20 November 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
He makes his way to the top.
Reginald Denny, born and raised in England, had a hugely successful career in American silent films (in which his public-school English accent went unheard), playing brash young Americans who were firmly in the Harold Lloyd mould. 'Oh, Doctor!' brings Denny even farther into Lloyd's territory than usual, with a thrilling climax that seems clearly inspired by Lloyd's 'Safety Last'.
In the sound era, Denny's career tapered off into character roles and he is now utterly forgotten. During the Los Angeles riots of 1992, an entirely different man named Reginald Denny was prominently mentioned in the news. At the time, I was intrigued that absolutely none of the news media called attention to the coincidence of these men's mutual name ... solid evidence of how completely the silent comedian Reginald Denny has now been forgotten.
'Oh, Doctor!' is based on a novel by Harry Leon Wilson, who was at this time an extremely popular author of comic novels ... several of which have been filmed. I've read a few of his books, but I've not read this one, so I can't tell how closely the movie follows the book. It's possible that the climax of this story was originally in Wilson's novel, even though it does seem to be borrowed from a Harold Lloyd movie.
Denny plays Rufus Billings, an orphan who was an incubator baby. (Which would have to have been at least 20 years before this movie was made, since he's now an adult. Did they actually have human incubators quite so far back?) He's been in frail health all his life, although it's clear to us that most of this is hypochondria. Rufus doesn't suspect that he's really in the pink ... and now, out of the blue, he learns that he's in the black (financially). His late father has bequeathed him $750,000 ... but he won't inherit for another three years yet. Unfortunately, Rufus is positive he won't live that long. He (thinks he) needs the constant attention of a nurse, but the one he's got -- nicknamed 'Death Watch Mary' -- is such a baleful influence, she seems likely to hasten his demise.
Along come Clinch, Peck and McIntosh, three shrewdies who offer to loan Rufus $100,000 providing he signs over his inheritance to them. (But then how can he repay the $100,000?) Rufus accepts the offer. Meanwhile, he's got a new nurse, the beauteous Dolores Hicks. (I think this name is meant to be a pun on 'dolorous sick'). Suddenly, Rufus has acquired a will to live as he develops a crush on Dolores.
The climax of the film is contrived but very thrilling and funny, as Rufus must climb to the top of a flagpole on a skyscraper's roof. Some of the plot makes little sense: Clinch, Peck and McIntosh are hopeful that Rufus will die ... but surely then his inheritance will be voided, and they can't collect it, yes? Still, the direction and pacing are efficient, and there are some very funny sight gags. Each of the three villains has a distinctive physical crotchet, and when all three are going at their respective tics in the same shot it's hilarious. There's also a funny sequence in which Denny falls into the hands of an osteopath. I'm not a fan of Mary Astor, but she's attractive and appealing here as nurse Dolores. I'll rate this movie 8 out of 10.