Friday, October 8, 2010

Internes Can’t Take Money (Paramount, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Internes Can’t Take Money — note the spelling of “interne,” since in 1937 that was the normal way the title of a doctor in training was spelled (we’re more familiar with the more recent spelling “intern,” which drops the silent “e”) — made at Paramount in 1937 and included in Universal’s Barbara Stanwyck boxed set (remember that MCA’s TV subsidiary bought the entire Paramount catalog from 1929 to 1949 for TV sales in the mid-1950’s, and the films ended up at Universal when it was purchased by MCA in 1962) because she’s top-billed (albeit below the title). It’s actually the first Dr. Kildare movie, with Joel McCrea as Kildare (he’s quite good in the role even though the doctor’s super-powers get really ridiculous after a while); later on the rights to the character were bought by MGM, who filmed them with Lew Ayres as Kildare (at least until his conscientious-objector application during World War II got him fired from the studio) and Lionel Barrymore as his irascible supervisor at Blair General Hospital, Dr. Gillespie.

In this version, based on a story Max Brand (usually a Western writer) published in Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan in March 1936, the hospital is called “Mountview General” and the irascible supervisor is called Dr. Henry J. Fearson (Pierre Watkin), who in the opening sequence fires intern(e) Dr. Weeks (Lee Bowman) for having used an unapproved experimental surgery technique on a patient with a liver problem. The patient died, but Kildare (who worked out the new technique with Weeks and says he should be considered equally responsible) tells Fearson he would have died anyway and that medicine won’t progress if doctors aren’t allowed to innovate. The hospital itself is clean, airy, spacious and everything in it looks brand spanking new on screen — hospitals almost certainly didn’t look this good in 1937 (they certainly don’t in other medical movies of the period) and they don’t look this good today, either — and there are the constant P.A. calls to that doctor or this that are an invariable feature of medical movies or TV shows even now (things I can’t remember hearing in real hospitals on the rare occasions I’ve visited them).

Just when we’re wondering where Barbara Stanwyck is going to fit into all this, she turns up as Janet Haley, an emergency patient with a burned arm (she works in some kind of laundry because she says she burned it on a pleating machine); just as Kildare finishes treating her burn she faints from hunger and exhaustion, and he tries to get her to eat. She won’t for reasons we find out later; it seems her former husband was a bank robber who was shot by police and died in her apartment, whereupon she was arrested herself and served a two-year sentence because the police and law enforcement in general believed that she was in on his crimes (which she wasn’t). Before that, the couple had had a baby daughter, who was placed in an orphanage while Janet was in stir and whom she’s trying to find — and using all her meager earnings to pay off various informants who claim to know where her daughter is, virtually all of whom are ripping her off. She traces the information to gangster Dan Innes (Stanley Ridges), who’s willing to tell her where her daughter is but only if she either pays him $1,000 or becomes his mistress (depicted surprisingly frankly for a post-Code film).

Meanwhile another gangster, Hanlon (Lloyd Nolan) — he’s a good-bad gangster to Innes’s bad-bad gangster — is severely wounded in a knife fight and is taken to the bar where Kildare hangs out, and he happens to be there and, told by Hanlon’s gang that they don’t dare take him to a hospital because then the police will find out, Kildare has to do an al fresco operation then and there, with rum instead of regulation alcohol to sterilize his instruments. Hanlon is grateful enough that he gives the bar owner an envelope containing $1,000 to pay Kildare for his services, but — well, we could tell from the title that at some point or another someone would offer Kildare money and he’d tell them he couldn’t take it, because the rule then was that intern(e)s couldn’t take private payments because they were supposed to dispense care to all who needed it, regardless of income, and if patients with money were allowed to pay they would receive preferential treatment over patients without money. (My, how times have changed.) Janet invites Kildare to her home and tries to steal the money, but Kildare catches her at it — “The next time you try to pick a man’s pocket, don’t do it in front of a mirror,” he spits out in McCrea’s best self-righteous manner — and insists on returning the money to Hanlon even though Hanlon slaps him for his pains.

Hanlon promises to do Kildare a favor whenever he needs one, and Kildare calls in his chit when Innes is taking Janet to his country place, where he’s going to install her and demand sexual favors in exchange for reuniting her with her daughter — and there’s a shoot-out at the train station and Innes is severely wounded in the liver. Janet worries that Innes is going to die and take the secret of her daughter’s whereabouts to the grave with him, so she insists that Kildare operate and keep him alive at least long enough to get the secret out of him — and, wouldn’t you know it, Dr. Kildare uses that new technique he and Weeks were practicing earlier to keep Innes alive long enough to blurt out the whereabouts of Janet’s daughter, and in a final scene that was wickedly parodied five years later in Preston Sturges’ The Great Moment (also a Paramount production which cast Joel McCrea as a doctor), they collect her at a Roman Catholic orphanage run by nuns, and the reunion between Janet and her little girl takes place in a long corridor with a high, vaulted ceiling while a setting of the “Ave Maria” plays on the soundtrack (though in this movie it’s the Bach-Gounod version while Sturges used Schubert’s).

Internes Can’t Take Money is an unwitting genre-bender (as opposed to the intentional ones Sturges made) that seems to be combining medical drama, soap opera, noble-gangster film and nasty-gangster film in the same movie — it has four different story lines and it’s only about 45 minutes into this 78-minute film that the plots finally start connecting up with each other — but it’s at least a well-made film, directed by Alfred Santell from a script by Rian James and Theodore Reeves and stunningly photographed by German expat Theodor Sparkuhl in a proto-noir style that really doesn’t work all that well for the material. The acting is reliably good, with Nolan and Ridges shining as the nice and nasty gangsters, respectively, though Stanwyck seems to be phoning much of it in — her performance has all the trademarks, the vocal catches to signify deep, wrenching emotion and the surface reserve that suddenly breaks down at the big moments — but I doubt if Santell used Frank Capra’s trick of directing Stanwyck (shooting her big close-ups first and the covering shots later so Stanwyck, who gave her all the first time she acted a scene and was less effective each time she had to retake, would always be shown at her best) and so he got a professional rather than an incandescent performance out of her. Still, it’s a treat to see Stanwyck and McCrea, whom I consider two of the most underrated actors in classic-era Hollywood (in fact I’d rate Stanwyck as the greatest screen actress of all time — even over Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, if only because she was so incredibly versatile), in a well-made vehicle that shows off the cool professionalism of the studio system at its best.