Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jean Hersholt's Dr. Christian

In the classic MGM Dr. Kildare films the stories revolve around progress in medicine aided by cutting edge diagnostics and technology. By contrast, the plots in the RKO Dr. Christian films involve the conflicts triggered when Tradition meets Progress. The central message being that without the humanity and compassion of traditional values, progress is meaningless (if not downright harmful).

Jean Hersholt portrayed the endearing Dr. Paul Christian in six delightful movies released by RKO Radio Pictures between 1939 and 1941. Three of them were presented during the original Matinee at the Bijou series on PBS to enthusiastic response.

While medicine is important in these films, it is more of a common-sense kind of healthcare. The real focus of Dr. Christian is his unique position as a small town doctor in the lives of his patients and the ethical responsibility he feels for their well-being -- hence the need for the good doctor to branch out into politics, busting quacks, matchmaking and inspiring local residents of River’s End, Minnesota, to become better citizens.

Dr. Christian represents Tradition, naturally. In Meet Dr. Christian (1939) and Dr. Christian Meets the Women (1940) "Victorian" is used disparagingly to describe our hero. The force of Progress is different things at different times. Of course, the hubris of Progress is always undone by Dr. Christian being true to the values he believes in.

Which is not to say that in these films Dr. C does not keep up with the times. After all, he was right that the town needed a hospital facility, and he was right that the amphetamine-driven weight loss regimen was harmful. It is Dr. Christian who developed the brain operation that saved the mayor's daughter, and it is he that recognized the use of an illegally prescribed drug and performed a just-in-time blood transfusion. Dr, Christian does embrace Progress, but only when it truly serves the needs of a patient or the community -- never Progress for its own sake.

In The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940), an outbreak of spinal meningitis threatens the residents of a slum neighborhood on the outskirts of River’s End. The children especially are vulnerable. Local politicians show little interest until the escalating epidemic begins to encroach on their own Special Interests.
Things look quite grim until Dr. Christian whips out his microscope and gets down to business. The venerable doctor outwits the politicos, rescues a family from the slums and fights off the amorous predatory advances of a wealthy dowager –- all in the course of 67 minutes.

The six Dr. Christian films were populated by a fine cast of lovable continuing characters, especially Maude Eburne always on hand as the housekeeper with strong opinions and an astrology fixation. The love interest is supplied by Dorothy Lovett as Nurse Judy Price with Robert Baldwin as her beau, Roy Davis. Bijou favorite funnyman Edgar Kennedy plays the local grocer in two of the films.

Small town politics and greed once again dominate the plot in Remedy for Riches (1941). A charlatan comes to River’s End with a plot to exploit the citizenry. After buying some local property he announces that he has discovered oil and begins selling stock in phony oil wells. Dr. Christian diagnoses the swindle and exposes the unscrupulous speculators to the medicine they deserve. Edgar has some good scenes in this one.
In the final two films, Melody for Three (1941) and They Meet Again (1941), Dr. Christian focuses his healing powers on the shattered emotions and broken hearts of two talented child prodigies.

First, in Melody for Three, our beloved doc prescribes reconciliation between the feuding parents of a young violin prodigy. Fay Wray and Walter Woolf King portray the couple whose young son is emotionally distressed. The sound track includes some delightful classical violin interludes.

Then the father of a 9-year old singing prodigy has  mistakenly been jailed for embezzlement in the final film in the series, They Meet Again. Child actress Anne Bennett is impressive as daughter Janie and brings down the house during the state-wide singing contest when she bursts into an aria from La Traviata. Famed comedian Imogene Coca has a zany cameo as a love-struck paramour.

In the outside world, life may be chaotic and topsy-turvey, but here in this small-Midwest community, old-fashioned values are still important and there are people you can trust. Bad Things Happen just enough for dramatic tension, but nothing really bad ever happens in River's End -- rather like MGM’s Andy Hardy films.

The Dr. Christian film series was inspired by the exploits of a real-world celebrity doctor. In The Country Doctor (1936) Hersholt played Dr. John Luke, a character based on Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the doctor who assisted in the delivery of the Dionne Quintuplets in 1934.

Dafoe had become a national celebrity for his role in the quintuplets' lives, and two more films followed in which Hersholt played Dr. Luke -- Reunion (1936) and Five of a Kind (1938).

Hersholt felt a great affinity for this role and wanted to continue; when Dafoe blocked the use of the character for a series of movies, Hersholt created his own country doctor character. Because he was fond of fellow Dane Hans Christian Anderson's stories (later translating the author's work into a six volume series, "The Complete Anderson," in 1949), Hersholt called his character Dr. Paul Christian and took him to the radio.

The first broadcast in November 1937 opened with a few words from Hersholt about how "the birth of five little girls in Canada" couldn't possibly have an effect on an actor playing doctor roles in Hollywood, and yet somehow it did.From the beginning the character of the doctor was clear: he was self-effacing with praise but indignant at injustice, a little conservative with his diagnoses but nevertheless at the forefront of medicine, and always kind, but also willing to use a little psychological trickery with difficult, complaining cases. In River's End Dr. Christian cared not only for the health of people, but for their spirits.

From the 1940s on, these half hour radio dramas were often based on reader suggestions and original scripts. The show's annual-script writing competition for “The Dr. Christian Award” included a top prize of up to $2,000 and was won by such rapidly-rising young writers as Rod Serling and Earl Hamner Jr. A Newsweek article reported that some 7,697 scripts were submitted during the course of the show.

From l to r: Gale Gordon, Rosemary DeCamp and Jean Hersholt.
The Dr. Christian films were a natural progression of the radio drama, but the radio broadcasts received directly into millions of homes across America from 1937 to 1954 had a more personal intimacy. Dr. Christian was the kind of doctor you wanted to have (and it almost felt like you did). CBS sponsor Vaseline was acutely aware of this. Their commercials, still preserved within the original broadcasts, were straightforward and factual, portraying their hair tonics and salves as reliable cures one could trust.

Jean Hersholt, with his affable and familiar Danish accent, is primarily remembered for his acting skills in many other distinguished film rolls. He appeared in nearly 150 films, including the poignant role of Shirley Temple's embittered but beloved grandfather in the memorable film version of Heidi (1937); his masterful portrayal of Marcus in Erich von Stroheim's silent masterpiece Greed (1924); and the Porter in Grand Hotel (1932).

One of the pages from a souvenier booklet published by radio sponsor Vaseline. View the entire booklet “Jean Hersholt’s Album of Hollywood Stars” at Bob Merritt’s Old Time Radio site.

Hersholt helped create the Motion Picture Relief Fund in 1939 and went on to help establish the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, dedicated to providing medical care to fellow members of the motion picture industry when they were “down on their luck” and needed help.

In 1956, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences established an Honorary Academy Award category known as The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given periodically to an “individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.” Hersholt himself was honored by the Academy with two special Academy Awards for his philanthropic work; once in 1940 and again in 1950.

Also in 1956, Hersholt’s Dr. Christian radio and film creation came full circle when Ziv Television Productions founder Frederick Ziv contracted with Jean Hersholt and associates to develop 39 episodes of Dr. Christian for the 1956-57 TV season. The lead character was established as Dr. Christian’s nephew, Dr. Mark Christian, asportrayed by a popular actor named Macdonald Carey and scripted by Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame.

ZIV Television Productions during the 1950s was a prolific producer of content for first-run syndication, which Ziv marketed to local and regional sponsors, who then placed them on local stations outside of prime time. Ziv used this formula to create and deliver such iconic early TV series as The Cisco Kid (1949-56), Highway Patrol (1956-59), Science Fiction Theater (1955-57); and Sea Hunt (1957-61), to name a few.

The final act of Hersholt’s life played out much like a poignant and bittersweet finale to many of his Dr. Christian stories. When Frederick Ziv approached Hersholt about his pro-posed TV version of Dr. Christian, it was known that Hersholt was dying of cancer. Nonetheless, for the premiere episode, a gravely ill, 95 lb Jean Hersholt mustered the courage to be on hand in River’s End just long enough to turn the keys to his medical practice over to his TV nephew. He died shortly after filming wrapped on June 2, 1956, and only a few weeks prior to his 70th birthday. Jean Hersholt’s real-life nephew is actor Leslie Nielsen.

All six films in the Dr. Christian series are available separately or in a deluxe box set from Movies Unlimited.

The first ten Dr. Christian radio programs spanning the 1937-38 season, complete with old Vaseline commercials, are available for listening at the Internet Archive For the complete listing of all Dr. Christian programs broadcast, check out Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs.

 For Hersholt’s 25th screen anniversary, radio sponsor Vaseline published a souvenir booklet called Jean Hersholt’s Album of Hollywood Stars This tribute is a wonderful collection of facts and publicity stills you can browse online.

For his humanitarian efforts and translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales into English, in 1948 King Christian X of Denmark knighted Hersholt. Hersholt’s translations are still considered the most comprehensive and can be read online at Jean Hersholt: The Complete Anderson.

Great thanks to Victoria Balloon for her contributions to this article.


Jeff Overturf said...

Thanks so much for your in-depth insite into these wonderful folds in the fabric of classic Hollywood.

I love these "Package" films like Dr. Kildare, Dr. Christian, Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, Lum & Abner, Ma & Pa Kettle, Blondie and the like and am a huge oldtime radio fan.

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