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Based on a popular CBS radio show which ran from 1940-1947, Crime Doctor (1943) is a B movie that spawned nine sequels, most of which are well-constructed, absorbing little mysteries. In fact, with the exception of a few other screen credits sprinkled among these Crime Doctor films, Warner Baxter basically finished his career playing the role of Dr. Robert Ordway, a criminal psychologist who used to be a criminal himself.
This first picture in the series shows how Ordway becomes the "crime doctor." He's a ruthless criminal himself, leading a gang of bad guys who double-cross him and leave him for dead, not knowing that he had already double-crossed them out of their stolen money. Awakening in a hospital with no memory, he starts his life anew, learning medicine over the years and ultimately becoming a criminal psychologist. It's only a matter of time, however, before his old gang finds him again...
Crime Doctor was a success. "A tightly-knit and interestingly-told drama that will provide good program support in the regular runs," declared Variety. "In the nabe and outlying bookings, marquee voltage of Warner Baxter can generate some extra customers."
The New York Times mused, "How many tales have been woven from this amnesia fabric, heaven only knows. Yet the well probably never will go dry. The subject carries an elementary suspense, and because of this the newcomer manages to turn out a fair piece of melodrama."
The reviewer added that all the major cast members "handle their roles with finesse," and indeed, the supporting players are an enjoyable bunch: Margaret Lindsay, John Litel, Leon Ames, and Ray Collins, who originated Robert Ordway on the radio show and here has a small role.
Crime Doctor's director, Michael Gordon, came to Hollywood in 1940 from a career in the New York stage world. He's best known for Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) and Pillow Talk (1959), though for most of the 1950s he was blacklisted for his leftist personal politics. Crime Doctor was one of his earliest credits. Interviewed for Ronald L. Davis's book Just Making Movies, Gordon said he started at Columbia Pictures as a dialogue director ("the lowest position on the totem pole") and then assistant director. "I saw working there as a job of transition," he recalled. "I knew damn well by then that I was going to be a director. I had the snobbish attitude toward Hollywood that most people from Broadway had. But I did recognize that the screen could be an effective medium and had many more resources in terms of story telling than the stage offered... I said to myself, 'This is going to be a learning experience.' The things I needed to learn really broke down into three categories - the camera , the soundtrack, and the cutting room...."
On his first movie as director, Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942), Gordon fell half a day behind schedule and was called into Irving Briskin's office. Briskin, the head of Columbia's B unit, explained that a good B picture probably wouldn't gross much more than a bad B picture; therefore, he said, "I don't want it good. I want it Thursday!"
Gordon directed three more B's, on 10- or 12-day schedules, and was paid "below scale, $125 a week. Even my assistant director was making more than I did. In my third year at the studio I was placed on lay-off. I'd directed these four pictures, the last of which was Crime Doctor, and thought I was ready for something better. I was told that the studio only had good pictures coming up. I said, 'Well, I'm ready for a good picture.' The answer I got from Irving Briskin was: 'How can we give you a good picture? Look at the money you make.' In other words, somebody who was making $125 a week couldn't direct a good picture. That's when I walked out on my contract and was threatened with never being able to work in Hollywood again. I went back to New York and soon got Home of the Brave to direct on Broadway. Three years later I was back in Hollywood at ten times the salary I had been making."
Warner Baxter was in poor health in the 1940s, having suffered a nervous breakdown and arthritis among other ailments; the Crime Doctor films were mercifully easy assignments for him physically. He died of pneumonia in 1951, two years after his final appearance as Dr. Ordway.
Producer: Ralph Cohn
Director: Michael Gordon
Screenplay: Graham Baker, Louis Lantz; Max Marcin (radio series); Jerome Odlum (adaptation)
Cinematography: James S. Brown, Jr.
Music: Lee Zahler, Mischa Bakaleinikoff (uncredited)
Film Editing: Dwight Caldwell
Cast: Warner Baxter (Dr. Robert Ordway), Margaret Lindsay (Grace Fielding), John Litel (Emilio Caspari), Ray Collins (Dr. John Carey), Harold Huber (Joe Dylan), Don Costello (Nick Ferris)
by Jeremy Arnold