Doctor Bull (1933) Review

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • A bout of premarital sex leads to a premarital pregnancy. A pair of well armed soon-to-be brother-in-laws order the knocker uper around:

“Yes, you want to get married, and mighty quick too!”
“No I don’t!”
“Yes you do!”

  • From that same dumb knocker uper: “There hasn’t been a marriage in my family for generations!”
Town gossips be trippin’.

Small Town “Charm”

“I’ve seen a hundred people die. None of them seemed too upset by it.”

So I was reading one of those great blogs the other day, Homages, Ripoffs and Coincidences, and was pulled in by John’s enthusiastic post about the enduring work of John Ford. Now, I’ve seen most of Ford’s ‘greats’, and I knew Ford had been active during the Silent era and thus assumedly during the Pre-Code era as well.

I was pretty happy when I looked it up and saw that he’d directed none other than Will Rogers for a trio of films that crosses the edge of the mid-1934 gap. After seeing Ambassador Bill a few weeks back, I was eager to dive back into Rogers’ filmography, so I was excited to unwrap my DVD of their first of three collaborations, Doctor Bull.

So what happens when you combine John Ford and Will Rogers in a Pre-Code flick? Half digested Frank Capra, it looks like.

And, hey, that’s not all terrible. Rogers plays Dr. George Bull, the only doctor in the New England town of New Winton. It’s your usual American hamlet, with a wealthy, snobbish family, a couple of hardworking people in the middle class, and a lot of poor people struggling to get by. Bull sees all of this, and runs against the ire of all involved as he desperately tries to juggle a professional and a domestic life.

I caught this pretty quick when I was taking screenshots; I don’t think Rogers is supposed to be looking at the audience with such disdain.

His domestic life is especially contentious since he spends late evenings with Janet (Vera Allen), a widower and member of the town’s wealthiest family. They’re led by patriarch Herbert Banning (Berton Churchill), and he and the rest of his brood much prefer to look down their nose at Dr. Bull. When one evening Bull is busy attending to the birth of a poor man’s child instead of tending to a elderly dying servant, the Bannings decide to do all in their power to disgrace and ostracize the doctor.

This is only one of many instances in the movie where we see Dr. Bull butt heads with gossipers and the wealthy, and the film makes a stark case of the danger involved when the very wealthy decide it within their right to destroy one man. This opportunity arises when one of Herbert’s building projects accidentally poisons the town’s water supply with typhoid. Since Bull was the health officer, they use this to inflame the passions of the townsfolk and have Bull run out of town.

All’s not lost for Bull, though, as Janet stands up for him, as does a young man whom he helped cure of being paralyzed. When even this effort fails, Janet agrees to marry Bull, and Bull’s cure for the young man’s injury makes him a national icon. Bull and his new wife board the train to leave New Winton, leaving behind the backstabbing throngs and starting a new life.

“What’s everyone doing at the graveyard? Did someone get out?!”

Ford and Rogers

 “I’ll let you kick me out. That way when someone in the town gets run over by a car or dies of old age, you won’t blame me for it!”

Doctor Bull is sprinkled with small stories, from the town hypochondriac Larry (Andy Devine) to the story of young Virginia (Rochelle Hudson) who has an intimate encounter with a football player and has to deal with the consequences.

The film uses these stories to illustrate the interlocking of small town life, from gossip and scandal to the down home neurosis that effect the general population. Director Ford would later mine this territory for his Best Picture winnerHow Green Was Your Valleyamong other works. Here, though, he seems less assured: vignettes power through here, with Rogers, though enjoyable, a little hard to get a handle on.

That may be because Rogers has such a natural charm that clashes with Bull’s unconvincing mix of gruff and sweetness. Bull takes care of an elderly aunt and plays nice with the local kids, but he can’t stand attending to most adults, and, when the time comes, they’re too eager to turn on him.

Thanks for curing paralyzation! Good one on you, doc!

(I did like the bit where a bunch of parents where scared to death that the typhoid immunizations would do more harm to their kids than the typhoid would; some things don’t change.)

For their first film together, I think there are some rough edges between the actor and the director that kept the film from working. Rogers was poorly cast– though in such a bumpy oddball story, I’m not sure anyone could have made this story into a stronger or more coherent work.

I can speak much more highly of Rogers and Ford’s next collaboration, Judge Priest, which, while not technically Pre-Code, I’ll be reviewing here is a solid film that touches on a lot of the same themes here but with a much better use of both men’s talents. As a dry run, Doctor Bull isn’t terrible, but it isn’t much overall, either.

Trivia & Links

  • Mordaunt Hall over at the Times seems pretty warm on this one, and really enjoyed the humanizing touches that made Bull seem more human. I like that he notes that no one would probably like Bull to be their doctor, but it makes me wonder: is that a failure of the film, or did Ford mean it that way? I thought humanizing Bull was to precisely show you that this was a good man trying his best in a bad situation, but Hall reads it as a good man who’s a lousy doctor who gets by on luck alone. Hmm.

Although [Rogers] underplays a bit heavily – to the degree that you have to strain to absorb his character for the most part, Rogers remains fun to watch.

  • The Trivia over at IMDB notes two things that the Hays Office requested dropped from the film that were in the book. Apparently there was originally a conversation about a young unwed girl having an abortion, and, instead of being a hypochondriac, Larry had a venereal disease. Since this is such a light movie, I cant say I’m surprised they got dropped, but those would definitely been interesting to have heard Rogers espouse about.


Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

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