Saturday, March 25, 2023

Stanley Kramer makes a medical drama

Whether producing or directing, Stanley Kramer was known for making "message pictures" dealing with important social issues. Sometimes, his style was blunt enough that the message came across as more important than the picture. One good example of this is Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. This was something I kept thinking about as I was watching his debut directorial effort (although he had already produced several movies), Not As a Stranger.

Lucas Marsh (Robert Mitchum) is a medical student at Big City Medical School, studing under Dr. Aarons (Broderick Crawford) and lightening the mood with his best friend, Alfred Boone (Frank Sinatra, and yes, everybody is pushing 40 and much too old for the parts they're playing). Watch also for a young Lee Marvin as another medical student, although he's not part of the second half of the movie. Marsh is highly driven and pretty darn intelligent, but this causes him to clash with the established doctors. To be fair, part of this is that they may not be up to date on the latest medical techniques.

Also causing problems for Marsh is his father (Lon Chaney in a small role). Marsh's mom died some time back and left him a fair amount of money which should help pay for medical school. But Dad is an alcoholic, and drank away the money, leaving Lucas with no money to pay his upcoming tuition. Thankfully for him, however, he does meet somebody who has a little bit of money saved up. That's nurse Kirstina (Olivia de Havilland), who has been saving up money, and who for some reason is part of the Swedish immigrant community along with Oley (Harry Morgan), forcing her to essay a ridiculous Swedish accent for no discernible plot reason. Lucas marries Kristina for her money.

Eventually everybody graduates from medical school and does their internship before going into practice. Alfred decided to go the route that Robert Donat did for a while in The Citadel, of becoming a wealthy doctor in private practice, although he's going to remain Lucas and Kristina's friend and show up when necessary to advance the plot. Lucas, on the other hand, decides to go to a small town that looks partly like a studio backlot and partly like a smaller city than a small town. There are some farmers around, and Lucas will certainly be serving them, but there's also a surprisingly well-equipped hospital and some ritzy areas.

The ritzy areas and farm life come together one evening when Marsh goes out to attend to a farmer who got kicked by his horse. The farmer's wife says that Miss Lang (Gloria Grahame) wants to see him, even though it's 1:00 AM. Now when you see the name Gloria Grahame in the credits, you can guess that the character is a bit of a vamp, or a femme fatale. Well, more than a little bit. Lang lives in a big house with a sort of hobby horse-raising concern attached to it, and she leads a lonely life drinking more than she should. You can guess that Lucas is going to find himself falling in love with her, and that this is going to cause a problem with his marriage to Kristina.

I mentioned at the beginning that Stanley Kramer made a bunch of message pictures, and boy does he try to insert as many of the medical drama tropes as he can to get The Message across. At times this makes the movie become unintentionally funny. There are montages of the doctors treating patients which look like they could have come from a medical issue of the week TV drama. Worse, or more hilarious depending on your point of view, is Kramer's use of horses when Marsh finally falls and becomes unfaithful with Lang. There's also the blatant foreshadowing. Kristina talks so much about having a family that you know that she's going to get pregnant, and it's obvious way before we see the scene of Dr. Boone telling her that it's already happened.

The casting is also interesting. Robert Mitchum is clearly miscast, much like epileptic research scientist Ronald Reagan in Night Unto Night. And as I mentioned, why Kramer made de Havilland and Harry Morgan take on Swedish accents was beyond me. On the other hand, Broderick Crawford shows he could play more than tough guys. Charles Bickford plays the elderly small-town doctor who takes Marsh into his practice, and he does well too.

Overall, Not As a Stranger is a movie that's more interesting for how it lets The Message dominate the movie than it is for being any sort of truly great movie. But it's still worth a watch.

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