Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Instant Gratification Theater: "Bedside" (1934): Pre-Code Fun from Warners

Warner Archive Instant has added quite a few Pre-Codes early in 2014, and not all of them are even available on DVD. George Feltenstein has indicated more Forbidden Hollywood is on the way, and if Bedside is a part of any such set, well, that set is going to be worth a look.

This 1934 Robert Florey drama is a ludicrous series of rapid plot developments, each one less credible than the last. It culminates in the most ridiculous scenario of all, then tries to redeem its main character, who spent the previous 95% of the film proving he is irredeemable. In short, "Bedside" is absurd.

It's also entertaining as hell and one of the most fun flicks I've seen since I signed up for Warner Archive Instant, and I strongly recommend it. If you have WAI, see it already. If you don't and you ever do the free trial thing, put it on your short list of things to sample.

Just look at the trailer for Bedside, which WAI has posted along with the main feature. Actually, don't look at it until after you see the movie--like many old trailers, it spoils much of the story--but bear in mind that it sells itself as a lot more risqué than it actually is. It plays up the "bedside manner" aspect, with Warren William apparently sleeping with all his female patients. Well, the movie itself has its share of racy moments, and William is no saint, but the movie is not at all  about that.

Instead, it focuses on the dishonest rise to prominence of William's med school crashout, who obtains a medical diploma under false pretenses and opens a practice in New York. He meets a shady press agent played by Allen Jenkins (I know, I know--SOLD, right?) and develops a reputation, but with one catch: He doesn't exactly DO anything. He charms his female patients into returning for multiple visits just so they can swoon in front of him, but he lets his "assistant," the unwitting former insurance company doc Wiley, do the actual work. All the while, he somehow manages to keep on Jean Muir as a loyal nurse/partner/girlfriend despite her realizing early on he's a fraud.

The plot contrivances and coincidences do pile up, but everything moves so fast in this 65-minute picture that it's tough to dwell on them. I did nearly reach the end of my patience, though, when William's character is forced into a situation where he is asked to perform brain surgery because no one else is available. Despite the fact that we--and multiple other characters--see that he has been getting sloshed at a gala, and despite the fact that he used this excuse earlier in the film, William somehow doesn't tell anyone, "Hey, I was just getting bombed out of my mind; I can't do freaking brain surgery!" Of course, if he did, we wouldn't have the dramatic denouement and the cheesy conclusion. Really, if you just enjoy the first, often dark 55 minutes of "Bedside," you can try to forget the awful, false last 10 and still end up with a great taste in your mouth.

The cast is almost perfect here. William is, as always, a delight as the roguish would-be doctor. Sure, he's an ass, but there's something compelling about him. Look at the way he winks as he tells Jenkins, who is suggesting ways to get him publicity, "I've always made it a point to be strictly ethical." It's hilarious. Jenkins is a riot, cooking up some great schemes to get his client in the papers. For his pat, he tells  William, "For 10%, I'd promote an epidemic."There's a fine montage that shows Jenkins at various public events, grinning with smug satisfaction as someone calls for the doctor over the P.A. system.

Even the smaller roles are well cast. Donald Meek is earnest as Wiley, and he manages even to pull off one of the more fantastic plot devices the movie makes him carry. David Landau is somewhat off-kilter as a morphine-addicted disgraced doctor who keeps causing trouble for William, but that works for the character. Renee Whitney scores in a minor part as "Madame Varsova," and lovers of old Hollywood will enjoy the likes of Henry O'Neill and Louise Beavers.

The only drawback for me was Jean Muir as nurse/love interest Caroline. Perhaps some of my discomfort is due to the fact that I have such a hard time buying Caroline's willingness to give the guy a second chance over and over again. But I just wasn't impressed with her work, and I found some of her scenes to be a little unsteady.

I have thrown a lot of negativity at "Bedside," so let me remind you again what a great watch it is. It involves drugs, pre-martial sex, fraud, greed, extortion, and a lot of general scheming and trickeration. 

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