Monday, December 8, 2008

Seven the Ordway

Some of the material in this post was cribbed from an earlier entry at the old TDOY during its stint at Salon Blogs. I am nothing if not committed to recycling whenever I can.

TCM kicked off a four-week Saturday morning mini-marathon of Crime Doctor films the other day, beginning with Crime Doctor (1943) and Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case (1943), the first two programmers in a series that lasted until 1949 with a total of ten features. In turn, the films themselves were inspired by a hit show broadcast on CBS Radio that premiered on August 4, 1940 and ran for seven years on Sunday nights sponsored by Philip Morris. The series, created by producer Max Marcin (and in fact was renamed Max Marcin’s Crime Doctor for a short period beginning in 1945—I assume to avoid comparison with Norman Corwin’s Crime Doctor), was a crime drama that concentrated on the exploits of Dr. Benjamin Ordway, an amnesiac who put himself through medical school to become a psychiatrist…only to learn that in his clouded past, he was actually a notorious gangster who had survived a murder attempt by his gang. He was put on trial for his past crimes but received clemency after the judge decided that he had paid his debt to society by taking the straight-and-narrow.

Over the course of the series’ run, many actors stepped up to the microphone to play the part of Ordway: Ray Collins was the first; followed by House Jameson, John McIntire, Hugh Marlowe, Brian Donlevy and Everett Sloane. In the show’s early days, Ordway was a member of the parole board, and would often listen to the case of a convict in order to decide whether the prisoner should be eligible for parole (a judgment call made up of a “jury” of individuals from the studio audience). Later, Ordway retired from the board and played Mr. Keen, sniffing around in murder cases as a private citizen with unchecked police powers—the first act of the revamped series dramatized the crime and motive, which would lead into Act 2 for the denouement, in which the crime doc laid a trap for the guilty party.

Time has not been kind to the radio version of Crime Doctor—less than a handful of episodes exist in circulation today. Here’s a chance to listen to one of them:

Crime Doctor (1943) presents a nicely capsulated origin of the show, and it stars Warner Baxter (a popular actor who won a Best Actor Oscar in 1930 for playing the Cisco Kid in the film In Old Arizona [1928] but who’s probably better known to film buffs for the lead in 42nd Street [1933]) as Dr. Robert Ordway—but in reality is Phil Morgan, notorious no-goodnik. He’s taken under the wing of Dr. John Carey (Ray Collins, in an amusing bit of irony), who attempts to clear up the mystery of just who Ordway (he’s adopted the name of the founder of the hospital he was in) is and, failing that, convinces him to start all over again in medicine. Ordway’s past continues to nag at him, however—particularly in the form of Emilio Caspari (John Litel—who for some reason doesn’t play a lawyer here but since he does do a ten-year stretch in the big house it’s quite possible I could be mistaken on his occupation), the boss of the gang who tried to snuff out Morgan. Caspari is convinced that the amnesia angle is all an act on Ordway’s part and with his cronies, Harold Huber and Don Costello, tries to force C.D. into revealing where he’s hidden a valise containing $200,000. (There’s also a subplot in the film where a new convict/former Army officer—played by Leon Ames—is rehabilitated by Ordway, to the point where he teaches his fellow inmates discipline by putting them through a regimented series of drills.)

Crime Doctor, while hewing as close as possible to the original radio series, is also similar to an earlier film made at Columbia entitled The Man Who Lived Twice (1936), which stars Ralph Bellamy as a gangster who goes under the knife for plastic surgery and emerges in an amnesiac fog when the operation is complete (Twice was remade as 1953’s Man in the Dark, with Edmond “Ye Gods, I’m sweating!” O’Brien in the Bellamy role.) Still, the debut entry in the series is a good deal of fun—it’s always nice to catch Columbia’s in-house players honing their craft (Bess Flowers, Anne Jeffreys, Eddie Kane, Adele Mara, Addison Richards, Dewey Robinson) and to witness director Michael Gordon pay his dues in B-pictures (he would later go on to direct films like Another Part of the Forest [1948] and The Lady Gambles [1949] before being laid low by the blacklist).

The second film in the series, Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case, has an interesting title (of course, as was the way with so many of Columbia’s B-programmers—the title usually came first before anything resembling a script was prepared) and starts out fairly jaunty, but soon slows down to an undeterminable crawl for a film that’s only sixty-eight minutes. Ordway is playing private detective again; this time trying to solve a wealthy businessman’s poisoning…the main suspect being a young Lloyd Bridges who (this is pretty hooty) once worked as secretary to another capitalist fat cat before he was poisoned—necessitating Ordway’s help. (And now it’s happened again…what are the odds?) Ordway’s means of solving the murder include analyzing the dreams of Virginia Brissac, who plays devoted housekeeper to the croaked businessman in question. There are a few interesting and offbeat touches in Case: Brent McKee fave Barton McLane and Thomas E. Jackson play comedy relief cops, and Gloria Dickson is a voluptuous blonde dame who plays undercover maid complete with brunette wig and early “fat suit.” Other performers in the film include Lynn Merrick (as Bridges’ newly-acquired wife), Reginald Denny, Rose Hobart, Constance Worth and Jerome Cowan—whose unpleasant habit of tossing aside lighted matches is, oddly enough, treated humorously…he’s married to Dickson in the film, who would perish in a house fire two years after Case was released—the cause apparently being a discarded match.

If you’re wondering how I managed to watch these movies yesterday while making big preparations for the big cookie bake-off, it's because I already have the Crime Doctor films in my DVD collection which enabled me to watch them a day later. Next Saturday, beginning at 8:00pm, TCM will showcase The Crime Doctor’s Courage (1945) and Crime Doctor’s Warning (1945)…and if all goes right, I’ll discuss the two films on the following Sunday.

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