“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.
Now I want to see this! I just finished watching Employee’s Entrance and I was completely on Warren’s side. He’s so terrible, you can’t help but like him.
Thanks for the comment.
Love Employee’s Entrance, originally picked it up on VHS along with Skyscraper Souls (both from the Leonard Maltin Forbidden Hollywood Series) and still can’t remember which of the pair hooked me on Warren William–surely whichever one I watched first!
Bedside is great, but you definitely got to hunt to find a copy. Pretty sure I found mind on DVD-R from a seller on iOffer.
I’m really hoping the new Warner Archives releases finally get around to putting out some of the William pre-code titles.
Thanks again, Cliff
The eBay seller truth3152, whom I have mentioned before, just started offering Bedside as part of his third four-title WW collection, but this one, too, seems to be just for “private” customers rather than eBay shoppers. Picking up the Perry Mason and/or Lone Wolf series from him on eBay would get you his complete list, and they are certainly worth having in their own right if you don’t have them already. (“You” here meaning Evangeline and others–I know YOU have them, Cliff.) Still waiting for The Mind Reader and The Match King to turn up again, but surely they will.
Oops–that should have been his FOURTH four-title WW collection. I certainly am error-prone at the time of day I get around to reading your blog.
Thanks for helping out, Jeffers, I appreciate it! Hopefully Evangeline sees it.
I forget, Jeffers, do you own and/or have you seen Bedside yet? If so would love your thoughts.
I ordered the above-mentioned set almost simulateously with posting the above mention; will probably have it Monday (May 18); will watch it and respond in a week or two, probably (though after my intensive introduction to WW’s non-Mason roles in recent months, I am otherwise taking a breather for a couple months, largely in favor of The Rogues and Ellery Queen TV series).
Here are the contents of the four four-DVD-R sets I mentioned above:
1. Skyscraper Souls; The Dark Horse; Employees’ Entrance; Three on a Match
2. Lady for a Day; Gold Diggers of 1933; Imitation of Life; Living on Velvet
3. Dr. Monica; Don’t Bet on Blondes; Times Square Playboy; Satan Met a Lady
4. Under 18; Bedside; The Secret Bride; The Man in the Iron Mask
Each set is, at this writing, $20 plus $3 shipping. Since I had already gathered all of those titles that I particularly want before these sets (except the last one) came to light, I haven’t seen them. (Are Imitation of Life, Living on Velvet, and Dr. Monica titles I need to see?) I do have several other sets from this seller: they are plain DVD-Rs with very nice illustrations on the box inserts. One disk I received was defective but was replaced not only courteously but enthusiastically. The sets he offers on eBay are old mystery-movie series: Perry Mason, Lone Wolf, The Saint, The Falcon, Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Hildegaard Withers, etc. An entirely satisfactory fellow to do shopping with if in the market for this type of thing!
A comment that really belongs on a different page, but since I’m here … Fred Kelsey fans with any taste or tolerance for movie serials should not miss The Green Archer (1940), not at all a typical straitlaced serial, but one dislocated from sense and sobriety enough to make room for Kelsey’s incompetent busybody police captain to add to hero Victor Jory’s troubles for 15 chapters, after which (SPOILER ALERT) it is revealed that he had only PRETENDED to be an incompetent busybody so that he could keep watch over Jory without the bad guys realizing that he needed to be taken seriously.
Got to be honest pal, Living on Velvet and Dr. Monica are both on my DVR from when TCM did a Kay Francis night, but whichever one I tried put me to sleep so I’ve been loathe to go back to either. Eventually I will of course, but I’ve got to get in the right frame of mind.
Imitation of Life is a Claudette Colbert movie with WW playing a part any actor could have handled. A young Rochelle Hudson has a big crush on him but William doesn’t handle it the way he does in his pre-code appearances 🙂 That said it is a classic in its own merit with a heavy focus on racial inequities for 1934.
It’s a shame that Warren William isn’t ever the focal character in any of his movies with mainstream appeal.
I had misgivings about whether I even wanted to see Bedside, despite your endorsement, since others have deemed it less satisfying than usual to see WW in one of his Skunk Triumphant roles, given that this skunk is in a profession where his fraudulent egoism puts innocent lives at such immediate and direct risk. What made me add it to my must-see list, apart from your recommendation, was the desire to see how on earth the filmmakers could get to that closing line “Bob, you’re marvelous” and think they had earned it, plus the fact that Jean Muir made a really favorable impression on me in The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady (not a scintillating part, but one in which she outdoes all of Lanyard’s other damsels in distress that I’ve seen so far [not counting Ida Lupino’s screwball variation] in delivering an illusion of well-rounded depth in a mere conventional B-movie supporting role).
Anyway, Bedside certainly stands apart from the other WW Skunk movies I’ve seen (I guess The Mouthpiece best fits that designation, but I’m also thinking of Skyscraper Souls and Employees’ Entrance). The screenwriter’s brief seems to have been to make his character’s career as appalling and irredeemable as possible, then make sure he never has to pay a penalty for it, apart from a penance-free repentance. As with Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, one grasps for some ulterior or at least alterior motive, a hidden agenda, that would explain why such a seemingly unsatisfactory plotline would be pursued. Such cases may occur, bad boyfriends may be forgiven in spite of everything, but in THIS arena–surgeons letting a fraudulent surgeon off scot-free because he is now willing to stop? What are the filmmakers REALLY getting at? I find myself thinking of charismatic political leaders who attract followers so irresistibly infatuated that, no matter what the pol does, no matter how disastrous the results, no matter how near the followers themselves come to destruction, they can’t walk away from their hero or the unshaken conviction that, despite everything, he is still “marvelous”; and even those who are responsible for passing judgment on the pol’s crimes (actual crimes!) and cleaning up in the aftermath of his tenure don’t think anything more than a mild scolding is really called for. But, while Bedside makes one (or at least me) grasp for some such parable-like point it could be REALLY making, it doesn’t leave one (or at least me) believing that there IS such a point that is really making. There is terrific fodder here for endless discussions in film-school seminars or film-maven blogs, no one who sees it will forget Warren William, and I’m certainly glad I had the chance to see it, but it wouldn’t have made me an incipient fan of anyone involved if this had been my starting point.
I’m glad you saw it. It’s very uneven, but the story really has some fantastic elements going on as well as William in some of his best “skunking” as you say.
Actually, Jean Muir got on my nerves a bit here, though I did find her funny in a campy way every time she told Bob how “marvelous” he was — leaving me talking to my TV, “how can you say that?”
David Landau on the other hand I thought was fantastic, though every time I see him now I’m expecting him to be up to no good. Seriously though, he portrayed the most down and out addict I’ve seen in any classic film. No glamour whatsoever.
I think you’re final conclusion is likely right, about there not really being a point made. I think what we had here was a Warren William picture where they wanted the “hero” to walk away in the end. He’s a star at this point, perhaps even at the peak of his stardom, I think it’s as simple as Warner’s knowing what the WW crowd wants, delivering it and then letting the hero get out undamaged.
It does seem as if Warner’s knew WW’s fans wanted to see him do his worst and still triumph–maybe what the absurd hero-worshipping of Jean Muir is supposed to satirize is US! But, while WW’s character in Employees’ Entrance (where he remains triumphant), or in Skyscraper Souls or The Mouthpiece, succeeds by exceptional competence in his field and by single-minded determination and perseverance, the marvelous Bob turns on the charm only intermittently and applies his wits only long enough to get himself out of one or another immediate jam, without long-term goals or planning (except in the most general terms). So, if Bedside WERE satirizing fans of WW’s roles in those movies, the satire wouldn’t be fair. But maybe the word “fan” is the giveaway as to how seriously my criticisms should be taken–I’m more a dabbler in B-movie escapism than a serious student of serious cinema, and when you are operating at the higher level, or both levels simultaneously, there’s bound to be a discrepancy in our levels of interest.
While I figure it’s unlikely I do love your idea that Jean Muir = WW fan. Great out of the box thinking!
Just a guess, and this would probably be tough to track down unless already documented somewhere, but maybe Dr. J. Herbert Martel is actually based on someone ripped from the headlines. Then they put WW in the role and tweaked the ending a little to make their leading man (and his fans) happy.
I think you’d see parallels between Bedside and The Mind Reader from your take–what he’s competent at in both of these films is the art of the scam. This isn’t the penthouse William of Skyscraper Souls and Employees Entrance as much as it is a gutter version of that type character.
It’s funny, have you seen the comments for this on the IMDb? The titles alone tell it all:
Entertaining, but for all the wrong reasons!
Still shocking 73 years later
Interesting premise, good characters
Kind of runs the gamut of everything we’ve had to say in our conversation here.
I watched Bedside last night and thoroughly enjoyed it (until the very end). WW is at his best as an opportunistic cad in this one. Thanks for the great website devoted to a favorite actor of mine.
So glad you enjoyed Bedside, klingsor! It’d definitely not for everyone but it’s one of my favorites and one of Warren William’s most shocking to be sure.