Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Dr. Greer

Strange Lady in Town (1955) was of particular interest to me (and to my friends), because it is the story of a female doctor.  I've done some research on women physicians in film, and even presented a paper on the topic; I'd heard of this film, though never seen it before.  It proved to be an interesting addition to women physicians on film.  Strange Lady in Town tells the story of Dr. Julia Winslow Garth (Greer Garson), a Boston physician who has relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where her brother, Lt. David Garth (Cameron Mitchell) is serving in the military.  Dr. Garth is tired of the bias that has continually hobbled her medical career: male physicians in Boston routinely cut at her ability to practice.  She hopes that frontier medicine will enable her to advance her career and help her to help others.  But upon her arrival, she discovers from the spunky Carlotta "Spurs" O'Brien (Lois Smith) that her father,  Dr. Rork O'Brien (Dana Andrews) is yet another of those bigoted physicians, and she will need to get around him in order to grow her practice. 

One of the major problems with this film is the side plot that involves brother David and his predilection for illegal activities.  It seemed like it belonged in another movie, and that the growing list of David's crimes was artificial - merely a way for the townspeople to blame Julia for something.  David's not particularly likeable; one wonders what "Spurs" sees in him.  And why he is "bad" is never really explained - he has risen to a decent position in the military, and appears to be liked by his colleagues (when he isn't cheating them...).  He justifies his crime spree as being just who he is - he's bad; Julia is just too fond of him to notice (apparently, the Army was too fond to notice as well).  The main story:  the conflict between Doctors O'Brien and Garth, the growing relationship between "Spurs" and Julia, was far more interesting and engaging.
This is not to say that Dr. O'Brien is a particularly amiable man; in fact, he's pretty hard to tolerate.  He's ignorant and a bully - upon learning that Dr. Garth has studied under Lister, and subscribes to Lister's belief that sterilizing instruments and washing hands saves lives, O'Brien ridicules her.  In fact, he later complements her on her "perfume", only to learn that the scent is that of carbolic acid (Lister's prescribed sterilizing agent).  O'Brien's saving grace is his daughter.  "Spurs" is so likeable and engaging she mitigates her father's actions merely by her love for him.  Given "Spurs'" garb (she dresses like a boy), complete self-sufficiency, and genuine caring personality, combined with the  free-rein she is given by her father, how much of Dr. O'Brien's bias is genuine, and how much is just male-chauvinist bluster? The film's end (bit of a spoiler here) implies that he is all bluster, but it takes awhile to get there.
Lois Smith as "Spurs" is a revelation - you cannot help but like her; and she almost steals the movie from star, Greer Garson.  Smith, who is still actively working, has had a long career. She is primarily known for her television work - most recently, she appeared on True Blood as Adele Stackhouse; she also had a recurring role on ER, and was a regular on The Doctors.  An inductee into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, Ms. Smith has appeared in 20 Off-Broadway and 10 Broadway plays, including James Earl Jones' The Iceman Cometh in 1973-1974. I'm not sure if Bosley Crowther's comment on her performance in this review in the New York Times does her justice, but "Spurs" is a character with dignity.
Nick Adams appears VERY briefly as Billy the Kid; if you blink, you will miss him.  And Cameron Mitchell is good in the fairly thankless part of David.  But it is Greer Garson who is the star here, and she shines.  This TCM article discusses some of Ms. Garson's travails on the picture, not the least of which was an attack of appendicitis that ultimately required surgery (and none too soon - her appendix was about to burst).  Regardless, Ms. Garson was fond of the picture, having finally gotten to do an "outdoor role".

Strange Lady in Town is very reminiscent of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and we wondered if the creators of that show had ever seen this film.  This 2014 overview discussion of the film is worth taking a look at for the list that they compiled of women physicians in television westerns.  I'm hoping I can locate some of them.
We'll close with the scene in which Julia meets with "Spurs".  Next time, we'll be looking at a Ronald Colman pre-code film.