Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dr. Jack (1922)

Dr. Jack is a film so ebulliently cheerful, so harmonically satisfying, that to think about it made in the “talkie era” seems so profoundly wrong, so impossibly heretical as even a mere ill-fated flight of fancy. A honeyed confection of sugary pleasantness, the sixty-minute film melts away like a sugar cube, fleetingly fulfilling the recurring instinct to indulge in the saccharine. The delightful simplicity is endearing in a manner that speaks beyond any sort of pandering or dumbing down. The tale centers on a good, friendly and jovial town doctor named Dr. “Jack” Jackson played to golden comic perfection by Harold Lloyd. In more recent years the cinema has been crushed under the weight of suffocating treacle with the concept of doctors utilizing laughter as the primary cure for illness and distress, most embarrassingly in the shameless Robin Williams fiasco Patch Adams. But why bring up such distasteful filth when considering such an appealingly picturesque treat as Dr. Jack?

Lloyd and director Fred C. Newmeyer's collaboration, which would be repeated in the next year's classic Safety Last! Is in this instance entirely tender in its uncoiled completion. Again, not unlike 1925's Newmeyer-Sam Taylor joint directorial endeavor, The Freshman, this less famous but richly clubby (in the best sense of the word, as it almost invites the viewer to attend every last gag and set-piece) film has an all-important love story at its achingly ethically estimable heart. Lloyd's Dr. Jack must confront a crooked but well-regarded German specialist doctor who is milking the family of a young, pretty young lady of the town called the Sick-Little-Well Girl for everything they are worth, having diagnosed her with a bogus disease that keeps her depressingly holed up in her home.

Taylor received no credit for co-directing Dr. Jack but his presence is indelibly felt, especially for those well-acquainted with Taylor's contributions to comic classics crafted by the Lloyd-Newmeyer extremities of the three-legged artistic stool. (Taylor worked with Hal Roach and Jean C. Havis in devising Dr. Jack's story.) While a step down compared to the previous 1922 Lloyd-starrer, Grandma's Boy, Dr. Jack is nevertheless a film uncontaminated by any considerable missteps or ill-fated gags. Newmeyer, Taylor and Lloyd are in total command and it directly from their expert handling of the material that the film so pleasingly blossoms. In the first extended and memorable set-piece, Lloyd's Dr. Jack is driving out to the town in the morning, and naturally the chore of traveling the modest distance proves to play host to an assortment of zany occurrences, as Dr. Jack is thrown from his vehicle and must struggle to finish his journey. It is a bravura sequence, in a way authorizing the entire madcap scenario that smoothly follows with such aplomb.

Teeming with some physically demanding gags, these nevertheless serve as punctuations to the unfurling plot rather than unquestioned highlights that populate The Freshman for one most incontestable example. What is given greater emphasis is the humanism behind Dr. Jack's merciful actions. One such moment—of course rightly played for laughs—deals with the good doctor's assisting a troublesome young boy who is faking his illness. After the boy's mother discovers the fraudulence behind her son's condition, she elects to remedy the situation by employing corporal punishment. Thinking fast on his feet, and recognizing his own role in the child's painful fate, Dr. Jack furtively tries to protect the kid from the pain, using a pillow as a double for the boy's rear. The gag is humorous and deserving of a solid chuckle, but the subtext matters most: Dr. Jack is determined to selflessly help those in need, and feels an unbridled responsibility for the people of his town.

Lloyd's character's naivete radiating from the simplistic acceptance of the obligations of an erstwhile town doctor is the congruent trait that underlines the protagonist's adventures. In one long, comically innovative scene, Dr. Jack spoils an endless poker game for the sake of a woman in need of her wantonly gambling and wasteful father. Often pointed to as the film's highlight, this most jubilantly conjured episode of the film demonstrates the mental jousts that belong in comedy just as surely as rambunctious and eye-popping pratfalls and entertaining exercises of derring-do so prevalent in so many golden silent comedy classics. In one scene after another, Taylor, Newmeyer and Lloyd make the doctor's naivete slyly multifaceted, germinating from a greater self-knowledge not unlike a sufficiently savvy cartoon character. Perhaps Bugs Bunny.

The closing act features Dr. Jack bringing forth nothing less than light into the dark of the Little-Sick-Well Girl's dismal life. Constrained by the haughty, scheming foreign specialist named Dr. Ludwig von Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne), Davis's Little-Sick-Well Girl is the object of Dr. Jack's affections, and the reason he must confront the unscrupulous von Saulsbourg. Admittedly, the adversarial doctor does seem like one among a plethora of anti-Germanic stereotypes and caricatures that bubbled up in American cinema in the years following the Great War. Yet this specter is wisely softened in the sincerely beneficent warmth of this most humanistic sketch of definitive, if easily categorized, people, even he is portrayed not as mustache-twirling villain but an almost pathetically greedy charlatan.

Never trekking into kitsch, the film stably remains felicitous to its own conception. When Dr. Jack dons a black cape and behaves like a demonic vampire in order to elicit a response from the Little-Sick-Well Girl and prove that she does not suffer from an esoteric disease, the film shifts into silent comedy overdrive. Effortlessly amusing, the potential for the elongated closing gag to have a dilatory effect upon the film is vanquished by Lloyd, whose courageous commitment to the concept sequentially keeps the bright light of humor burning. Like the poster promising five reels of laughter displaying an early comedy sketch in Dr. Jack in which the good, screwball doctor searches for the pulse of what turns out to be a child's doll with his stethoscope, Lloyd brings out the life of this innocent bauble of an underrated silent.


Sam Juliano said...

Indeed, this one is very much underated! While we all know and revere SAFETY LAST! and his best film THE FRESHMAN, this silent clown's entire catalogue deserves rediscovering and/or revisiting. Lloyd, of course, is the third greatest silent clown behind Chaplin and Keaton, and that wonderful DVD box set that was released a few years back of all his works was a godsend to comedy lovers and afficionados of world cinema.
Marvelous job of bringing the work to life and of dissecting its various components. Kudos too on choosing this particular film to review in a sincere effort to bring attention to it.

tim watts said...

I have serious holes in my silent movie knowledge but like Sam says it goes without saying that Lloyd is the third greatest silent comic behind Chaplin and Keaton.

You make me want to see this. The Freshman is a great funny movie and it made me want to see more of Lloyd. Great review breaking this one down.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you both for the very kind words, Sam and Tim. Like you both say, haha, Lloyd is just behind Chaplin and Keaton as one of the definitive comedic titans of silent cinema.

Sam, I must get my hands on this DVD box set of which you speak!

Again, thank you both. Dr. Jack is very much worthy of this moment in the sun!

Anonymous said...

I love Harold Lloyd's brand of humor. You make some terrific points about the "humanism" behind everything in this movie. Very wellddone.

Sam Juliano said...

Alexander, I erred. This film is NOT in any box-set. I saw it on a single DVDR, apart from the Lloyd set that you probably already own. My apologies for the mistaken representation.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, okay, Sam. No apology necessary!

I DVDR'd this off of Turner Classic Movies and watched it weeks ago. TCM shows on silent classic every Sunday night. They do show more than that, but they could certainly increase the number of silents they show.

Anonymous said...

I love Harold Lloyd and need to see this pronto. THE FRESHMAN is a masterpiece and I saw it with an audience of community college gang bangers who were applauding the film by the end.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Harold Lloyd will always be worth loving, Christian. That's a great story about the college gang bangers applauding The Freshman by the end. What a great film that is.

Sergei Smirnov said...

I must see this one as well. Is this a good time to admit I have not seen a Harold Lloyd movie? I love Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. Good review, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sergei. Nothing sinful about not having seen a Harold Lloyd film, just regrettable. I hope you are able to correct that soon. Chaplin is more moving, Keaton more innovative but Lloyd stands tall as a great comedic mind and performer.