Most medical dramas focus on storylines about the inner workings of a hospital, rivalries between staff members, patients in crisis situations or maybe all of the above. Bedside (1934) is unique in that the main character, Dr. J. Herbert Martell aka Bob Brown, isn’t a real doctor at all. He’s only an X-ray technician posing as a MD and his motivation has nothing to do with the Hippocratic Oath. He’s a dirty rotten scoundrel and you know he’s up to no good from the start because he is played by Warren William, a familiar face in films of the Pre-Code period.
William is probably best known for being the first actor to play Perry Mason and for appearing as Philo Vance and The Lone Wolf in several detective thrillers. His career as a contract player at First National-Warner Bros. during the early sound era advanced quickly and by 1934 he had firmly established his screen persona in such films as Under 18 (1931), The Mouthpiece (1932), Skyscraper Souls (1932), Employees’ Entrance (1933) and The Mind Reader (1933). A dapper, well-dressed shark in a business suit as well as a charming sexual predator, William was expert at playing heartless tycoons, corrupt professionals and opportunists who rarely suffered guilty consciences. His great skill as an actor was not only making these contemptible characters immensely appealing but also humanizing them in such a way that moviegoers often sympathized with their plight.
Bedside (1934) is probably the most extreme example of this since William plays one of the most loathsome characters in his entire career yet somehow manages to make Bob Brown, the protagonist, almost likeable. Released the same year that the Production Code was strictly enforced, Bedside is a sordid tale of medical fraud, drug addiction, and financial success based on the exploitation of others. Even if the film is more suggestive than explicit in its depiction of an amoral universe, the movie, directed by Robert Florey, is a compelling B-movie programmer, despite an often improbable storyline and an absurd final act plot twist to set up the moralistic “happy ending” that was so typical of the Code years.
The movie follows the rise and fall of Bob Brown, whose after-hours life is an endless stream of partying, gambling, drinking and one-night stands. When Caroline Grant (Jean Muir), a love-smitten nurse, loans him money to complete medical school in Chicago, he loses all of it in a card game. Returning home in defeat, Brown soon finds a solution to his financial woes; he convinces a disgraced doctor (David Landau) with a morphine addiction, to sell him his medical diploma.
Changing his name to Dr. Herbert Martel, Brown begins to build a practice of celebrity clients using flattery, deceit and more to steal away patients from reputable doctors. Since his medical experience is limited, Brown hires Dr. Wiley (Donald Meek) to perform any necessary surgeries while he specializes in consultation and publicity gimmicks to garner him praiseworthy front page headlines, cooked up by his streetwise PR man, Sam Sparks (Allen Jenkins).
Standing by his side through thick and thin is his devoted but unhappy co-worker Caroline who suffers silently while Brown romances his numerous female patients including opera star Mimi Maritza (Kathryn Sergava). Brown’s illegal practice is soon threatened with exposure when the drug addicted physician who sold Brown his diploma resurfaces to blackmail him.
Bedside was not well received by most film critics with The Herald-Tribune delivering this harsh verdict: “The film is lacking in any trace of dramatic value.” Warren William, however, seemed immune to the criticism with the New York Daily Mirror noting, “Mr. William, always effective, does what he can to make the character sympathetic,” and The New York Times confirmed this view, stating, “Mr. William is characteristically interesting as the charlatan.”
What was not mentioned in most reviews was an offensive vignette in the film featuring Louise Beavers that traffics in the worst kind of racial stereotypes but was not uncommon in films during this period. Keeping that in mind, Warren William fans will still probably want to see Bedside, even if it is not one of the actor’s best vehicles.
Among the other points of interest are Jean Muir as the masochistic and rather clueless heroine and the breakneck pacing from director Robert Florey. Muir would go on to better roles – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), The Constant Nymph (1943) – and develop into an actress of considerable promise. Unfortunately, her career was halted when she was blacklisted in 1950 as a Communist sympathizer.
As for Robert Florey, he is best known among horror aficionados for such memorable genre entries as Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Face Behind the Mask (1941) and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946). Although he spent most of his movie career toiling in the Warner Bros. B-movie unit, turning out efficient programmers like Bedside, he transitioned into the television industry in the early fifties where his talent was finally recognized; he earned an Emmy Award nomination (The Loretta Young Show) and five Directors Guild of America nominations before his death in 1979.
Bedside is currently unavailable on any format but, at one time, it was available for streaming from Warner Archive Instant until that service shut down in 2018. Let’s hope Warner Archive will consider releasing it on DVD/Blu-ray with other Warren William titles in a sequel to their Warren William Collection, which first appeared on DVD in February 2011.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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