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D: Bernard Vorhaus / 67m

Cast: Jean Hersholt, Dorothy Lovett, Robert Baldwin, Tom Neal, Maude Eburne, Vera Lewis, George Meader, Bobby Larson, Bobette Bentley

Outside of the small town of River’s End, lies an area of hardship and poverty called Squatters Town. With its people ignored by their more affluent neighbours, it’s only kindly local doctor, Paul Christian (Hersholt), who has any time for them. A visit to a sick girl at the site leads to Christian taking in a young man, Dave Williams (Neal), while his younger brother and sister (Larson, Bentley) are looked after by town matriarch, Norma Stewart (Lewis). Norma has a vacant lot in the centre of town that Christian thinks would be ideal as a new housing development for the people of Squatters Town to move into. He secures the deed to the land – at a personal price – but soon faces opposition from local businessman, Harry Johnson (Meader), and the town council. Dave takes matters into his own hands and gets everyone from Squatters Town to move onto the vacant lot. Johnson and his cronies on the council invoke a little known by-law, and arrange for the police to have everyone dispersed. But just as a violent confrontation seems inevitable, Dr Christian realises that the sick girl he treated before has spinal meningitis – and it’s highly contagious…

One of the benefits of watching old black and white movies from the Thirties and Forties, is the number of pleasant surprises you’re likely to come across, and often in the unlikeliest of places. Between 1939 and 1941, RKO made six movies based around the radio character, Dr Paul Christian. They were family friendly dramas with a recurrent streak of obvious, gentle humour, made quickly and cheaply, and featured Hersholt in the role he’d become famous for over the airwaves. The Courageous Dr. Christian was the second in the series, and is remarkable for the quality of its screenplay, which was written by Ring Lardner Jr and Ian McLellan Hunter. An original story, its depiction of the social and class divisions between the people of River’s End and Squatters Town, and the inequalities experienced by the latter (along with prejudice and blatant xenophobia), mark out the movie as something of a departure from the standard small town fables that the likes of Andy Hardy were focused on. Here the movie has a clear message about tolerance and the true meaning of community spirit. There are differences on either side – Dave is just as contemptuous of the people in River’s End, as George Johnson is of Dave and his fellow Squatters Town inhabitants. How then to bring them all together?

An outbreak of spinal meningitis might not be the most obvious motivator for public and personal contrition, and Lardner Jr and Hunter aren’t about to lather on the altruism (one couple decide to donate their blankets – because they need new ones anyway), but their screenplay is sharper than this kind of movie usually deserves, and the characters all appear to have inner lives, something that is also unusual. Even the likes of Roy (Baldwin), drug store owner and the series’ romantic stooge, comes across as more rounded and capable of surprising the viewer than he does in all the other entries. With the cast given more to bite into, and the humour (a necessary component of the material) arising from the drama instead of sitting alongside it, the movie exerts a more compelling interest than expected, and offers director Bernard Vorhaus a chance to show just why he was a mentor to David Lean; his approach to the material is intelligent, sincere, and unforgiving of the prejudice shown by both sides. There’s good camera work by John Alton, and a score by William Lava that knows when to throw off the small town whimsy, and engage in more serious motifs. Hersholt impresses as always in the role he’d made his own (and which has never been played by anyone else), and there’s sterling support from Lewis and Meader, stalwarts at this kind of thing, and exactly the kind of familiar faces that you know will do the whole thing the justice it deserves.

Rating: 8/10 – an above average entry in a series that never again attained the heights it does here, The Courageous Dr. Christian is proof positive that “old, low budget, and black and white” doesn’t have to mean a poor quality experience; entertaining and thoughtful at the same time, it’s well worth seeking out as a simpler and more effective alternative to what passes for small town drama in the 21st century.

NOTE: It may not come as a surprise, but there’s no available trailer for The Courageous Dr. Christian.