Doctor Bull (1933)

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  • directed by John Ford
  • starring Will Rogers, Vera Allen, Marian Nixon, Howard Lally, Andy Devine, Rochelle Hudson, Elizabeth Patterson
  • Dr. George Bull, a no-nonsense country health officer who has served his community for decades, fights small-town prejudice and provincialism.

“Yes, sir…if I just had some house slippers now, I’d be right at home.”

Somehow I had been oblivious to the existence of circus performer, vaudeville and silent film star, radio man, lecturer, humorist, goodwill ambassador, philosopher, Beverly Hills mayor, and one-time presidential candidate Will Rogers, and consider me surprised if I come across anybody who packed more living into life between the years of 1910 and 1935. Doctor Bull along with Henry King’s State Fair this same year kicked off the final phase of Rogers’ career as a good-natured, simple, and wit-smart kind of leading man.

Rogers hand selected his personal favorite director, John Ford, to take the reins on Doctor Bull, along with Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend in the following years. Speaking of the former, though I’m sure this applies to the next two, they were intended most of all as a showcase for Rogers’ extremely popular persona. In his performances, columns, and various other outlets the man did more than most in shepherding the public and culture through the epic shifts of the 20s and 30s. He could connect on a “those were the good old days level,” while also maintaining a progressive edge that said, folks, there’s nothing much terrible about all the NEW that’s been goin’ on.

That’s more or less the entire plot of Doctor Bull. Everything is a scandal in the small town of New Winton, be it a widow being pursued by a new man or a couple of sarcastic quips thrown around to lighten the mood of a sudden death or medical emergency. George Bull is at the center of all of it. He has the manner and appearance of a closed-minded yokel but none of the ignorance and humorlessness. Bull takes his healing and life-saving duties seriously, but is equally at home blowing off appointments to relax with his girl, the widow Cardmaker, or throw back some drinks with the guys. Professionally he is caring and thorough but his background is in “treatin’ cows, not folks.” It reminded me of an old grade-school nurse of mine. Headache? Let’s take your temperature. Sprained ankle? Let’s get that temperature. Hangnail? Let’s take your temperature. For all of Bull’s eccentricities (telling a group of mourners at a graveyard, “why all the tears, did one escape?”), he got the job done, sacrificed himself often, and had New Winton and its people deep in his mind, heart, and soul.

Dr. Bull’s appointment book provides the blueprint for most of the film—a baby delivery here, some vaccinations for schoolchildren there, and then there are the major cases that weigh on him emotionally, such as curing his receptionist’s husband of his paralysis. Little by little as he bounces around helping, the overarching theme of Bull’s struggles with the townspeople and the outright war within himself concerning his limitations begins to take shape.

It was a simple story, but a very pleasant and comfortable one. Kind of an off-brand task for the usually more commanding John Ford, but I’m sure not an unwelcome one to work with the top-grossing star in Hollywood during the peak years of the Great Depression. Ford provided the perfect small town atmosphere and I particularly loved his shot introducing the town of New Winton, with the stationary camera panning widely from one edge of town to the left, arriving all the way right to the church at the other end. With the exception of slight choices by Ford and some truly funny moments arising from Elizabeth Patterson’s outrage and Andy Devine’s persistence, the film’s success relied mainly on the likeability factor of Will Rogers and hey now that was just alright wit’ me.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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