Saturday, March 26, 2011

By Appointment Only (Invincible, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was By Appointment Only, another download of a movie made by Invincible Pictures (the sister company of Chesterfield) in 1933, a print which ran only 56 minutes even though the running time listed by the American Film Institute Catalog is “63 or 66-67 minutes.” Directed by Frank R. Strayer (whose most famous credits are the Columbia Blondie movies, though he also made two quite impressive horror indies in the early 1930’s, The Vampire Bat for Majestic and Condemned to Live for Invincible) from a script by himself and Robert Ellis, By Appointment Only is a weird medical soap opera whose central character is Dr. Michael Travers (Lew Cody, a silent-era “B”-lister on his way down), a busy society doctor who takes big fees from female hypochondriacs and uses them to fund giving charity care to poor people.

Alas, his schedule is so relentlessly busy that on September 14, his birthday (Strayer and Ellis discreetly refrain from telling us which birthday), when he’s hoping for a quiet dinner at home with his fiancée, Diane Manners (Aileen Pringle), he instead ends up presiding over the death of Mary Carroll (Claire McDowell), a dowdy-looking woman in a shabby black dress who’d come into his office at 2:30 p.m., stayed all day waiting for a hole to open up in his schedule (Marceline Day, the receptionist Buster Keaton fell for in The Cameraman, is in this one as Brownie, the doc’s faithful secretary) only to croak from cardiac failure on the doctor’s operating table once he finally did get to see her. Whether from a sense of atonement or just basic human decency, Dr. Travers responds to the sudden appearance of Mary’s 14-year-old daughter Judy (Sally O’Neil) by adopting her as his ward (she’s an orphan because her father had died several years before). Meanwhile, Diane is worried about the scapegrace antics of her nephew Dick (Edward Morgan), though the Strayer-Ellis script doesn’t tell us much about what those are, and Dr. Travers sends Judy off to school and goes off on a long-planned trip to Europe to tout the benefits of a new procedure for heart surgery he’s invented.

When he returns, it’s nearly four years later, Judy is now 18 and Dr. Travers is now attracted to her as a woman — even though meanwhile she’s fallen in love with Dick Manners. The doctor tells Judy she should wait rather than marrying Dick immediately, and Dick suspects that Travers is in love with Judy himself — which Travers admits, while Judy informs Dick that she’s in love with Travers and if he proposes to her, she’ll say yes. Judy makes the mistake of telling this to Dick while they’re riding in Dick’s car, with Dick driving, and Dick gets angry and says, “If you want Dr. Travers, then I’ll get you to him — as soon as possible!” Accordingly, he stomps on his car’s accelerator and, just when you’re thinking, “Oh, no, they’re going to have the car crash and one of them is going to be critically injured and Dr. Travers is going to have to save them,” the car crashes and Judy is critically injured (though Dick is unscathed) and Dr. Travers has to do a super-operation to save her life. The final scene is a wedding at which it appears that Judy is going to marry Travers at long last — only in a trick ending it turns out Travers is just giving her away; she actually marries Dick and, as Dick and Judy take the vows, Travers and Diane repeat them privately.

By Appointment Only is a perfectly decent movie that has nothing special to offer — Strayer’s direction is more than competent, making expert use of moving cameras and quick cutting to keep the story from getting dull even though it’s mostly people talking in rooms (or at outdoor parties), but the story is all too predictable and about the only unusual thing about it is that, despite the fact that Travers and Diane aren’t married, they seem just about as bored with each other as any long-term married couple, especially since they hardly ever see each other: Travers because of the time demands of his practice and Diane because of her role as a social woman and a patroness of the opera (the night of Travers’ birthday dinner she bails so she can attend a reception for a famous singer), and while it’s nice to see a movie in which all the protagonists are basically likable (a far cry from the tendency in today’s films in which the characters are depicted so relentlessly unsympathetic one throws up one’s hands in frustration and asks oneself, “Just who in this movie are we supposed to like?”), Strayer and Ellis went too far in the other direction: the dramatic conflicts don’t seem to have any edge because we don’t feel a stake in the events turning out one way as opposed to another (and Dick as a character is such a cipher we really don’t have any idea whether we’re supposed to think of him as a good long-term match for Judy or not). Still, By Appointment Only is O.K. entertainment and surprisingly more compelling as drama than Bombs Over Burma!