April 15, 2018
Dr. Jack – US, 1922
I’d like to have a doctor like Dr. Jack. In this crazy age of overprescribed patients, the relentless ads extolling the latest creations of drug pharmaceuticals, and the tragic emphasizing of short-term solutions over long-term care, it’s nice to think that at one time things were different. And Dr. Jack is certainly that. Not only does he make house calls – a rarity in this day and age – but he spends time getting to know his patients, and if he does not see the need for medical treatment, he doesn’t prescribe it. In fact, he’s much more likely to prescribe visits from family members and sparring sessions than he is the latest cocktail of pills. In short, he’s the Patch Adams or Doc Hollywood of the 1920s, a man fighting the system, treating that patient instead of the disease, and finding love in the process.
Dr. Jack is the lead character in Fred Newmeyer’s film of the same moniker, starring that loveable everyman Harold Lloyd. Everyman is perhaps the wrong word because while the qualities that reside in him are the ones we wish society to have in droves, it is that very sentiment that makes him the exception rather than the rule. In other words, he is an extraordinarily descent man in a sea of men who are, in most cases, merely average. We get that impression in his first scene, which sees him sparing no expense to reach a patient in need. Even more remarkable is what he does upon reaching his destination and realizing that it was all a false alarm – it will truly warm your heart.
Interestingly, the film’s opening scene is the kind more associated with films starring Mary Pickford, and it is clear instantly that there is a bit of parody going on. In the scene, a young woman referred to as The Sick-Little-Well Girl sits in a dimly lit room and watches some kids play outside. From her expression we know two things: that she longs to be out there and that she is forbidden to do so. Soon we learn that other things are off-limits, like flowers and laughter. Soon, she lets out one of those pleas we often see in melodramatic silent films – a cry for more out of life and a sense of normalcy. Her words do not fall of deaf ears, fortunately, and soon we see a family friend determined to find a new doctor for the girl. His declaration also does not occur in a vacuum, for they are overheard by the girl’s regular doctor, the imposingly-named Ludwig von Saulsbourg (, who immediately senses a threat to his livelihood and orders the girl moved to a new location, a move that actually makes it easier for her to meet Dr. Jack.
The first half of the film accomplishes two things: It establishes the Sick-Little-Well Girl’s plight and it illustrates the differences between Dr, Jack’s approach to medicine and that of von Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne). This is important because the actions Jack takes in the second half of the film would seem both inappropriate and ethically-questionable without this contrast. We might also find ourselves worried about the mental well-being of the people that Jack unwittingly involves in her treatment – in particular the poor (and stereotypically African-American) housekeeping staff - but because the girl is better in the end, all can easily be forgiven.
There is little here that qualifies as slapstick comedy other than Jack’s first scene and the girl’s later elongated “therapy,” but these moments are enough. The rest of the film is devoted to establishing the doctor’s character and convincing audiences that two characters have fallen instantly head over heels in love. Lloyd, like Chaplin and Keaton, excelled at conveying this. With Lloyd, it is the way he tilts his head to the side, the goofy smile that starts to form on his face, and the sudden difference in way the eyes look. We just know. Matching Lloyd in skill is his long-time co-star, Mildred Davis, who married Lloyd just one year after the film was released and, like many newly married Hollywood starlets at the time, left acting soon after. Davis has an infectious energy and a control over her facial expressions that makes her a delight to behold onscreen, and her chemistry with Lloyd is so good that we believe that these two characters are simply meant for each other.
I’m truly a softie for films of this sort. Light on plot, but rich on sentiment, they depict a simpler, more optimistic world, one where the bad guys are not truly bad, just misdirected; where the young ladies have a heart of gold and can bring out the best in the ones they love; and where the rich are people of virtue, not vultures profiting off the labor of an overburdened working class. Films set in a world like this are timeless; untethered to a particular age by technology or cynicism, they could be happening anywhere and any time. They depict society not as it once was – for who can say it was ever this good - but as we all wish it were. That they could also be labeled “off-fashioned” only reflects just how far some people think we have strayed from the values presented in them. (on DVD in Region 3)
3 and a half stars