13 June 2011 | Steffi_P
"Sounds kinda simple"
The best remembered stars of the early 1930s may be such beautiful and provocative sirens as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, but at the time they were slightly outdone at the box office and the reliable Quigley poll by more down-to-earth and homely figures, chief among them Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler and of course Will Rogers. Audiences warmed to his air of honesty and decency in what was a time of great economic strife and social confusion. Will was a busy man in 1933, and while his biggest hit of the year was the sublime State Fair, he also made a number of lesser pictures which nonetheless had all the merits of his gentle personality.
Doctor Bull is a neat little tale of a small town medic up against closed-minded gossipmongers on the one hand and ravaging businessmen on the other. Director John Ford depicts the scenes with a characteristically passive hand. His camera is mostly to one side of the action, and there are few close-ups. He carefully follows movement and changes the angle occasionally to stop scenes getting stale, but barring one or two key moments (such as the shot from behind the table of a drunk Rochelle Hudson), the technique is so subtle we are allowed to forget the camera even exists. Fox studios, where this was produced, were among the last studios to start using incidental music in their movies, and even for the era Doctor Bull is starkly quiet. The overall feeling is one of tranquillity and unhurried simplicity.
Such a feeling also radiates from Rogers himself. His is a calm and methodical performance, and yet one that expresses a great deal. Rogers is the kind of man who can command a lot of attention and respect by doing very little, and therein lies a lot of his appeal. He was chiefly thought a comedy actor, but most of the comedy in Doctor Bull lies in quirky supporting players (as it often did in John Ford pictures). However, Rogers still shows a knack for delivering a line for comedic effect, usually with characteristic nonchalance. When one of his young patients is "rescued" from vaccination by his father, Rogers calls out "Hope your arm don't hurt ya tomorrow", without even looking up from his business. A sly little comment, made with just enough of a knowing hint to come across as a private joke with audience.
Such a light little movie as Doctor Bull was never going to win awards or move audiences to floods of tears or gales of laughter, but it has a nice, inoffensive quality to it that is very relaxing. It uses the era's "pre-code" liberalism, not to shock or titillate, but to deal sensitively (albeit covertly) about the issue of pregnancy outside marriage. And thanks to its aura of friendliness which is never forced but simply unfolds before us, embodied in the warm and trustworthy Mr Rogers, one cannot help but feel uplifted by it.