles until he can get back into it again) and curing his patients more through psychology than anything else (when a young kid is shamming illness to get out of going to school, Dr. Jack tells him the schoolhouse just burned down and he makes a “miraculous” recovery; later he protects the kid by padding his ass with a pillow as his mom tries to spank him for faking illness to get out of going to school).

A character identified only as “The Sick-Little-Well-Girl” (played by Mildred Davis, in one of her last on-screen roles before she quit acting and became Mrs. Harold Lloyd, which she remained for 46 years until her death in 1969, two years before his — of all the great silent comedians Lloyd was the only one who married just once) is in the clutches of Dr. Ludwig von Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne), who’s extracting large fees from her bamboozled father (John T. Prince) and claiming she needs total isolation from all other people and must live her entire life in dark rooms and take scads of medicine. (One intriguing thing that dates this film is that all the medications in it are liquid; pills existed in 1922 but quite a lot of drugs were still drunk instead of swallowed with water.) Needless to say, there’s nothing really wrong with her, and when they get stranded in Dr. Jack’s small town and dad calls him in to get a second opinion, the first thing Dr. Jack does is open the window shades, curtains and windows in the girl’s room to get her some sunshine and fresh air. The second thing he does is fall in love with her — represented by inset shots of a model castle, showing the idyllic life he imagines with her — only when he accidentally kisses her (a stool he was standing on to examine her gave way and brushed his face against hers), his dad and Saulsbourg give him until the next morning to get out of their house. (When this happens there’s a shot of that model castle crumbling.) Eventually the plot is resolved by a deus ex machina; the house is visited by two policemen looking for an escaped lunatic, and while we never see the lunatic or find out what happened to him (in a 1930’s film it would probably have turned out that Dr. Saulsbourg was the lunatic), Dr. Jack disguises himself as the lunatic — in a makeup that seemed to me to be a deliberate parody of the one John Barrymore wore as Mr. Hyde in Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde two years earlier — and does some marvelous acrobatics and quick changes as he poses as the lunatic and also appears in his true Dr. Jack identity allegedly fighting the madman. (Lloyd might also have been parodying Lon Chaney and his multi-role movies in these scenes.) Eventually, of course, Dr. Saulsbourg is disposed of, the girl gets better and Dr. Jack gets her (and that model castle reassembles itself in the final scene).

It’s not much of a movie but it’s a convenient peg on which to hang some very funny gags — including an illegal poker game Dr. Jack gets involved with after a little boy asks him to break it up before his father, one of the participants, gambles away his entire paycheck, and which Dr. Jack successfully disrupts by feeding all four players a stacked hand with four aces — leading to a bitter argument on the final call and the arrival of the sheriff to break up the game. Lloyd was a surprisingly creative filmmaker with a strong eye for what was going on around him — the director of record of Dr. Jack was Fred Newmeyer but it was clear Lloyd was the auteur — and there are some interesting overhead shots and other examples of creative filmmaking far ahead of what Charlie Chaplin was doing at the time (Chaplin was an incredible performer but not much of a director; his philosophy, as James Agee put it in his review of Monsieur Verdoux, was “if you can invent something worth watching, the camera should hold, clear and still, so you can watch it,” and both Lloyd and Buster Keaton were considerably more inventive as total filmmakers). There’s also an intriguing example of what calls “Crazy Credits”: all the opening credits are written on a doctor’s prescription pad, the introduction says “Hal Roach Prescribes Harold Lloyd” (instead of the usual “Presents”) and the supporting players are introduced with a card headed “In Consultation.”