“Oh, Bob, you’re marvelous,” Jean Muir’s Caroline coos toward her counterpart at the end of several scenes in Bedside (1934). In fact, it’s also the last line of the movie.
We can’t altogether fault Caroline for being so young and naive as to be charmed by Bob Brown aka Dr. J. Herbert Martel as played by leading early 30’s cad Warren William—after all, all of the ladies he’s worked on, whether it’s been over x-rays, examinations, or even an operation, have found themselves getting all aflutter as a result of Bob’s bedside manner.
Bedside is a 66-minute medical drama released by Warner Brothers’ First National Pictures towards the tail-end of the pre-Code period. Besides your usual references and none too timid allusions to sex, Bedside takes the pre-Code sin over the top in some more unusual ways. Most obvious of elements which would never make it to film just a few months later is the desperate morphine addict, Dr. J. Herbert Martel aka John Smith, played by seedy looking character actor David Landau.
But Bedside goes beyond the usual pre-Code conventions and delves into the much more taboo subject of raising the dead, somehow shifting a small section of this movie over to the realm of sci-fi. The trail had already been blazed, and yes, much more effectively, by Frankenstein (1931), but just the fact that Bedside can even bring Frankenstein to mind tells you there’s something a little special about it.
Now I’ve already mentioned both Warren William and David Landau play a character named J. Herbert Martel, a fact which if it didn’t slip right by you has surely been annoying you since it cropped up. So here comes the basic story of Bedside:
William’s Bob Brown is a charming X-Ray tech with 3 years of medical school studies under his belt in the distant past. He works in the same offices as Muir’s nurse, Caroline, and the two are pretty obviously an item. Caroline loans Bob $1,500 so he can finish up his degree and become a real doctor, but Bob, who’s hungover in his first scene, wastes no time in getting liquored up on board the train headed for medical school and just as quickly blows the $1,500 in a poker game with some of his fellow passengers.
Rather than return to Caroline with the embarrassing truth Bob carves out a new life as an orderly, and keeps in touch with her through letters telling her how tough medical school is and how thankful he is for her contribution to his future success. But soon Bob gets a bit overzealous in his orderly duties and administers a hypodermic to a patient who was crying out for help. He’s fired.
He returns to Caroline and seems quite close to coming clean, but at any hint of his failure she looks so upset that he just can’t do it. A break comes when Landau’s “John Smith” scuttles into the offices in desperate need of some morphine to help with his asthma. Smith departs quickly after getting his fix and Caroline wonders over some of the medical terminology he’d used. A light bulb goes on over Bob’s head and he chases Smith down in the streets to make a deal.
Smith is actually J. Herbert Martel, a doctor falling on hard times and addiction. William as Brown goes over the top here to get what he wants, telling Martel that his degree is useless to him now—”You’ve come to the end of your rope. I can use it!”—and basically offering him a permanent fix of morphine in exchange for his diploma and identity. Martel agonizes some, rationalizing, “I’m only hurting myself,” but it’s that same hurt which makes him give in to Brown and take the deal.
Brown departs to New York where he meets with little success at first, but a poker game with press agent Sam Sparks (Allen Jenkins) leads to a gimmick whereby Sparks will use Brown, now officially dubbed Dr. J. Herbert Martel, in a million-dollar insurance scam over a showgirl’s legs. Dr. Martel provides a fraudulent X-Ray of a broken leg (which belonged to a corpse), while Sparks provides him with five grand the moment Dr. Wiley (Donald Meek) pronounces the case in their favor.
Brown/Martel takes the money and more advice from Sparks, opens up a really swank Park Avenue office, hires Dr. Wiley to be the real doctor around those new digs, and imports Caroline to nurse. It’s a pretty sweet set-up until the day “John Smith” finds him.
Along the way we’re taken to a fascinating aside with the always slightly weird Donald Meek who is shown here tinkering with some guinea pigs in the lab. When William’s Martel asks him what he’s up to, Dr. Wiley tells him about this experiment he’s pulled off hundreds of times with guinea pigs, and hopes to perfect and use one day on humans. What he does is stick a needle in a dead guinea pig’s heart, then administer an electric charge, and voilà!—back from the dead.
While this strange bit with Wiley as the Frankenstein of the animal kingdom seems to awkwardly interrupt the flow of action, the viewer also knows it’s there for a reason. While I’ll tell you Dr. Wiley does get to perform his experiment upon a human in Bedside I do want to cool you off on any hopes that there’s any traditional zombie or actual horror scenes here. Of course, that doesn’t actually tell you whether Wiley’s little trick worked or not, does it?
As marvelous as Caroline thinks Bob is, he loses some of his shine with her through a publicity incident leading to his involvement with a famed singer. Once jealousy rears its head it’s a little easier for Caroline to spot some of Bob’s inefficiencies, such as his refusal to treat a sick child when Wiley is not around and his evasion of other doctors around New York who are anxious to meet this new whiz, Dr. Martel. She quits him.
Bob, haunted at this point by words of the real Martel is pursued all over town by the addict who finally finds Caroline. It’s Caroline’s meeting with Martel that leads to her involvement in a life-threatening accident. The hospital gets a hold of Bob, who’s in a panic as he arrives and discovers that he’s expected to operate. With all of the other doctors busy or tired, not to mention just a bit irritated that the great Dr. Martel doesn’t just do it himself, Bob has one final showdown with both the addict Martel and his own abilities.
Like several Warner pre-Code era films, Bedside moves character and action at breakneck pace leaving the viewer overwhelmed to a degree by all they’ve seen and how it’s developed. As is often the case, Bedside does play more like an episode of a television show today, but at the same time it’s a darn fine episode, which tells the complete sweeping story of William’s Bob Brown and has a lot of fun doing so.
Please do excuse the first 10 minutes or so of set-up which besides focusing on how marvelous Caroline thinks Bob is, also includes an unfortunate period appearance by Louise Beavers, here playing Pansy, a five minute or so black maid stereotype which was surely meant to be humorous in 1934, but comes off as so degrading today it’s likely a major factor keeping Bedside from attracting a greater audience.
What follows has obviously been placed under budgetary constraints of the studio, but survives and even more, thrives on story, character and especially the performances of Warren William and David Landau. Jean Muir has little more to do than be female, which is about as much as she puts into Caroline. Jenkins is competent as usual, but there’s nothing special about his press agent Sparks.
No, Bedside is pretty much all the Warren William show, which for fans, such as myself, is a great delight. It’s little gems such as Bedside which make us wonder how William, featured in films as big as Lady for a Day (1933), Cleopatra (1934), and even The Wolf Man (1941), besides playing the screen’s first Perry Mason and several other popular roles, can be so forgotten.