Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Her Favorite Patient (Andrew Stone/United Artists, 1945; reissued by Astor, 1950)

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

Our “feature” the night before last was an engaging little movie called Her Favorite Patient, a mild little charmer from producer/director Andrew Stone in 1945 based on a Robert Carson story from the Saturday Evening Post called “Bedside Manner,” also the original title of the movie when United Artists released it in 1945. (The print we were watching was a retitled 1950 reissue by Astor Pictures, which usually handled much tackier reissues from studios like Monogram and PRC.) The story is about a woman doctor, Hedy Fredericks (Ruth Hussey), who’s driving to Chicago to take a job with a research institute, but first she has to stop in her home town of Blythedale (at least that’s what I think the name is — we never see it on a sign or any other document and I’m just guessing from the way Ruth Hussey pronounced it in the opening scene) to see her uncle, J. H. Fredericks (Charlie Ruggles sans his usual moustache), also a doctor.

Indeed, the older, male Dr. Fredericks is one of only two M.D.’s in town, which means they’re both frantically overworked, and he’s dead set on making it three by getting his niece to abandon her plans to go to Chicago and do research, and instead to settle down in Blythedale and become his assistant and partner. On her way to Blythedale she picks up three U.S. Marines who all, it turns out, have the last name “Smith” (one begins to wonder if the World War II-era Marines functioned like the band The Ramones, making all their privates take the last name “Smith”), and who are likewise going to Chicago and don’t relish getting stuck in a small town like Blythedale which, as the younger, female Dr. Fredericks puts it, “time has passed by.” When they arrive they find Blythedale a thriving metropolis, complete with a busy Main Street and even a nightclub, thanks to an airplane manufacturing company that has opened a factory to produce for the war effort. Among the people who’ve been lured to town to participate is test pilot Morgan Hale (John Carroll), whom Hedy pulls out of a line for lunch (that’s a sign of how crowded the town is!) because he reminds her of a boy she knew in town when they were both kids.

Needless to say, it’s the sort of hate-at-first-sight that is going to blossom into love by the final reel, only when Morgan’s head is wounded in an altercation at the nightclub the elder, male Dr. Fredericks hits on a scheme to have him pretend to a series of ever more fantastic ailments in order to keep Hedy in town caring for him, and the proximity works its magic and they end up billing and cooing by the end. Her Favorite Patient isn’t much of a movie — the script by Malcolm Stuart Boylan and Frederick J. Jackson is amusing but hardly as funny as they obviously thought it was, and the best thing that could be said for the direction is this movie cried out for Preston Sturges and got Andrew Stone — but it’s saved by a marvelous performance by Charlie Ruggles (a bit less befuddled than usual, he acts the part much the way Frank Morgan might have, only less theatrically and therefore more believably) and a great slapstick scene in which Hedy is on her way out of town towards Chicago at long last — and Morgan gets in his own car, determined either to run her off the road or persuade her to go back. It was surprising that anyone staged such an elaborate car chase — between two cool-looking but rather lumbering pre-war white convertibles — in the era of gas rationing (and even more surprising that the cars in the movie don’t have gas rationing stickers on their windshields, which I had thought were de rigueur during the war years).

Aside from that, the movie has some nice gags — having run out of physical ailments he can fake well enough to fool a doctor, Morgan is forced to pretend to “pantophobia” — the fear of everything — which in practice means he’s always ducking into closets or hiding under tables and beds, and this leaves a lot of the other characters wondering how such a scaredycat ever got to be a fearless, macho (well, as macho as John Carroll could ever play on screen, anyway) test pilot. It’s not that great a movie, and at nearly 80 minutes it’s about 10 to 15 minutes too long for its own good, but it’s still charming and fun, and Ruth Hussey is personable, attractive without being drop-dead gorgeous and adept at the rare opportunity (shared, among actresses of her generation, mostly by Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell) to play an intelligent woman on screen.