Reginald Denny stars as a hypochondriac whose condition is being exploited by a trio of loansharks. Mary Astor is the pretty nurse who inspires Denny to try to be healthy– and just may be able to save him from bankruptcy.
All the comforts of dying.
If you think all silent movie comedy is pratfalls and pies in the face, prepare for a charming revelation.
First, though, let’s clear up some confusion. There were three comedy shorts made in the 1910s called Oh, Doctor (1914), Oh, Doctor! (1915), and Oh Doctor! (1917), the last being an early collaboration between Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton (Buster’s fourth film). None of these have anything whatsoever to do with this movie.
Reginald Denny plays Rufus Billop, an eccentric young fellow who survived babyhood thanks to a bevy of physicians and an incubator (still a novel medical concept to some in the 1920s). His family refused to take any risks with their fragile boy– in spite of the fact that he made a full recovery.
Now a full-blown hypochondriac, the adult Rufus is only really happy when he is under professional medical care. He is staying in California with his Aunt Beulah (accomplished character actress Lucille Ward), who thinks there is nothing wrong with Rufus that a healthy meal and some sunshine cannot cure.
After a disastrous run-in with an amazonian osteopath (played by 6′ 2″ character actress, Blanche Payson), Rufus is being calmed by Dr. Seaver (Clarence Geldart). Dr. Seaver realizes at once that Rufus is healthy but he begins to scheme when he hears the details of his patient’s finances. And very interesting they are too. Rufus has no money at present but he will inherit $750,000 (just shy of $10 million in today’s money) in three years. However, Rufus is certain that he will die before he can collect. Dr. Seaver has three friends who will offer Rufus $100,000 in exchange for him signing his entire fortune over to them when he inherits.
Mr. Clinch, Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Peck (Otis Harlan, William V. Mong and Tom Ricketts) are the sharp businessmen out to bilk poor Rufus. After receiving assurances that, barring accidents, Rufus is sure to live the three years, they seal the deal. Rufus is grateful to these kind men for taking such a risk on his behalf and immediately surrounds himself with all the comforts of dying, including a full-time nurse.
It is the choice of nurse that causes the problem. Death Watch Mary (Martha Mattox, another experienced character actress) is famous for putting healthy patience in their graves through sheer gloominess. Clinch, McIntosh and Peck (whom I shall refer to from now on collectively as CMP) panic but Dr. Seaver saves the day by sending over a new nurse, the lovely young Dolores (Mary Astor).
Rufus immediately notices that the view from his deathbed has gotten cheerier. Dolores knows full well that Rufus is a hypochondriac and she is not going to indulge him. Being in close quarters with a pretty woman has a profound affect on Rufus. He starts to look at himself through her eyes and realize how pathetic he must seem.
Rufus makes up his mind to recover. He tries to find out just what kind of man would appeal to Dolores. The maid (1923 WAMPAS Baby Star Helen Lynch) tells Rufus that women like men who “aren’t afraid of nothing!”
Aren’t afraid of nothing, hmm?
Rufus is a new man. He bolts down pork chops, gets himself some snappy new clothes, buys a car (green to match Dolores’s evening gown) and engages a driver. Unfortunately, Rufus is taking the maid’s words a little too literally. He races his car down the wrong way of a racetrack, rides (and wrecks) a motorcycle at high speed and begins to consider aviation, deep sea diving, white water rafting… anything to prove his bravery.
All of this risk taking sends CMP into a frenzy. If he gets himself killed, they lose their investment of $100,000. Dolores, who has begun to grow fond of her childlike patient, is sick with worry for him. She has also caught on to CMP’s scheme and she means to do something about it.
Will Dolores find a way to keep Rufus alive and get back his fortune? Will Rufus find even more vehicles to wreck? Will our larcenous trio get their comeuppance? See Oh, Doctor! to find out.
Mary Astor was only eighteen when she made this film. She and Reginald Denny had been paired previously in the late-1921 two-reeler The Beggar Maid (Astor was all of fifteen). In spite of her youth and in spite of being surrounded by a band of colorful character actors and with a very experienced leading man opposite her, Astor manages to hold her own.
Dolores has beauty, true, but she also has a first-class brain. In fact, she is probably the smartest character in the film. While the other characters are either teasing Rufus or conspiring to bilk him, Dolores puts all the pieces together and forms a plan to save him from his plight.
Astor’s character goes from amused annoyance to mild affection and finally to love. After he buys his car, Rufus declares that he will take Dolores out for dinner and dancing once he returns from the racetrack. Dolores wrinkles her nose and threatens to quit but she slips right into a satin frock once he is out of sight. Rufus is nearly killed in a car accident and is carried back to the house covered in blood. Dolores puts on a brave face but cries as she changes back into her nursing uniform. Astor does not sink into melodrama. This is all played delicately and naturally with none of the overblown mannerisms that could creep into dramatic scenes of this period.
Newcomers to silent film will probably not be familiar with Reginald Denny, at least not by name. He was a WWI veteran of the Royal Flying Corps, the heavyweight champion boxer of his brigade and a veteran of the stage. However, in an odd turn of events, by the mid-1920’s he had carved out a niche for himself playing the all-American everyman in charming comedies. Denny still turned in the occasional drama but it is his silent comedies that are treasured.
Denny’s very American persona and very English voice meant a shift in his career once talkies came around. He would continue on in supporting roles, less prominent but charming as ever. You may have seen him in Rebecca, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Cat Ballou or the Batman television show, just to name a few.
While a lot of silent comedy veered into the surreal, or at least the physics-defying, Denny kept his feet solidly on terra firma. Oh, Doctor! has stunts and crashes but the physical aspects stay rooted in the real world. When Denny’s character wrecks his car or his motorcycle, he is bloodied, limping and realistically bandaged. Much of the humor is derived from the characters performing day-to-day tasks in a just slightly exaggerated manner. Denny makes shaking a medicine bottle, getting a massage, testing reflexes and painting a flagpole studies in physical comedy. There is one daydream sequence (in which Denny imagines himself as a Pan and Astor as a nymph) but it is clearly separated from the rest of the film. For the most part, everything that happens in a Reginald Denny comedy could happen in real life (albeit to a very eccentric person), which is why his humor has aged so well.
Denny and Astor work well together as romantic leads. Although he was fifteen years older than Astor, Denny comes off as the emotionally younger of the pair. Dolores’s affection for Rufus is best described as maternal. The couple, particularly in the third act, begin to behave like an odd combination of a nursemaid/charge and teenage prom dates. It works well in the context of the film because, let’s face it, Rufus couldn’t handle being in charge of a relationship.
I cannot give enough praise to the wonderful cast of character actors who support the leads. Everyone is funny and quirky without taking over. I particularly liked Otis Harlan, William V. Mong and Tom Ricketts as the trio of greedy money-lenders.
One aspect of the film that is a little uncomfortable involves the character of Chang the gardener. While played by Japanese actor George Kuwa (rather than a Caucasian actor in Asian makeup), the character talks in stereotypical “Chinese accent” intertitles. This was, unfortunately, a common cliche in films of this period. Dialect intertitles were used for characters who were Italian, Irish, Jewish, German, Southern American, Mexican, Greek, French… basically any character who could have dialect intertitles did. The good news is that Oh, Doctor! only features a few of these titles.
In the plus column for this film, the stunts and crashes are handled with panache. Due to technological limits of the time, many of the stunts performed had to be actually done by a stuntman. The climactic flagpole painting scene, set atop a Los Angeles skyscraper is particularly well-done. The same techniques used in Harold Lloyd’s iconic 1923 Safety Last clock scene were probably employed here to take some of the risk out of the stunt. In fact, whole film shows a marked Lloyd influence, right down to the hero’s eyeglasses.
Another amusing aspect of the film is seeing how much views of health have changed. The film portrays juicy steaks and pork chops as the cure for what ails you. Rufus eschews this advice and instead subsists on laxative biscuits (!), nut pastes, and a blend of milk and pepsin (!!). In spite of the dated health views, Oh, Doctor! remains relatable because, let’s face it, we all know someone who is a bit of a hypochondriac.
While the stunts, the script, the concept and the supporting cast are important, in the end it is the likable performances of Denny and Astor that make this film succeed. His talent for physical comedy and her skill with snark (present even at this young age) create a powerful one-two punch that gives this film timeless appeal. Oh, Doctor! has been largely forgotten even by film historians. It’s time to give it another look.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
This movie was released on DVD by Grapevine.