Monday, September 24, 2012

PRE-CODE PARADE: Warren William in BEDSIDE (1934)

After leading a cohort of Warner Bros. players -- Glenda Farrell and Guy Kibbee went with him -- to Columbia Pictures for Frank Capra's Lady For a Day, Warren William kicked off 1934 back at his home studio with a medical drama directed by Robert Florey. There's almost a world of difference between the two pictures. In Capra's, William is a lovable, indeed an essentially benign rogue out of Damon Runyon, as if Capra saw no difference between Runyon's underworld whimsies (see also Guys and Dolls) and Warners' more hard-boiled stuff. William's Dave the Dude in Lady pulls off a bluff worthy of his Warners characters in convincing visiting aristocrats that Apple Annie the street vendor is a Manhattan grande dame. The bluffs in his Warners pictures were becoming less successful, or at least the studio writers made them increasingly hollow. The Mind Reader had shown that the William character had nothing but his gimmick -- no innate talent, not even a gift of gab, to make his bluff good. Earlier, William played a heroic fraud, even if, as in The Match King, he did reprehensible things. Bedside seems to set William up to play another kind of heroic fraud, but ends up making him an even more ignoble fraud than in Mind Reader. Is it any wonder his star would soon decline?

William plays Bob Brown, an x-ray technician with the sort of bedside manner you'd expect from a Pre-Code picture. He has an adoring assistant (Jean Muir) who wonders why Bob has never pursued his M.D. He's never had the money to finish medical school, he explains, so Nurse Caroline insanely loans him tuition money -- her life savings??? But he doesn't make it to Chicago before blowing the whole roll on gambling. He bluffs, of course, writing letters describing his studies while toiling as a humble orderly. In a crucial scene, he takes the initiative to administer medication to a suffering patient. For his trouble, because he had no authorization and the hospital can't take the risk, he's fired.

From here, Bedside could have become a tale of a Great Impostor, a man with genuine medical talent who only lacks the credentials to save lives. Instead, after returning to Caroline and resuming his x-ray work, Bob looks for the shortest way to success -- he becomes more concerned with the credentials than with acquiring the skills that earn them. His big chance comes when a flustered man (David Landau) stumbles into the office claiming an illness that only a shot of morphine can help. Both Bob and Caroline suspect that the man may be faking his illness to get the dope, and both deduce from his specific orders regarding the injection that he must be a medical man. Inspired, Bob follows the junkie home and learns that he was once Dr. J. Herbert Martell. Bob convinces the man to sell his medical diploma, with a promise of future injections thrown in. He now needs two things to be a success: a real doctor to do most of the work for him, and a press agent. He finds the former in Dr. Wiley (Donald Meek), who's also the inventor of a rejuvenation device. He finds the latter in Sam Sparks (Allen Jenkins) who starts building a reputation for the "recently returned from Europe" Dr. Martell. Sparks's efforts extend to having people shill for the doctor in high-profile public places and having him paged in hotels and sports arenas. The guileless Wiley is happy to take on as much work as "Martell" can dump on him while Martell himself provides the bedside manner that thrills the society ladies. Only the occasional reappearances of the real Martell, badgering him for more money and morphine, complicates Bob's rise to fame.

Caroline grows increasingly suspicious -- why did Bob change his name, after all? -- but is mollified for a while by Bob's assurance that most of his clients are simply hypochondriacs who want attention. His most prominent client is an opera singer who wants him as her surgeon after he diagnoses a flaw in her singing, having overheard a real doctor's opinion moments before. Her trouble doesn't require surgery, but she insists, and to oblige her Bob makes a perfunctory incision in her throat and quickly sews it up, convincing Caroline that no harm has been done. But he can't even do this right and the singer starts hemorrhaging. Not even Dr. Wiley can save her -- but what about his invention? He manages to revive her with his rejuvenation device, but "Martell" gets all the credit. By now, however, while Wiley remains naive, Caroline has seen enough. Despite this latest miracle, time is running out on Dr. Martell. The real Martell circles him like a vulture, eventually becoming a haunting hallucination. The moment eventually comes, with his love's life on the line, when Bob must own up to the truth....

A film like this needs to leave an opening for the protagonist to redeem himself, but Florey and five writers have painted William into a corner and can't get him out. He should have been able to at least contribute to saving Caroline's life with the knowledge he'd acquired long ago, in some echo of that unauthorized intervention earlier in the picture. Instead, he runs about begging other doctors to perform the necessary surgery until they browbeat him into admitting his imposture. After that, he's barred from medical practice and slinks back to his x-ray business -- and for some reason Caroline sticks with him. This is admittedly a realistic finish -- except maybe for the girl standing by him -- but it ends Bedside with a dull flop.  Warren William the heroic bluffer, the big talker, is gone. In his place is Warren William the pathetic loser. What's wrong with this picture? I just explained it to you....but William wasn't through yet by a long shot. His next picture would be another where he takes more than he dishes out, but in it William would become more of a Hitchcockian protagonist, a mostly sympathetic figure who makes one mistake that threatens to destroy his life. Our next picture in the William series is Roy Del Ruth's Upper World, but for now, here's our usual original trailer for Bedside, courtesy of


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