One Man's Journey
"I'd rather play a doctor than pay him," Lionel Barrymore quipped regarding his role of Dr. Eli Watt in One Man's Journey. Barrymore, the first of his illustrious family to appear in films, had signed in 1926 with MGM, the studio with which he remained closely associated for the remaining 27 years of his movie career. But he also appeared occasionally on loan-out for RKO movies, including One Man's Journey and another picture produced by Pandro S. Berman in 1933, Sweepings.
Dr. Watt, whose wife has died in bearing him a son, abandons city life to return to the small rural town where he was raised to begin a new life as a "country plug" who accepts potatoes and eggs in payment for his services. In addition to inspiring his son Jimmy (Buster Phelps as a child, Joel McCrea as an adult) to follow him into the medical profession, Watt raises a girl (Dorothy Jordan) whose mother has died in childbirth and who grows up to lead a troubled life. (Jordan secretly married Merian C. Cooper in May 1933, a month before filming began.) Also joining the household is a feisty volunteer housekeeper (May Robson).
Jimmy develops into a successful if selfish surgeon who takes his beautiful fiancée, Joan (Frances Dee), for granted until his father makes him see the error of his ways. The story reaches an inspirational conclusion when everyone realizes at last just how important and helpful the good doctor has been to his extended family and the community at large, and he is honored with a testimonial dinner.
The screenplay was developed from a short story by Katharine Haviland-Taylor, "The Failure" (incorrectly credited by the studio as simply "Failure") that ran in the November 1932 issue of American Magazine. The characters played by Jordan and Robson were not in the story but were created by the screenwriters. The movie's pre-Code era is revealed in such touches as the Jordan character's out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Working in uncharacteristic understatement as Watt, Lionel Barrymore creates a warmly sympathetic portrait of a man who does good simply because it never occurs to him to do anything else. Mordaunt Hall wrote in The New York Times, "Mr. Barrymore lends amazing sincerity to his role...He is never too fatigued to attend to the ills of those who are unable to pay for medical attention. He is always even-tempered, in fact a lovable character." Time magazine's reviewer considered that Barrymore acted "so shrewdly that Katharine Havilland-Taylor's lachrymose little story has moments of validity."
Director John S. Robertson had enjoyed his greatest success with the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring another Barrymore - John. In One Man's Journey he handles his entire cast sensitively. It's difficult to imagine a more appealing young couple than McCrea and Dee as they appear here. The two were married on October 20, 1933, a month after the film's release. They remained a couple until McCrea's death in 1990.
One Man's Journey was remade by director Garson Kanin as A Man to Remember (1938) - another entry in TCM's collection of "lost" RKO films.
Producer: Merian C. Cooper (Executive Producer), Pandro S. Berman
Director: John S. Robertson
Screenplay: Lester Cohen, Arthur Kober, Samuel Ornitz, from story by Katharine Havilland-Taylor
Choreography: Jack MacKenzie
Film Editing: Arthur Roberts
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Al D'Agostino
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Eli Watt), May Robson (Sarah), Dorothy Jordan (Letty McGinnis), Joel McCrea (Jimmy Watt), Frances Dee (Joan Stockton), David Landau (McGinnis) Buster Phelps (Jimmy Watt, Age 6).
BW-73m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe