#67 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Recalling the middle section of Ford’s earlier Arrowsmith, Doctor Bull is the story of a small town doctor and his life amidst the sicknesses, hypochondriacs, and general hustle and bustle of the small community. It’s a light affair that mostly relies on the central performance by Will Rogers for its entertainment value with a late stage sense of plot that doesn’t engage as much as it probably should.
The titular Doctor (Rogers) never seems to get a moment to himself. Subject to gossip by the local busybody Mrs. Banning (Louise Dresser) because of his frequent evening visits to the widow Janet Cardmaker (Vera Allen), Doctor Bull spends his days treating anyone who comes to him. He treats the local soda jerk Larry (Andy Devine) who is constantly complaining about pains in his sides. When Doc tells him that pain on the side he’s complaining means that it’s impossible that Larry has a burst appendix, Larry insists that he must have two.
There are successes in his treatments, like a boy coming out of a fever after an all-night observation and tending by Doc, and failures, like a woman dying because no one was able to find Doc (he had collapsed onto Janet’s couch and fallen asleep as she read). The efforts of the people to find Doc go through the local switchboard operated by May (Marian Nixon) who is privy to most of the town’s gossip and never takes it too hard that Doc never seems to be home. May has a husband at home, Joe (Howard Lally) who is bedridden and lame that Doc comes to visit, leading to late nights scouring through medical textbooks to find some kind of potential cure.
That’s really the bulk of the film. Carried by Rogers in his affable, easy going style, he’s understanding, funny, and even sardonic with the constant requests that tire him out endlessly day after day and season after season. He treats everyone with a mixture of familiarity, respect, and condescension that Rogers pulls off rather easily. You really get the sense that he’s a nice, capable doctor who’s struggling to keep his head above water with the amount of patients he has to deal with. It’s probably most amusing when he helps the adult daughter of a wealthy family, destined to marry a Senator’s son, elope with her poorer college German lover because he got her pregnant (pre-Code!) and feigns ignorance when confronted on it.
Late in the film we get the move’s plot when Doc discovers a typhoid outbreak forming in the community. He goes into action, inoculating the children of the town against typhoid. When he comes to the conclusion that the outbreak most likely originated at a camp built near the source of the town’s water supply, a camp he was supposed to inspect as a health official to the town but never found the time, the town is enraged and calls a meeting to get him removed from office. Doc takes the meeting badly, accurately calling out the town for monopolizing his time so that he can’t do everything he probably should, and he’s ready to quit.
Now, John Ford knew how to put together an ending, but the ending to Doctor Bull is a disappointment. Doc takes some information from a farmer about a serum Doc had made to help the farmer’s lame cows, adapts it for human use, and gives it to the lame Joe, quickly fixing his lameness. This event is what suddenly gets him back in the town’s good graces. It doesn’t seem to fit, to be honest. It feels random.
The movie’s not bad, but just wanes away. If the first two-thirds were funnier, the loose structure would have been less of a concern, but it’s just an easy going bit of amusement until a finale that probably goes too far into melodrama for the film’s own good. Will Rogers does his best, being affable and charming through his challenges, but for all his charisma, the film around him is just too waifishly thin.