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Doctor Bull

Doctor Bull(1933)

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teaser Doctor Bull (1933)

It was fitting -- and perhaps inevitable -- that Will Rogers and John Ford should cross paths and make some movies together in the early 1930s. Ford, of course, was a master chronicler of America and its social mores on screen, and he presented the old west as legend and myth. Rogers was an American legend: actor, writer, roper, broadcaster, commentator, and general observer/philosopher of all things American and of human nature in general. Though he never completed high school, Rogers stayed on a quest to learn through his entire life, befriending smart, powerful people including presidents, senators and world leaders, and delivering observations and advice in a low-key, folksy style. In 1933, when he first worked with Ford on the film Doctor Bull, Rogers was one of the most popular men in America -- not to mention Fox's second most bankable movie star after Shirley Temple.

In Doctor Bull, which is based on a 1933 novel by James Gould Cozzens called The Last Adam, Rogers plays a longtime doctor in a rural Connecticut town. He delivers babies, tends to all degrees of illness, including imagined ones, and even treats sick cows, all the while dispensing pithy advice and gently comic witticisms. ("I've seen a hundred people die," he says at one point. "None of them seemed to mind it. They was all too sick to care.") Rogers also sets gossipy tongues wagging by his frequent visits to a local widow, played by Vera Allen. When a typhoid epidemic strikes the town, he is charged with neglect and incompetence and must defend himself as he tries to find the cause of the outbreak and distribute vaccines.

Directed by Ford in an unhurried way that matches the relaxed nature of Rogers himself, Doctor Bull is a charming tale with rich characterizations and an evocative sense of atmosphere. As Ford biographer Scott Eyman has written, "[In the opening sequence], Ford effortlessly creates the sense of an entire social system, a sense of life as it's lived in the town of New Winton; there's an unforced, organic splendor to the shots, similar to How Green Was My Valley -- beautiful compositions that don't bellow their artistry." Incidentally, the opening shots of a train arriving at a station are an example of very convincing miniature photography, especially for 1933.

When Rogers found out after production that the film was to be released under the title Life's Worth Living, which he hated, he sent a telegram to the studio executives that read: "Put the name Doctor Bull on our next picture. Some halfwit suggested Life's Worth Living. Now we find that they have tried to hang that title on every Fox picture since Over the Hill so they finally said give it to Rogers. Somebody must be winning a bet if he gets that title on some picture whether it fits or not so you hyenas have a chance to pass it along to some other poor devil to use. Life's Worth Living sounds like a graduation essay. As a matter of fact, if we don't make some better pictures life won't be worth living..." The title was changed!

Reviews were strong, with The New York Times declaring the film "a homey, lifelike tale, set forth in a leisurely fashion, and its comedy, as far as the stellar player's work is concerned, is gratifyingly natural... As Dr. Bull, Mr. Rogers shows a fighting spirit and no little artfulness in outwitting his enemies... It is a characterization which suits Mr. Rogers particularly well."

Asked by Peter Bogdanovich years later about working with Rogers, Ford replied: "No writer could write for Will Rogers, so I'd say to him, 'This is the script but this is not you -- the words will be false coming from you. Just learn the sense of it, and say it in your own words.' Some of the lines he'd speak from the script, but most of the time he'd make up his own. He'd stop and let people pick up their cues and then go on... Doctor Bull was a downbeat story, but Will managed to get a lot of humor into it, and it became a hell of a good picture. It was one of Will's favorites."

Ford and Rogers became great friends, and they worked together twice more, on Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935). All were huge box-office successes, and the three films together represent one of the finest achievements of both men. Rogers' untimely death in a 1935 Alaska plane crash, just before the release of Steamboat Round the Bend, was devastating for Ford. According to Scott Eyman, Ford had asked Rogers just before his trip to instead join him on a cruise to Hawaii. "You keep your duck and go on the water," said Rogers. "I'll take my eagle and fly." Those words haunted the superstitious Ford for quite some time afterward. "We had a terrible time with Jack," Ford's wife Mary recalled. "He went all to pieces."

Eyman has written that many years later Ford was asked what the men of the old west were really like. He answered, "They were like Will Rogers."

One last note of interest: Doctor Bull marks the first of five appearances in a John Ford picture by actor Andy Devine.

Producer: Winfield R. Sheehan (uncredited)
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Paul Green (adaptation); Jane Storm (continuity); James Gould Cozzens (novel "The Last Adam"); Philip Klein (uncredited)
Cinematography: George Schneiderman
Art Direction: William Darling
Music: Samuel Kaylin (uncredited)
Film Editing: Louis R. Loeffler
Cast: Will Rogers (Dr. George 'Doc' Bull), Vera Allen (Mrs. Janet 'Jane' Cardmaker, Widow of Charles Edward Cardmaker/Bull's Girlfriend), Marian Nixon (May Tupping - Telephone Operator), Howard Lally (Joe Tupping), Berton Churchill (Herbert Banning - Janet's Brother), Louise Dresser (Mrs. Herbert Banning), Andy Devine (Larry Ward, Sodajerk), Rochelle Hudson (Virginia/Muller/ Banning), Tempe Pigott (Grandma Banning), Elizabeth Patterson (Aunt Patricia Banning), Nora Cecil (Aunt Emily Banning), Ralph Morgan (Dr. Verney, Owner Verney Laboratory), Patsy O'Byrne (Susan - Dr. Bull's Cook), Veda Buckland (Mary - Janet's Maid), Effie Ellsler (Aunt Myra Bull), Helen Freeman (Helen Upjohn, New Winton Postmistress).

by Jeremy Arnold

Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford
William K. Everson, New School program notes
Scott Eyman, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford
Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films
Richard J. Maturi, Will Rogers, Performer
Bryan B. Sterling, Will Rogers in Hollywood
Peter Stowell, John Ford

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