Review: Internes Can't Take Money - 1937
Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck
Internes Can't Take Money is a compact medical-gangster film that starts off with a speeding ambulance weaving through New York City traffic. It arrives downtown at the tall, modern glass and concrete Mountview General Hospital. Inside, an immaculate art deco sign tells us Men to the right, Women to the left, and like much of this film's story, director Alfred Santell takes us to the left.
Following the camera we find a crowd of women, many mothers with children, anxiously looking for help while a receptionist insists they take a number and wait their turn. The camera then moves us on into the large open treatment area, a spotless white space with gleaming surfaces and gleaming medical equipment, with large glass walls that shows us the New York City skyline as a background, with the Chrysler Building particularly conspicuous but not as tall as we're used to from other films because we're up high in the clouds, too, at Mountview.
By now we know we're not in a typical Hollywood hospital with tight corridors between rows of treatment rooms like a hotel with people darting in and out, instead we've got something like a modernistic arena where a handful of doctors battle their way one by one through the hordes of women needing help, the overhead audio system chanting the names of doctors who are being paged, other doctors tossing off a few weak jokes* to hold our attention until our two stars meet: Stanwyck (as Janet Haley) who has a burn on her arm, and Dr. James Kildare (McCrea). Their eyes instantly lock and they stare at each other long enough for them to get uncomfortable, and then during the treatment of the burn they keep sneaking surreptitious glances at each other's movie star faces.
"Why didn't you get in sooner?" asks Kildare when he learns she's been suffering with the burn for three days. She answers "I've got to work." We're only five minutes into the 79 minute tale, but director Santell (and scriptwriters Theodore Reeves and Rian James from the novel by Max Brand**) have laid the groundwork for this hard luck saga that will take us through the tragic history of this woman and force Kildare to deal with problems of gun and knife wounds on criminals and the ethical problems it will create for him since he is not sanctioned to provide care outside of the hospital.
This is a depression-era story with plenty of tough times and threats of violence happening all around the characters, but perhaps the real darkness of the tale is that while we get to see the ethically-true Kildare up against some pretty trying situations, and there is a secondary cast of internes working long hours at the hospital, the only other men we see are crooks of one sort or another, and for a film larded with criminal activity, there's nary a policeman in sight. Except for desperate motherhood, orphanages and doctors, the only other effective forces of morality is the caprice of a single noble crook (Lloyd Nolan) who uses his crime network to pull off a dramatic 11th hour "save" when it looks like Stanwyck's character is about to suffer a fate worse than death in order to gain information about the whereabouts of her missing 3-year old daughter. Stanley Ridges provides a portrait of an alarmingly sleazy criminal who is slightly comical at times but manages to get a lot of innuendo past the Hays Office censors while just playing with a bowl of popcorn, a scene that reaches out of the screen and implicates the movie audience, Ridges' snakey crook telling us 'you want the popcorn for the "roughage."'
Internes Can't Take Money is a title that refers to a reward given to Kildare for one of the emergency surgeries he pulls off while outside of the hospital, an envelope of cash that the doctor, though with only a $10 per month salary, has to refuse. This sends the Stanwyck character into an even higher gear of desperation because the cash would solve the problem of paying the thousand dollar fee required to get to the info about the location of her missing daughter, a situation brought on because she's an ex-con and the widow of a bank robber who hid the child before dying. Stanwyck is awash in tears frequently throughout the film, and director Alfred Santell doesn't skip an opportunity to zoom in close on her face as the character fights through her repeated agonies (and for that matter, he does the same with McCrea's noggin whenever McCrea has to exude either concern (and he is concerned a lot) or in the case of meeting Stanwyck in the beginning, his face covered in well-lit stunned admiration.
Santell's camera placement often gives us an image of Stanwyck looking up at male characters, most of whom are trying to use her one way or another, the camera angles emphasizing her vulnerability and how often she is up against unyielding forces that couldn't care less about helping her or her missing daughter, that is, until Kildare's Hippocratic-but-illegal deeds earlier in the story provide some leverage in a cinematic New York City that seems to be mostly lawless under the surface but with outposts of decency here-and-there.
This was the very first of the sixteen Dr. Kildare films and Joel McCrea has the honors of creating the first cinematic version of the doctor, though in Internes Can't Take Money he is actually second billed under Stanwyck on the film title card. The pair made six films together, Internes Can't Take Money was their third, and McCrea wouldn't get top billing until the last one, the western Trooper Hook made in 1957.
* You'll want to reach for your smelling salts when you hear these jokes. An interne doctor (not McCrea) is asked by a rather heavy-set woman how to achieve weight reduction (or as she puts it, "reducing"***) and the interne recommends exercise, then explains that he means "pushing yourself away from table three times a day."
** Max Brand is the best-known pen name of Frederick Schiller Faust (1892-1944), an American author known primarily for his thoughtful and literary Westerns. Using the Max Brand name, he wrote under more than 20 pseudonyms, including George Owen Baxter, George Evans, David Manning, John Frederick, Peter Morland, George Challis, and Frederick Frost.
One of Brand's best-known characters is Dr. Kildare, whom he introduced in a series of pulp fiction stories in the 1930s. The character was later adapted into films, radio and a couple of television series, also comic books, and more.
During World War II, despite being well into his 50s, Brand/Faust was a frontline war correspondent and he died in Italy in 1944 during one of the final German offensives.
*** Can a footnote have a footnote of its own? There is a funny short film titled Reducing released in 1931 starring Marie Dressler and Polly Moran. The film was directed by Charles Reisner and produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Thelma Todd also appears in the film.
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Original Page June 19, 2023