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Doctor in the House

Doctor in the House(1955)

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teaser Doctor in the House (1955)

Dirk Bogarde finally rose to stardom, despite the objections of executives at his home studio, in the sprightly 1954 medical comedy, Doctor in the House. Although their cinematic triumphs occurred at the same time, critics and audiences would come to refer to the dark, handsome star as "the British Rock Hudson," an image Bogarde would eventually find confining as he tried to find more ambitious film projects while his studio insisted on focusing on his sex appeal, a quality they initially thought he lacked.

It all started when British physician Gordon Ostlere quit medicine to focus on writing fulltime. He had enjoyed some success already with a series of medical texts, but in 1952, he turned his experiences as a medical student into the best-selling comic novel Doctor in the House, published under the pseudonym Richard Gordon. Betty Box, a producer for The Rank Organization, picked up a copy to read on a train ride and immediately saw its cinematic potential and the opportunities the leading role of Dr. Simon Sparrow, a student who mixes healing with high jinks, offered the studio's young leading man Dirk Bogarde. She had no trouble winning director Ralph Thomas to her side, but Rank management was a harder sell. Executives didn't think there was a market for films about medicine and thought Bogarde was doing just fine in gangster films and military dramas. They didn't believe he had any sex appeal, nor did they think that he could do comedy. Finally, she agreed to make the film with nothing but contract talent and for a low budget.

The budget cost Box her first choice for the film's antagonist, the flinty chief surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt (a much crankier version of the character in Gordon's novel). Robert Morley turned the role down because they didn't have enough to pay him what he wanted. Instead, Box cast James Robertson Justice, with other Rank leading men -- Kenneth More, Donald Sinden and Donald Houston -- as the perpetual medical students who take Bogarde under their wing and teach him how to party. For leading ladies, she cast Muriel Pavlow, a rising young ingnue; Suzanne Cloutier, who had recently played Desdemona in Orson Welles' film version of Othello (1952); and Kay Kendall, who had scored a hit opposite More in the auto-racing comedy Genevieve (1953).

Keeping the budget under control was hardly a problem shooting in England, where the nation's capital, London, was also its film capital. Filming was done mostly at Rank's Pinewood Studios, with location shots in Battersea Park. For the film's teaching hospital, Thomas shot the faade of the St. Georges Hospital Medical School, now the site of a posh hotel (the medical school has relocated to South West London).

What Rank got for their reduced budget was the biggest British hit of the year, a film that did as well abroad as it did in England, eventually selling more tickets in its initial release than any other film in British history. It also turned Bogarde into the country's leading matinee idol, dubbed both "the British Rock Hudson" and "the Idol of the Odeon." He would come to regret that status as Rank's executives forced him into similar pictures over the years and often denied him the chance to pursue more ambitious roles at other studios. That he was not yet taken seriously as an actor may be reflected in the fact that it was co-star Kenneth More who won the British Academy Award for Doctor in the House (he had been nominated the year before for Genevieve) and not Bogarde.

Doctor in the House marked the birth of a cottage industry for all involved. Gordon would write 13 other books about the adventures of his young doctor, though critics would complain that in the later volumes he substituted bawdy humor for the wit of the earlier novel. Rank would produce six sequels of their own, with Bogarde appearing in three of them and Robertson Justice in all (though he played a different character in 1955's Doctor at Sea). The film would also inspire seven television series, several of them international hits. As the budgets improved, Morley even got a chance to do one of the films, playing Robertson Justice's brother, a cranky ship's captain, in Doctor in Trouble (1970).

Also helped by the success of Doctor in the House was Joan Sims, a comedienne cast in a small role as the sexually repressed Nurse Rigor Mortis. Box's husband, producer Peter Rogers, was so impressed with her bit role that he suggested his wife give her more to do when sequel time came around. Box did just that, and Sims would appear in four subsequent films in the series, each time in a different role. Rogers also put her to work, casting her in the first of her 24 "Carry On" films, making her the series' most frequent female star.

Producer: Earl St. John, Betty E. Box
Director: Ralph Thomas
Screenplay: Richard Gordon, Nicholas Phipps
Cinematography: Ernest Steward
Art Direction: Carmen Dillon
Music: Bruce Montgomery
Principal Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Simon Sparrow), Muriel Pavlow (Joy Gibson), Kenneth More (Richard Grimsdyke), Donald Sinden (Benskin), Kay Kendall (Isobel), James Robertson Justice (Lancelot Spratt), Donald Houston (Taffy), Suzanne Cloutier (Stella), George Coulouris (Briggs), Joan Sims (Rigor Mortis), Shirley Eaton (Milly Groaker), Joan Hickson (Mrs Groaker), Mona Washbourne (Midwifery Sister).

by Frank Thomas

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