Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Ward Seven

Film: Captain Newman, M.D.
Format: Internet video on laptop.

I fully intended to watch something on DVD today that I had picked out from a local library. However, when the film started locking up a couple of minutes in, it was time for plan B. Plan B for me generally consists of something saved on the DVR or something I’ve found online. The problem with the online films is that in many cases, these are movies that no one knows. Show of hands—how many of you have even heard of Captain Newman, M.D.? One…two…maybe three. Maybe. And I find that really interesting because this is one of those forgotten films that has a cast that indicates it should be far better known than it is.

Captain Newman, M.D. is a mixture of drama and comedy similar in many respects to a film like Mister Roberts despite taking place in a hospital rather than on the deck of a ship. And without as much aggression from superior officers. The titular captain, Josiah “Joe” Newman (Gregory Peck) is the head psychiatrist at a hospital in Arizona during World War II. It’s his job to rehabilitate pilots and air crew who have what we would today call PTSD or something similar. It’s a job he’s greatly conflicted with because he realizes that many of those men that he puts back into the service will eventually come home in a coffin.

Newman complains that he’s understaffed and underserved, a complaint he shares with the rest of the hospital, which treats more traditional injuries. Working with him initially are his nurse, Lt. Grace “Blodgie” Blodgett (Jane Withers) and his two orderlies Sgt. Kopp (Syl Lamont) and Cpl. Gavoni (Larry Storch). When the film opens, a new orderly is reporting to the hospital, but is assigned to Ward 4. Newman sends Kopp to intercept him and bring him to Ward 7. This new orderly is Jake Leibowitz (Tony Curtis), who isn’t particularly pleased at being hustled into the service of mental patients. Eventually, Newman also wrangles a second nurse, Lt. Francie Corum (Angie Dickinson), with whom there are some romantic sparks that are clear, but not really expressed by the time the film comes to an end.

Also making appearances here are Dick Sargent as an accounting officer, James Gregory as the hospital’s commanding officer, and a number of patients including Robert Duvall, Eddie Albert, and Bobby Darin, who was nominated in a supporting role. Those three patients are the ones we spend the most time with. Duvall’s character was rescued after hiding in a French cellar for more than a year, and who has come out essentially catatonic. Albert plays a former commander who has undergone a psychotic break, likely from guilt at so many of his men being killed in combat. Darin’s Jim Tomkins is a man also wracked by guilt, but for different reasons.

Captain Newman, M.D. tilts back and forth between comedy and drama. Much of what we see on screen is tragic as men relive their past events and attempt to come to both mental and emotional grips with them. But there’s also a great deal of humor here, much coming from the Ensign Pulver-like Leibowitz and his constant breaking of regulations, thefts of Gavoni’s items, and attempts to out-shrink the shrink. These moments are needed, because the stories of the three main patients are dark and unpleasant.

So let’s talk performances, because there really isn’t anything that exceptional elsewhere here other than the nominated screenplay. I mean, the direction is fine if nothing special, the various sets and costumes are good, but expected for a movie that takes place in a military hospital. And really, this is about story, and the story is driven by the performances we get.

Gregory Peck is good, as he generally was and Angie Dickinson is good as well, although most of her role is really just her looking or being sympathetic to someone else. No, it comes down much more to the supporting players here. Specifically, the roles to look for are Curtis, Darin, and Albert. Of these, two are pitch perfect and one is, well, less so.

Darin got a supporting nomination almost certainly for the scene where he is given sodium pentothal and relives the traumatic experience that has sent him to Ward 7. It’s a dandy bit of acting, getting as close to melodrama as he can without crossing the line. Eddie Albert’s turn as a man who has completely lost touch with reality and has taken to calling himself “Mr. Future” is also an inspired piece of frightening lunacy. It’s dark and borders on funny at times, but it’s a funny that has a deep, scary edge to it.

No, it’s Tony Curtis who is hard to believe here. Casting Tony Curtis as a Jew from New York would seem to be inspired, since he was, in fact, the son of Jewish immigrants and grew up in the Bronx. But why is he such a stereotype? Leibowitz comes straight out of central casting, and a talent like Tony Curtis could have easily made this character much more interesting and individual than the sort of Borscht Belt/Ensign Pulver hybrid we get here.

Ultimately, this is a pretty good movie. It’s not a great one, but it should be more known than it is, if only for that cast.

Why to watch Captain Newman, M.D.: The right blend of comedy and drama, and a hell of a nice cast.
Why not to watch: Tony Curtis is better than this.


  1. I caught this a couple of years ago on TCM and was equally surprised that it is so obscure. I mean with Peck, Curtis, Duvall and Angie Dickinson all still having some kind of name recognition and with it being a decent film you would think it would be shown more frequently.

    I found it a "good" movie. Professionally made, handsome looking considering the limited setting, well acted with interesting story elements was never so engrossing that I couldn't wait to see it again soon. Maybe that's why its reputation isn't what it feels like it should be.

    1. Perhaps. It certainly has its moments and Eddie Albert is truly magnificent in his few scenes. But perhaps it doesn't quite feel like enough to command a great deal of attention.

  2. "Show of hands—how many of you have even heard of Captain Newman, M.D.?"

    My hand stayed down! Never even heard of this one! It sounds like it arrived a few years too late, and was confined to the shadow of Mister Roberts. I'll keep an eye out for it.

    1. It's not bad, but it's also not essential viewing.