What could be a more ideal setting than a hospital to explore countless dramatic scenarios, character relationships and potentially hot-button topical issues that affect both the public and the medical community? With each decade new variations on the medical drama formula emerge and one of the most successful films in this genre in the early sixties was The Interns (1962).
Based on the best-selling novel by Richard Frede, this Columbia Pictures release was produced and released at a time when medical dramas were enjoying a resurgence of popularity due to the success of such TV dramas as Dr. Kildare [1961-66] and Ben Casey [1961-66]. The plot, which focuses on the professional and personal travails of five aspiring doctors in their first year of internship at a major metropolitan hospital, is episodic in nature and a precursor to contemporary hospital series such as ER [1994-present] which juggle multiple highly emotional subplots. But unlike most television medical dramas of the sixties, The Interns was also able to flirt with more controversial subject matter such as abortion, mercy killing, and drug addiction. It also showcased a talented ensemble cast of rising actors, three of whom would soon win Oscar nominations for other work – Cliff Robertson (for Charly in 1968), Nick Adams (for Twilight of Honor in 1963) and Telly Savalas (for Birdman of Alcatraz in 1962). Despite this, The Interns is nothing more than enjoyably trashy escapism and its 120-minute running time is packed with enough antiquated social attitudes, misogyny and hospital drama clichés to fascinate any cultural anthropologist.
[Spoilers ahead!] The most surprising aspect of The Interns is how unsympathetic and unappealing the central characters are with the exception of Mado (Haya Harareet), the sole female doctor who bears the brunt of Dr. Riccio’s (Telly Savalas) constant sexist remarks about working women. Dr. Considine (Michael Callan) is initially presented as an ambitious but charming ladies’ man whose early scenes are played for light comedy. Over the course of the film, he becomes a despicable cad who develops an addiction to speed because it allows him to forego sleep in order to work overtime, pursue his studies and juggle two romantic relationships. One is his socialite fiancée (Anne Helm), the other is an older nurse (Katharine Bard), whose friendship with a prestigious doctor is the sole reason for Considine’s arduous pursuit. As expected, Considine crashes and burns in a Benzedrine freak-out which is richly deserved and unintentionally funny.
Then there’s Dr. John Paul Otis (Cliff Robertson) who at first appears to be the most mature and conscientious of the interns but once he falls for Lisa (Suzy Parker), a glamorous but cynical high fashion model, he loses his way and his scruples. He agrees to help her abort her unwanted baby by another lover and attempts to steal the required drug for the procedure from the hospital. Guess what? He is caught red-handed by his roommate and friend Dr. Lew Worship (James MacArthur), dismissed from his job and disbarred from medical practice. In an unlikely coda, he marries Lisa who has decided to have the baby but the future looks shaky indeed for this couple who have totally trashed their professional careers.
The other two male interns are less devious but annoying in their own way. Dr. Sid Lackland (Nick Adams) is irrepressibly cheerful with a fondness for joke telling and an inappropriate bedside manner. Naturally he falls in love with one of his patients, a poor Malaysian girl (Ellen Davalos) with an incurable disease. The outcome is completely predictable and results in Lackland departing for the Far East where he will dedicate his life to treating poverty level patients (In real life, Adams would soon depart for Japan where he made two cult sci-fi favorites, Frankenstein vs Baragon aka Frankenstein Conquers the World and Invasion of Astro-Monster, both 1965). Adams’ sweaty brand of Method acting tics is hard to take but he might be preferable to James MacArthur’s goody-two-shoes character, Dr. Worship (Yes, you read that correctly). His earnestness and naivety might be believable for a high school student but not a first-year intern and his awkward courtship of a nurse (Stefanie Powers) is like a case study in arrested sexual development.
Easily the most dispensable and uninteresting of the interns, MacArthur (the adopted son of stage legend Helen Hayes and playwright/screenwriter Charles MacArthur) does stand out for all the wrong reasons. In one truly bizarre scene, he nervously coaches a pregnant woman through a potentially dangerous delivery. The scene alternates between the film’s “sound stage” delivery room and real medical footage of a newborn baby that doesn’t match the studio produced scenes at all. If anything, it only heightens the artificial nature of The Interns.
In the end, Haya Harareet’s Mado is the only character you admire because she is the most intelligent and career-focused of the interns, enduring male prejudice and insulting behavior at every turn. Her finest hour arrives at the climax where she finally confronts Dr. Riccio about his condescending attitude and the things she sacrificed as a single mother to be in the intern program. It’s a bitter moment of truth that belongs in a better, more serious movie but then her outburst is rewarded by Riccio in a fairytale denouement that is typical of the film’s comic book scenario. After all, this is the sort of movie where a shy, uptight nurse gets drunk at a wild New Year’s Eve party, takes off her glasses, lets down her blonde hair and becomes the dance-crazed, go-go girl every male intern wants to bed. I never said The Interns wasn’t fun. You just wouldn’t want any of them to be your personal GP.
Directed by David Swift, whose main claim to fame is his work for Walt Disney (Pollyanna , The Parent Trap ), The Interns was a box office hit for Columbia Pictures which followed up with a sequel, The New Interns (1964), featuring returning cast members Stefanie Powers, Telly Savalas, brassy Kay Stevens (in the role of nurse Didi) and Michael Callan, obviously recovered from his addiction to “bennies.”
It also provided a paycheck for newcomers Dean Jones (soon to be a Walt Disney star in films likes That Darn Cat! (1965) and 1968’s The Love Bug), pre-I Dream of Jennie TV icon Barbara Eden, George Segal (Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Inger Stevens (Golden Globe winner for her 1963 TV series The Farmer’s Daughter) and Greg Morris, Emmy award nominee for his role as Barney Collier in the cult TV series, Mission: Impossible (1966-1973).
As expected, most critics were not impressed with The Interns or The New Interns. The Variety review of The Interns stated “In its apparent attempt to dramatize candidly and irreverently the process by which school-finished candidate medics manage to turn into regular doctors, the film somehow succeeds in depicting the average intern as some kind of Hippocratic oaf. At times the release comes perilously close to earning the nickname, Carry On, Intern.”
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times deemed it an “immature film,” adding “everything is so slight and slapdash that it could be a paste-up of several television serial shows.” And The N.Y. Herald Tribune offered this comment on The Interns: “It will be observed that romance, not medicine, determines the careers of nearly everyone. Only the older doctors concentrate on medicine exclusively, presumably having mastered their romantic drives.” All of which are true and shouldn’t stop you from wallowing in the film’s exploitive excesses, all of it stylishly filmed in black and white by Russell Metty, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus .
Additional trivia: Walter Newman, who co-wrote the screenplay of The Interns with David Swift, was a three-time Oscar nominee for his co-writing contributions to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), Cat Ballou (1965) and Bloodbrothers (1978). The film score, which was released on LP, is by Leith Stevens, who composed music for over 90 film and TV productions including The War of the Worlds (1953), The Wild One (1953) and The Five Pennies (1959). Look close and you’ll spot numerous character actors in bit parts and unbilled cameos in The Interns such as John Banner (Sergeant Schultz on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes), future director Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare), Sondra Blake (ex-wife of actor Robert Blake), Peter Brocco, Ted Knight, Francine York and Bill Gunn, writer, star and co-director of the indie vampire drama, Ganja & Hess (1973).
Don’t expect The Interns to show up on Blu-ray anytime soon but you can still purchase DVD copies of it via the 2011 release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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