The heroes on the front lines of the current coronavirus pandemic are the doctors and nurses who treat the sick and dying and the scientists who race to find a new form of treatment if not a cure for the horrific disease. Films about the heroics performed by like-minded individuals of the past were quite common on the screen from the 1930s through the 1950s. Since the 1960s, however, when medical dramas became a TV staple, big screen portrayals of doctors, nurses and scientists have become exceedingly rare. With that in mind, here are ten examples of the genre from 1931 through 1955, only one of which won Oscars, although four others were at least nominated.
ARROWSMITH (1931), directed by John Ford
This was the one and only collaboration between director John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley) and producer Samuel Goldwyn (The Best Years of Our Lives). Sidney Howard (Dodsworth, Gone with the Wind) adapted his screenplay from the second half of the 1923 novel by Sinclair Lewis (Elmer Gantry). Ronald Colman in one of his best remembered roles is the doctor battling plague in the Caribbean, Helen Hayes is his first wife and Myrna Loy, in a drastically cut role in DVD releases of the film, is his second wife.
THE PAINTED VEIL (1934), directed by Richard Boleslawski
Richard Boleslawski (Les Misérables, The Garden of Allah) was at the top of his craft with this classy soap opera from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham (The Letter, The Razor’s Edge) in which Herbert Marshall as a crusading doctor invites his faithless wife (a sublime Greta Garbo) to join him in China in the hope that she will die from the cholera epidemic he is fighting. George Brent is Garbo’s callow lover, Jean Hersholt her father. Warner Oland and Keye Luke have featured roles. John Curran’s 2006 remake starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and Liev Schreiber is even better.
THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR (1936), directed by William Dieterle
Filmed at the request of star Paul Muni, who was tired of playing gangsters in such films as Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, this biography of the pioneering French microbiologist who helped revolutionize both agriculture and medicine, won four of the five Oscars it was nominated for, losing only Best Picture to The Great Ziegfeld. It set off a series of biographical films at Warner Bros. which lasted a decade. Muni’s next biographical film, 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola would win the Oscar for Best Picture but Muni would have to settle for a nomination.
THE WHITE ANGEL (1936), directed by William Dieterle
With Dieterle again at the helm, Warner Bros. hoped it repeat its success of The Story of Louis Pasteur but this film designed as a showcase for Kay Francis was a disappointment at the box-office, paving the way for the studio’s biggest female star’s quick decline . It wouldn’t be long before she was reduced to playing supporting roles in other star’s films such Carole Lombard’s In Name Only. Nonetheless, Francis’ portrayal of pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale, “the lady with a lamp” was one of her best. She is given strong support from Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter, Nigel Bruce and Donald Woods.
INTERNES CAN’T TAKE MONEY (1937), directed by Alfred Santell
Barbara Stanwyck gets top billing as a recently released con looking for her missing daughter. What sets it apart from other noirish soap operas of the era are the performances of Stanwyck and Joel McCrea as a young hospital intern who helps her. His name is Jim Kildare. This Paramount film was the first screen appearance of Dr. Kildare who would become an MGM staple in the person of Lew Ayres two years later. The 1960s TV series with Richard Chamberlain in the role was one of the first of a legion of successful doctor and nurse series in the years since. Lloyd Nolan, Stanley Ridges and Lee Bowman co-star.
YELLOW JACK (1938), directed by George B. Sietz
This is the one that comes closest to telling it like it could be today with Lewis Stone as Walter Reed, the doctor for whom the hospital was named, and Robert Montgomery leading a group of five volunteers to allow themselves to be infected with yellow fever carrying mosquitos in 1900 Cuba in order to prove the theory that it was the mosquitos that carried the disease, a theory promulgated by the doctors played by Charles Coburn and Henry Hull but never tested and thus proved. Sam Levene, Alan Curtis, William Henry and Buddy Ebsen are the other volunteers. Virginia Bruce is Montgomery’s nominal love interest.
THE CITADEL (1938), directed by King Vidor
Of all the novels prolific British novelist wrote, The Citadel with its noble doctor who loses his way and then regains it, has been adapted more times than any of his other works which include The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years. Robert Donat’s impassioned performance informs it, but the supporting cast is pretty good too. It includes Rosalind Russell as his wife and Ralph Richardson as his best friend. It’s the shocking, sudden death of his wife that brings the good doctor back to reality in the book, but it’s his best friend who dies the film which softens but doesn’t destroy the impact of the ending.
DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET (1940), directed by William Dieterle
John Huston received the first of his eventual fifteen Oscar nominations for co-writing the original screenplay of this docudrama about Paul Ehrlich, the doctor who found a cure for syphilis. The subject matter may have been controversial, but there was nothing controversial about the performance of Edward G. Robinson in one of his finest portrayals. Ruth Gordon, fresh from playing Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, is Mrs. Ehrlich. The sterling supporting cast includes Donald Crisp, Otto Kruger, Maria Ouspenskaya, Sig Ruman, Albert Basserman and Harry Davenport.
SISTER KENNY (1946), directed by Dudley Nichols
Rosalind Russell earned the second of her four Oscar nominations and the first of her five Golden Globe awards for her portrayal of Elizabeth Kenny, the Australian nurse who discovered an effective treatment for polio but experienced great difficulty in convincing doctors of the validity of her claims. It was stipulated by Kenny in RKO’s contract for the rights to her story that Russell, whose nephew she treated, be the one to play her. The superb supporting cast included Alexander Knox (who co-wrote the screenplay), Dean Jagger, Beulah Bondi and Philip Merivale, Gladys Cooper’s husband, who died before the film’s release.
NOT AS A STRANGER (1955), directed by Stanley Kramer
If you can past the casting of close-to-forty-year-olds Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra as medical students and their contemporary, Olivia de Havilland, as a young nurse, this is an absorbing film set in a hospital featuring the likes of Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford and Charles Bickford who won the year’s Best Supporting Actor award from the National Board of Review. It features four operations and includes the first real beating heart seen in a film in the operation featuring open heart surgery. It was the first film directed by producer Stanley Kramer (On the Beach, Ship of Fools).
DOCTORS AND NURSES AND OSCAR
- Arrowsmith (1931/32) – 4 nominations, no wins
- The Painted Veil (1934) – no nominations, no wins
- The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) – 4 nominations, 3 Oscars
- The White Angel (1936) – no nominations, no wins
- Internes Can’t Take Money (1937) – no nominations, no wins
- Yellow Jack (1938) – no nominations, no wins
- The Citadel (1938) – 4 nominations, no wins
- Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940) – 1 nomination, no wins
- Sister Kenny (1946) – 1 nomination, no wins
- Not as a Stranger (1955) – 1 nomination, no wins