Doctor Implausible and the Suspension of Disbelief (Now There’s a Band Name)
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Had Alias The Doctor been made in the 1950’s it could likely have been directed by Douglas Sirk with its implausible melodramatic madness. When watching the film for the first time I was unaware of just how improbable the plot was going to be and after several “oh come on!” moments I realised this was a film in which I had to embrace the lack of plausibility rather than fight against it.
A car just happens to crash outside the house of Karl Brenner (Richard Barthelmess) on the night in which he comes home for the first time since being released from prison after taking the heat for his brother Stephan’s failed and unqualified attempt at surgery when they where students at college only to find out he has since passed away and must perform surgery on the victims of the car crash despite previously being kicked out of medical school for said crime only to impress a local surgeon and have Karl’s mother tell the surgeon that Karl is actually Stephan so Karl masquerades under his dead brother’s name with no further identification than a medical certificate; oh just roll with it. Alias The Doctor is a movie which trades logic for emotion as Karl deals with the dilemma of committing fraud in order to save lives.
This is the perfect example of an hour long movie which packs a lot into that short space of time; quality over quantity. Aside from the story being full of delightfully absurd turns, it’s other great asset are the visuals. You can’t talk about a Michael Curtiz film without talking about the visuals and Alias The Doctor is one of the more visually avant-garde films of the 1930’s with its use of expressionism, shadows, tilted camera angles, high contrast lighting as well as striking set design from Anton Grot (that opening shot of Karl ploughing the field would surely make John Ford jealous). This is Hollywood’s imagining of Europe as seen in may 1930’s films through and through.
Boris Karloff had originally filmed scenes for the film as an autopsy surgeon but was replaced by Nigel De Brulier when he was not available for retakes after British censors objected to the gruesomeness of his scenes. While it’s disappointing that Karloff would be removed from the film, Nigel De Brulier is surprisingly Karloff-like in his creepy demur and even walks just like Karloff. The character of the autopsy surgeon has several brief appearances towards the end of the film and doesn’t affect the story but builds up to one dark, humorous punch line in which he is seen preparing himself for the expected death of Karl’s mother during her surgery. Likewise, Karl is in love with his adopted sister, I know they’re not related by blood but still. Where else but pre-code cinema can you get his kind of unashamed perversion?
Alias The Doctor even has an amusing depiction of a two-tier health care system in which a patient inquiries to Karl on why he is being charged (“Any doctor can serve a broken arm!”) only for Karl to reply, “But that’s the point, you kept me away from patients who needed me, people who couldn’t afford to pay a doctor. That’s our system”.
They save the best for last which Barthelmess’ monologue to the medial committee on why he should be allowed to operate on his mother despite being exposed as a fraud (albeit under highly unusual circumstances). This is storytelling which calls to the viewer’s raw emotion for a rebellious ignorance over rules and regulations; reality need not apply. Being an actor of the silent era, Barthelmess can convey a lot with his face while having a great voice to boot.
There is no record of Alias The Doctor every being released on home video prior to being issued on the Warner Archive Collection in 2010. Shame that such a visual work of art would have been out of reach for decades. I’ll say it now and I’ll it again; the 1930’s is an archaeological treasure chest of obscure gems.