Sunday, June 9, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #6: "Her Favorite Patient" (1945)

Which of these titles would have convinced you to cough up 40 cents back in 1945?

The flick: Her Favorite Patient (United Artists, 1945) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.6

Director: Andrew L. Stone (The Last Voyage, Stormy Weather)

Actors of note:
  • John Carroll (Only Angels Have Wings, Go West)
  • Ruth Hussey (The Philadelphia Story, The Uninvited)
  • Charles Ruggles (Goodbye LoveLove Me Tonight, Son of Flubber)
  • Ann Rutherford (Gone With the Wind, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the Andy Hardy series)

The gist of it: Pretty young Dr. Hedy Fredericks (Hussey) is bound for Chicago and a job in a research lab, but she stops by her hometown to visit her bachelor uncle (Ruggles), also a doctor, and brings three hitchhiking Marines -- all named Smith -- along with her. The uncle's medical caseload is overwhelming, so he desperately needs his niece to stay in town. Meanwhile, swaggering local jet pilot Morgan Hale (Carroll) has taken a shine to our lovely doctor, so he and the uncle cook up a scheme to keep her there. To wit: the pilot suffers a minor head injury but then fakes the symptoms of pantophobia (fear of everything) so that she'll stick around to treat him.

My take: Every boy-meets-girl story needs a gimmick, and this one's is that the boy is shamelessly malingering, i.e. exaggerating symptoms for some secondary gain (in this case, love). Her Favorite Patient is a lighthearted little trifle from the waning days of WW2. It's the second Charles Ruggles movie of the collection, but it's not nearly so freewheeling and fleet-footed as Goodbye Love. No, this one is more sentimental and patriotic, with lots of dialogue about serving one's fellow man and, thus, one's country. There's even a serious subplot about a young lady who's been horribly scarred in an accident and desperately needs our young doctor to perform plastic surgery on her so that she won't be disfigured for life.

I think we're supposed to consider the heroine's hometown to be a charming, pleasant place to live, but it looks like hell on earth to me. The local population has exploded, but the town simply isn't equipped to handle the influx of new residents. Parking and lodging are at a premium. Patrons of a downtown cafe have to wait in a long line for a table... and get lousy food for their troubles. Every place you can possibly go is crowded, and there are only two doctors to care for all these people. But everybody's exchanging snappy 1940s movie banter, so I guess they're all okay with it.

More than anything, Her Favorite Patient is a cinematic message-in-a-bottle sent from a long lost age. The hero, who kind of resembles an undernourished Clark Gable, has pomaded hair and a thin mustache, traits that today would mark him as a sleazy criminal but back then rendered him, in the movie's words, "catnip to women." Colorful '40s slang abounds here. Morgan Hale's previous gal pal, Lola (Rutherford), says he's "as true as a $2 cornet," whatever the hell that means. Our leading lady, meanwhile, favors outfits with blocky padded shoulders that form perfect 90-degree angles at her sides. And you know you're in another era entirely when doctors not only drink in the operating room but offer cigarettes to their patients.

Devotees of film music will want to know that the serviceable score for this movie is by Emil Newman, part of the formidable Newman dynasty of film composers. Emil is the brother of Lionel and Alfred and the uncle of Randy. Modern day viewers may want to know why a dwarf actor in a bellboy uniform shows up in one of the restaurant scenes. It's because of Johnny Roventini, the diminutive spokesman for Philip Morris for 40 years, the guy who's always yelling, "Call for Philip Morris!" Pulp Fiction even has a Roventini lookalike working at Jackrabbit Slim's. The real guy was on I Love Lucy, too.

Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles: "That's Hedley!"
Is it funny: Eh, it could be funnier. Like I said, pretty much everyone makes with the rapid-fire 1940s banter 24/7, but it all feels a bit forced and uninspired. Preston Sturges this ain't... not quite. And John Carroll and Ruth Hussey, while both acceptable, aren't exactly Tracy and Hepburn, either. I was glad to see good old Charlie Ruggles back, too, but he's a kindly supporting character here and exists mainly to service the plot and facilitate the Carroll/Hussey relationship. He hasn't lost his way with a witticism, though, and he gets in a few cynical zingers about bachelorhood and the newspaper industry.

There are a few inspired comedic setpieces here, including a frantic comedic car chase in which Carroll drives alongside Hussey and shouts the Hippocratic Oath to her while they both dodge obstacles, plus a late-in-the-game scene that has Hussey (who has learned the truth about her patient's condition) putting Carroll through some torturous "treatments," including an ice bath, intentional bee stings, and a session in one of those old-timey steam baths in which you sit in a big metal box with only your head sticking out at the top. Her Favorite Patient could have used a few more moments like these,... or else they could have cut maybe 10 minutes from the running time to solve some pacing issues. For you Mel Brooks fans out there, the film offers an additional layer of unintentional enjoyment due to the lead character being named Hedy. She's addressed by name many times throughout the film, and each time, I involuntarily replied, "That's Hedley!"

My grade: B- (which is generous)

P.S. - No embarrassing African-American stereotypes here.