Sunday, September 6, 2009

Hey…it took three tries to get The Maltese Falcon right…

On Friday, I did a mini write-up on A Man to Remember (1938), an interesting and sweetly sentimental drama starring character great Edward Ellis as a simple country doctor whose lifelong dedication to medicine never reaps huge financial benefits but earns him the devotion and respect of the community in which he served. I also pointed out that Remember was a remake of an earlier film entitled One Man's Journey (1933), which cast Oscar-winning actor Lionel Barrymore in the same role.

TDOY reader MikeOKC, upon learning that I had recorded Journey but had not found an opportunity to watch the film, generously offered to “make my way to the TDY archives, cue it up and place you in front of the tube with a bucket of popcorn. While I certainly appreciated the gesture, in all honesty I had planned to watch Journey—in fact, I gave serious consideration to seeing it first as a point of comparison—but it was pretty late and I just didn’t have the energy to go looking for it, so I promised myself I would take a gander at it this weekend…which I did after watching Fawlty Towers last night on GPTV. (I even made my own popcorn.)

After seeing Journey, I believe it was incorrect of me to call Remember a remake. While it’s true that both films use the same source material (Katharine Havilland-Taylor’s Failure) they approach it from different perspectives and viewpoints. Barrymore’s doctor (his name is Eli Watt) may be a simple “country plug” but gets far more respect from both his colleagues and the townsfolk than Ellis’ medico. Ellis works diligently at his profession without recompense or kudos, and it’s only realized after his death what a tremendous impact he had on the community. Barrymore is constantly being put on a pedestal as a role model for integrity and is feted by his peers at a dinner towards the end of the film. Ellis is ostracized when he controversially suggests the town’s county fair be cancelled to halt an outbreak of infantile paralysis and is even drummed out of the physician’s association when it appears at first glance that he jumped on the gun on his diagnosis. (I particularly liked the complex ethical dilemma in which he’s placed as a result of this—if he’s proven right, his reputation is safe…but how can he live with himself hoping that he will be proved right?) He is later reinstated when it is shown he was correct after all; being paid tribute by association members and the townspeople on his front porch (not a fancy dinner like the one to which Barrymore is invited)…and having received his due, expires soon after.

You never really get the feeling that Barrymore suffers for his profession; sure, it’s established that his patients often pay him in produce due to a lack of money but for the most part he’s looked up to by everyone in town…he even receives a break from the town banker (Oscar Apfel) when Barrymore saves his son’s (James Bush) broken arm in an automobile crash. Even when Barrymore loses his first patient—a mother dies while giving birth to a baby girl—the grieving husband (David Landau) treats him better (only tossing Barrymore’s medical bag out the window) than the similar father in Remember; that ass-clown (Frank M. Thomas) socks Ellis in the jaw. In Journey, it’s Barrymore who insists on taking the infant (after her father announces his intention to hand her over to the county poorhouse) home to adopt; the foundling is left on Ellis’ door in the 1938 version. And it’s only a few years before the father has a change of heart and pleads for his daughter’s return in Journey; we don’t hear from the Remember father until twenty years or so have passed…and Ellis simply tells the man he has no claim on the girl he abandoned.

Journey features a character that was thankfully excised from Remember: a crotchety housekeeper played by May Robson whose function in Journey is to be a Greek chorus for the crusty Barrymore. She’s a drag on the proceedings in the film, and figures heavily in the wrap-up to the movie when Barrymore suggests the two of them run away together to get married. (If he felt that way about her, why did he wait so friggin’ long?) I do, however, like some of the Journey actors better than their Remember counterparts: the always welcome Joel McCrea plays Lionel’s son (he also becomes a doctor), and the future Mrs. McCrea, Francis Dee, plays the small role of his fiancée. This is a much better relationship than the one suggested in Remember (though you could argue it’s a bit more daring) where the son (Lee Bowman) becomes infatuated with his “adopted” sister (Anne Shirley); in Journey, actress Dorothy Jordan plays Shirley’s part, and becomes embroiled in a much naughtier plot point when she becomes pregnant by the town’s banker’s son.

Lionel Barrymore’s country physician must deal with a smallpox epidemic in his town in Journey, while Edward Ellis wrestles with an outbreak of polio in Remember. That’s pretty much a rundown of the differences in the two films, and while I did enjoy watching Journey (I had expected Barrymore to chew up the scenery in this, and was pleased when he was well-restrained in his performance) I still think Remember is the better film. (I know, it’s as if you can hear Claude Rains saying: “Well! A precedent is being broken!”) I’m not certain if I’d feel differently had I watched Journey first, but I can think of two outside reasons why I think the material was given better treatment in Remember—one, the plot of the Will Rogers film Doctor Bull (1933) is similar to that of One Man’s Journey (Rogers deals with a typhoid outbreak in this one, and Rochelle Hudson also finds herself in a sticky situation in which she becomes great with child)…and I saw Bull before Journey. The other is that A Man to Remember was the directorial debut of screenwriter Garson Kanin, who demonstrated in his first feature that he could have been a contendah (The Great Man Votes with Lionel’s bro John, Bachelor Mother, My Favorite Wife) had he not decided to concentrate more on the stage and screenplays (often written in tandem with his actress-wife Ruth Gordon) like Adam's Rib (1949) and The Marrying Kind (1952). Silent movie veteran John S. Robertson was at the helm of Journey’s ship, but his direction comes across as rather flat and uninspired. I want to stress, however, that this should not dissuade you from seeing Journey—it’s just that in a very close horse race, it’s the “remake” that wins by a nose.

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