I sometimes wonder if this is a genetic behavior disorder and think of my aunt. She kept scrapbooks, stashed away in old Lytton’s Department Store dress boxes, documenting the news of her younger days, mostly about FDR and WWII.
She also kept an in-depth archive on the Dionne Quintuplets, Canadian superstars born in 1934, the first known quints to survive infancy.
When I discovered that there was a movie actually starring this famous fivesome, I had to see it. Maybe it would unlock some of the mystery of why my aunt was so seemingly obsessed by these miracle babies.
I have to say that THE COUNTRY DOCTOR (1936) delivered. Part promotional piece — the Dionne Quintuplets get top billing — and part well-crafted drama, this Darryl Zanuck production deserves a little more love.
Out of circulation for almost 50 years, THE COUNTRY DOCTOR was recently released by Fox Cinema Archives. According to New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick, this charmer has never even been shown on TCM “despite my lobbying,” and “no entry in Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide either.” (I’m pleased to know that at least one other person besides me is a fan of this movie.) Lumenick also writes in a Post article, “According to the AFI Catalogue, the March 4, 1936, opening of “The Country Doctor,” was ‘one of the largest day-and-date engagements in motion picture history.’”
Directed by the prolific Henry King, who would later bring us THE OLD MAN & THE SEA, LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, and THE SNOWS OF KILAMANJARO, to name a few, THE COUNTRY DOCTOR is full of compelling drama and memorable scenes.
The action starts in Moosetown, Canada, where the populace of the timber mill town is readying for its annual closing of operations and pilgrimage to less harsher climates to wait out the long, cold, and brutal winter. A shocking number of the mill workers are missing limbs. Soon you know why. Within the opening seconds, there is a crushing injury in the timber mill. Life is hard in these parts. A man begs to die rather than lose his leg.
While the townspeople who are able to leave Moosetown climb aboard the last ferry, a few must stay behind. Not only does the country doctor have to tend the injured mill worker, there is a diptheria epidemic to deal with. Thirty children are piled up in a makeshift hospital, and the necessary medicine is in short supply. One of the saddest scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie is of one of the children succumbing to the epidemic, while her mother, desperate and helpless, looks in from the outside through a window covered in ice and snow.
So the story goes, not a feel-good tale about babies. The narrative traces the dedication of the country doctor, beautifully played by Jean Hersholt (the grandfather from HEIDI), treating his patients with goodwill, generosity, and makeshift solutions. At the doctor’s right hand is Dorothy Peterson as his loyal and ever-faithful nurse (and subtle love interest). You root for them all of the way. Our country doctor warms new babies in ovens or pushed up against roaring fireplaces. In the big city hospitals, they have something new called incubators.
In addition to the story of the country doctor, the film moves forward with subplots of romance, dysfunctional family dynamics, redemption, social consciousness, media frenzy, and the arrival of modernity.
The timber worker who loses his leg becomes a hero, fixing the broken telegraph equipment. A strict and unyielding father tries to deny his daughter her chance at happiness but she soars off in an airplane with her lover-to-be. The country doctor himself takes on his big city (and rich) bureaucrat dad. The Fat Cat logging boss says of his struggling workers, “Those people aren’t the company’s responsibility” and his days are numbered. There are daily heroics and political dilemmas. Modern times vs. the simplicity of country life. The adventure of air flight! The miracle of tonsillectomies! There’s even an impassioned plea for equitable health care.
According to film critic Lumenick, screenwriter Sonya Levien’s script “plays fast and loose with the facts” related to the Dionne Quintuplets. But does it really matter?
Finally, 75 minutes into this 95-minute movie, the Dionne Quintuplets appear. The story turns from a dramatic tale of hard life in the upcountry into a sort of home movie of the actual twins as they survive infancy and grow into their toddler glory. We meet Yvonne, Cecil, Marie, Annette, and Emelie, and watch them wander around doing the random things that toddlers do. This odd little segment of the film is actually too long and quite boring–and it completely changes the dramatic narrative of the movie–but gosh those kids are the really the cutest wonders of the world.
After the quints bumble around their playroom, each subplot gets a happy conclusion. Amidst the media circus that emerges, the young lovers embrace, Moosetown gets a real hospital, the doctor and the nurse seem ready (at last!) to be ready to admit their feelings for each other.
Only 75 years ago, the survival of multiple birth babies was considered a miracle. Now we have the Octomom. What a historic and heartwarming movie THE COUNTRY DOCTOR is. I’ll treasure my aunt’s scrapbook even more.