Warren William Under the Stars, Part 6: Bedside
August 9, 2012 Leave a comment
Here’s the sixth in my series of reviews for TCM’s August 30th Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.
BEDSIDE (1934) **1/2 Dir: Robert Florey
Starring: Warren William, Jean Muir, David Landau, Donald Meek
Bedside isn’t much more than a quick Warner Brothers programmer, but its utter outrageousness is ample reward for those who watch it. The kaleidoscope of sin it offers up is awe-inspiring in its baseness and incomprehensible in its effect: the main character, guilty of drug dealing, philandering, fraud and manslaughter still manages to elicit the final line of the film from his girlfriend, even after she’s nearly died because of his careless machinations: “Oh Bob, you’re marvelous!”
This strangely mismatched tangle of plot elements features Warren William as Bob Brown, a low-rent X-ray technician whose medical knowledge begins and ends at the deep appreciation of attractive female body parts. The office nurse Caroline (Jean Muir) is hopelessly and futilely in love with Brown, enough so to loan him the tuition to continue the medical schooling he dropped out of once before. Of course Brown promptly loses her money in a poker game on the train out of town, then proceeds to chisel his way through a series of registered nurses along the eastern seaboard. (When one suggests that he get his diploma by doing some night work, he replies “I do plenty of night work, baby!”) Eventually down and out, Brown returns to Caroline with a fake medical degree purchased from a skeevy morphine addict (David Landau), and begins practicing medicine – literally. His office mate, Dr. Wiley (Donald Meek) does the heavy lifting in the office – well, the only lifting, really – while Brown promotes the practice with cheap ballyhoo based on a group of highly “successful” fake surgeries. It isn’t long before one of these ersatz surgeries goes horribly wrong, resulting in the death of a famous opera star. When Brown’s morphine-addled benefactor returns to squeeze him out of more dope, Caroline gradually begins to understand his pathetic schemes. From there Brown nearly loses his grip on reality and the film takes a brief detour into Universal horror territory when the opera star is brought back to life by Dr. Wiley’s no-earthly-reason-to-exist heart revivification machine. (Seriously.)
When it was released in 1934 – just six months before the pre-Code era was put to rest by the over-officious Joseph Breen – Bedside was reduced to cinders by critics. Variety put this flame to the fire: “the story is beyond saving, nor is it worth salvage…no picture is better than its plot, and this scenario is hopeless,” and the New York Times offered “its deviations from formula are too wild-eyed to be classed as dramatic virtue.” Looking back, one cannot fault the harshness of the period critics, but in our joyous rediscovery of pre-Code cinema we are not bound by the mores of that moment. Bedside may be hastily constructed; it may have one of the most disagreeable character leads in pre-Code cinema, and you might find the whole thing a sordid, disreputable mess, but there is no denying the splendid insanity of its peculiar brand of sleaze. It is a glimpse into the magnetic lure of a train wreck, or perhaps today’s reality TV. And it is a testament to Warren William that for all his faults, including the near death of Caroline, Bob Brown maintains an utterly incomprehensible kernel of audience sympathy – even though we know he’ll probably high-tail it out of town as soon as the heat dies down; there are always more yokels to be clipped.
Bedside will be broadcast on TCM’s August 30th tribute to Warren William, at 6:00 AM (EST)