I’m always impressed by 1930s black and white medical dramas, and how the black and white photography really highlights the cold, white sterility of the operating room theaters. The whites in these sequences are often really, really white and make the hospitals seem like miracles palaces.
Such an operating room theater is on hand in one of the most unusual medical dramas of the period, “Green Light” (1937), an oddball but affecting drama that throws in everything but the kitchen sink - spirituality, love, self sacrifice and medicine. The fact that it works at all can be attributed to director Frank Borzage, who makes the most melodramatic events seem like everyday occurrences.
Errol Flynn plays Dr. Newell Paige, a successful surgeon who takes the blame for the death of a patient, Mrs. Dexter (Spring Byington), at the hands of his surgeon mentor, Dr. Endicott (Henry O’Neill).
Like the other characters in the movie, he turns to the sermons of Dean Harcourt (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), an Anglican (I think, or at least non-denominational) minister for spiritual comfort, whose sermons are broadcast on the radio to a wide and admiring audience.
Another of Harcourt’s admirers is Phyllis Dexter (Anita Louise), who seeks any kind of understanding from him after her mother’s death. Of course, she falls in love with the handsome Dr. Paige, without knowing who he really is. Paige’s nurse Frances Ogilvie (Margaret Lindsay) is in love with him, but promises to keep his secret about Dr. Endicott. She befriends Phyllis, not knowing how Phyllis feels about Dr. Paige.
After Phyllis finds out who Paige is, and thinking he was responsible for the death of her mother, she rejects him. Paige joins his friend Dr. Stafford (Walter Abel) in the rural west, looking for a cure for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which is decimating the local population and economy.
Frustrated at their inability to find a cure for the disease, Paige injects himself with an experimental vaccine, and his life hangs in the balance.
All this, and a dog named Sylvia, in only 84 minutes!
“Green Light” was based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, a minister-turned novelist who had a pretty good track record when it came to film adaptations. His biggest novelistic success was “The Robe”, but he died in 1951, two years before the movie version came out. There were also good film versions of his novels “Magnificent Obsession” (twice),. “White Banners” (nicely underrated movie), and two movie adaptations unseen by me, “Disputed Passage” and “The Big Fisherman.”
“Green Light” was made in 1937, an interesting year in Flynn’s career as Warner Bros. still wasn’t quite sure what to do with their latest star. ”Captain Blood” (1935) and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936) were blockbusters for Warner Bros., but Flynn didn’t want to be stuck in costume pictures and the economical Warner Bros. couldn’t afford the expensive adventure films every year. So that year, they cast him in a supporting role in a costume film, “The Price and the Pauper”, a funny screwball comedy “The Perfect Specimen” and two movies of noble self-sacrifice, “Green Light” and “Another Dawn.”
Now, anyone who knows anything about Errol Flynn off screen knows he was anything but altruistic. I often wondered how much eye rolling he did when reading the scripts of these two movies, and found my suspicions were correct when reading one of the best books ever on the actor, “Errol Flynn The Life and Career” by Thomas McNulty ( McFarland & Company, 2004), a book I highly recommend to any Flynn fan.
McNulty carries a quote from Flynn’s thoughts on “Green Light”:
“Green Light extracted from me a noblesse I myself cannot pretend. I am not constituted for noble sacrifice or suffering and so I don’t think the character was really the best I could have been given. Personally, I left that character, as I have done with every other one with which I have struck up a brief studio acquaintance, the moment the director told me the film was through.”
Errol Flynn and Anita Louise make a strikingly handsome couple, and the movie gives a look at what might have been if Warner Bros. had kept to their original casting of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) with Anita Louise as Maid Marian. The studio was grooming Anita Louise for big things, and saw the role as an opportunity to really make her shine with the public. But saner heads prevailed, Olivia deHavilland was cast in one of her most iconic roles, and movie history was made.
Anita Louise would have made a good, but not great Maid Marian, but Flynn and Louise don’t have quite the same chemistry he had with other leading ladies, like Olivia, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino or even Bette Davis. Yes, I know they hated each other, but Flynn and Davis are very good in the two films they made together.
Still, there’s a scene with Flynn and Louise sitting in a cathedral, listening to one of Dean Harcourt’s sermons, and they look like the two most beautiful people who ever lived. If I was a member of that congregation, I would find another place to worship, as I would not be worthy to be in the same building as those two.
“Green Light” won’t make the list of great Frank Borzage movies, and it often does seem like two different movies, if only in terms of setting. But that deep well of self-sacrifice and doing good works for others permeates all the story lines, so it’s not as jarring as one might think. It may not be very good, but it’s never less than watchable.
Finally, one more Flynn quote from the McNulty book, after his perplexing (for him) roles in “Green Light” and “Another Dawn”:
“I want some acting to do, if I am to be called an actor, which seems to be the general idea around Hollywood. If you ask me whether I have any preferences – and I really have – I would pick on light comedy roles. Generally speaking, they seem to be my stuff. I feel light comedy is easier for me to do and, being by nature more than a trifle lazy, I like to take the easiest or at least the most appealing route through the daily grind.”
Warner Bros. bowed to the wishes of their latest star and assigned him another screwball comedy, the agreeable “Four’s A Crowd” (1938). But it did only middling business at the box office as did the aforementioned dramas. With the success of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” that year, the lazy nature of Flynn would be tested with lots of sword fighting and horseback riding and shooting. It must have galled him something terrible.