In this charming flick, Harold Lloyd once again portrays a doctor (I wrote about his previous portrayal of a doctor in High and Dizzy (1920) yesterday), and once again, Mildred Davis is his waify patient. Dr. Jack is a silent feature film that tells the story of a young woman, the Sick-Little-Well-Girl, who has been convinced by her physician, Dr. Ludwig von Saulsbourg, that she is extremely sickly. Can you tell by that name that he’s evil? The Girl is trapped inside, bedridden in darkness, wishing for a life outside those four walls; an early intertitle reads “Why can’t I be like other girls? Must I always have dark rooms – and shadows – and medicine?” It is clear Dr. von Saulbourg is keeping the Girl and her rich father psychological hostages purely for the money. This is entirely established in the first 4 minutes.
Next, we meet Dr. Jack.
We see him eating breakfast as he runs out the door, drinking his morning coffee as he cranks his car, preparing to answer an emergency call. He enacts some very clever gags with his car, in typical Lloyd style, as he rushes to work. Instead of closing the film with a climactic chase, he’s opening with a mini one. In getting it out of the way, he leaves the audience to wonder how this story will develop and resolve in other ways than an inevitable chase.
On his daily doctoral adventures he encounters many varied characters and situations, including a toddler whose dolly has fell into the well, and a young boy who’s faking sick to skip school. He handles each complaint with elegance and ingenuity, and a street-smart intelligence not adhering to the usual archetype of a general practitioner. He gets to the bottom of things quickly, but deals with the issue in the way that benefits his community the most. For instance, he rescues the little dolly, and performs exercises with its floppy cotton limbs, purely for the sake of its tiny owner, and he helps the lying boy avoid a savage spanking by his mother. The sequence is an endearing, beautiful introduction to his character.
He has typical Lloyd pluckiness, but what’s most striking about our first look at Dr. Jack is the way he dedicates his life to the wellbeing of others – and they all look up to him with admiration and respect, young and old. Jack is not just a man out to further his place in the bustling world around him, which somewhat goes against one of Lloyd’s most iconic traits – ambitious social aspiration. And it’s lovely to see all these people appreciate him the way his audience do, where usually Lloyd comes up against frustration at every turn.
We also get our first glimpse of how Dr. Jack may deal with the Sick-Little-Poor-Girl in this sequence. A sick granny – the same granny audiences saw in Grandma’s Boy earlier that year, Anna Townsend – is frail, wrapped in a blanket, and visibly tired, unable to walk. Jack senses her emotional distress, and prescribes regular visits from her son. When her son surprises her unannounced, she springs up, suddenly energetic, with no signs of serious illness in sight. He then discreetly disposes of all the medicines crowding a nearby table.
Another one of his patients experiencing chronic pain is treated with music – another with sport. In a world where the elderly are not valued in society and are often ignored, Dr. Jack shows them kindness, understanding, and reveals the negative consequences of emotional and physical neglect.
Dr. Jack is intuitive of his patients’ emotional states, and we see that he is firmly against the over-prescription of unnecessary medications. He also seems to take genuine joy from seeing the heartwarming effects of his work. Dr. Jack is an holistic, alternative therapist. Richard Schickel wrote in Harold Lloyd (1974), that “Of Lloyd’s many optimistic heroes, Dr. Jack was perhaps the most positive-thinking of them all – a country sawbones who peddled more psychology than pills in the course of his rounds, a kind of public (mental) health officer.”
Meanwhile, the Girl returns from the sanitarium she had been sent to, and her posse stops off at a restaurant in Dr. Jack’s humble town on their journey. Dr. Jack serendipitously sits with them. He and the Girl are instantly fond of one another, but it is awkward – the Girl has had little to no social interaction with the outside world, and the people the Doctor usually interacts with are almost exclusively the ill and the elderly.
The earthy is attracted to Dr. Jack like a magnet. A sooky dog sucks up to him at the table, and children outside throw him a football. He is the polar opposite to the snooty, stuffy elitist air of the rich family. Following this scene, Dr. Jack joins a poker game at the request of a distressed young lady – her father with a gambling problem can’t lose another game, so Jack interferes incognito to throw the game. Not the usual request of a GP, but for Dr. Jack, it’s just another day at the practice – and it’s a very charming, very clever scene. People turn to Dr. Jack for all sorts of requests.
Half way through the film, Dr. Jack finds himself at the abode of the Sick-Little-Well-Girl, offering a second opinion on her mysterious illness at the recommendation of a lawyer friend who believes in Jack’s unconventional methods. He takes one look at her, glances at her overcrowded medicine stash, and immediately expresses his belief that “Hmm. Your pulse is normal. Your color is good. Looks like they were trying to cure you before you got sick.” Her home is her prison. Medicine is her prison. He opens the drapes that sealed in the darkness, letting in natural light. His bright energy puts the spark back into her eyes.
The evil Doctor attempts to maintain control, of course, to keep up his Munchausen’s-by-Proxy con indefinitely. He is portrayed as stiff and ancient, and is never really any match for our Dr. Jack, who is not intimidated by the muddled medicine man in the slightest, nor does he take him seriously at all. Although he faces some obstacles, we don’t ever really think Lloyd will lose this one. We, too, have our faith in Dr. Jack, and true to his character, he is determined to help her at all costs, “in spite of them, in spite of everything”.
A few rudimentary medical examinations are depicted throughout (including one in which he accidentally kisses her), which prove Dr. Jack right in his assessment, and they also serve as a way in which the patient and her doctor can develop their sweet chemistry. It is a problematic power relation, most definitely, for a doctor and his patient to act on a developing romance, though it is relatively chaste here, as with most of Lloyd’s on-screen depictions of love, particularly with doll-like Davis.
Out of nowhere, the local police inform the household that an escaped lunatic has been seen near the property. This inexplicable turn of events provides some much-needed tension, as well as some much-needed excitement for our leading lady.
The masterful cogs turn in Dr. Jack’s head, and he concocts a silly plan to scare the sick out of the Girl. The disguise he adopts is one of Lloyd’s silliest, and is guaranteed to encourage a giggle. He even pretends to have a violent fight with himself in disguise. Quintessential, energetic Lloyd. He is the singular star of this sequence; although Mildred and the gang scurry about after him, room to room, all of the supporting players are mere onlookers to his agile pantomime act, as are we. The antics are fast-paced, but still leave Dr. Jack and his patient some opportunity to flirt (when the girl accidentally hits Jack over the head with a stick, their roles briefly reverse as she becomes his nurse and cradles his head in her hands).
Mildred clues in on Jack’s disguise and joins in on the farcical fun, proving herself as fit and feisty as ever. Her father notices the difference between his sickly medicated Girl and the newly rejuvenated Girl who has just experienced fun for the first time, and kicks Dr. Evil to the curb. Instead of sealing their connection with a kiss, in the closing frames, Dr. and his patient cheekily gaze into each other’s eyes, leaving their future open. The Sick-Little-Well-Girl has been empowered – that’s the true resolution of the piece.
I like to think of Dr. Jack as a character comedy, for his character is so strongly and swiftly established, and solely carries the narrative. Dr. Jack isn’t just charming, and he sure isn’t bumbling – and, unlike some of his other character features (such as Grandma’s Boy), Dr. Jack isn’t pitiful in any way. He’s even a bit dashing – he leaps through windows, navigating his outer-suburban setting with the agility that Speedy navigates the bustling streets of New York. He’s a vision of modernity in a nostalgic setting. As Walter Kerr wrote in The Silent Clowns (1975), “gagging – for Lloyd – was far from the heart of the matter. He would scatter gags profusely throughout his films; but he was confronted, always, with one special bit of knowledge: HE was no joke.” Jack doesn’t undergo a significant character change or revelation, nor does he chase something more than what he has – he is happy, successful and content in his life – the honour of character transformation is the Girl’s.
One thing that really works to Dr. Jack’s benefit is its intertitles. Harold Lloyd always had some great title work in his films, but the work here is so elegantly done, concisely explaining events when needed without being excessive. There’s a reason I have exclusively used title cards to illustrate this piece.
Dr. Jack was one of the top-10 highest-grossing films of 1922, yet one of the two lowest-grossing of Lloyd’s features. Such was the success of Lloyd, that his least successful pictures were still great accomplishments. While it doesn’t have any moments of dramatic pathos like the Mary Pickford flick that this film plays upon, The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), this story of a man ahead of his time and a Girl stuck in time is charming, funny, and a must-see for silent comedy-lovers. It’s not the best Lloyd work, but Dr. Jack’s rejuvenating energy makes it special.
Although a quintessentially 1920s figure, Lloyd’s Dr. Jack would fit seamlessly into any modern scene, treating people through his endless ingenuity, ultimately providing relief from people’s day-to-day melancholy. I guess that was always Lloyd’s purpose anyway.
Dr. Jack has not been fully restored and re-released on Blu-Ray and DVD like some of his films have, although it is available on DVD in various Harold Lloyd collections in agreeable quality.