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The Doctor's Dilemma
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The Doctor's Dilemma

Based on George Bernard Shaw's sly 1906 morality play, The Doctor's Dilemma (1958) questions whether a doctor who has the medical means to save one terminally ill person should cure a poor but worthy fellow physician who practices in the slums, or a wealthy artist who is a genius but also a scoundrel. Complicating the equation is the doctor's attraction to the artist's fetching wife, who will do anything to ensure that her beloved husband gets the cure. Shaw subtitled the play "A Tragedy," but it is actually a satire of doctors, medical ethics, and the importance of art.

Director Anthony Asquith had a long history with Shaw. As a young movie fan, Asquith co-founded London's Film Society in 1925 with Shaw, H.G. Wells, and other literary and artistic luminaries. After an apprenticeship in Hollywood, Asquith returned to England and became a director in 1928. He co-directed the first major film adaptation of a Shaw play, Pygmalion (1938), from Shaw's own screenplay. After the success of that film, there had been talk of a screen version of The Doctor's Dilemma with the same producer, Gabriel Pascal, and same stars, Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. It never happened, but Asquith became known as a director of literate, intelligent film adaptations of well-known plays such as Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), and several works by playwright-screenwriter Terence Rattigan.

By the mid-1950s, Asquith and Rattigan had collaborated on several films. Along with producer Anatole de Grunwald, they were preparing a biographical film about T.E. Lawrence, the British World War I hero known as Lawrence of Arabia, for J. Arthur Rank. Dirk Bogarde, then Britain's top male star and a Rank contract player, was cast as Lawrence. Then Rank executives abruptly pulled the plug just weeks before shooting began when they realized the enormous production costs. De Grunwald and Asquith offered the disappointed Bogarde the part of the reprobate artist in The Doctor's Dilemma as a consolation prize with MGM providing the financing and distribution.

Bogarde was every inch the handsome leading man, but some critics felt that his enormous charm and his integrity as an actor made him a less than credible cad, although they praised his witty performance in his final scene. In fact, Bogarde proved to have an affinity for morally flawed characters, and Louis Dubedat in The Doctor's Dilemma was the first in his rogues gallery of complex or corrupt characters in films such as The Servant (1963), Accident (1967), and Death in Venice (1971).

Leslie Caron, fresh from playing her final gamine in her last MGM musical, Gigi (1958), was married to British stage director Peter Hall and was living in London. She was still under contract to MGM, and eager to take on more mature roles. The part of the adoring wife of a faithless but brilliant husband in The Doctor's Dilemma was a thankless one, but at least she got to play an adult, and to wear Cecil Beaton's ravishing Edwardian costumes (Beaton had recently won a Tony Award for his costumes for My Fair Lady, the 1956 blockbuster Broadway musical version of Pygmalion). The Doctor's Dilemma was Caron's last film under her MGM contract, and in the following decades she would prove her versatility by playing a wide range of characters, earning an Oscar® nomination for her performance in The L-Shaped Room (1963).

The problem with The Doctor's Dilemma, as some critics noted, is that it's stagebound and talky. That's also its strength. Roger Manvell wrote in Films and Filming, "Anatole de Grunwald, who both produces and scripts this film, and Anthony Asquith, who directs, have kept faith with the play by not trying to obliterate it with film-makers tricks...And they have brought together a formidable cast of doctors, each contributing his own established actors personality to the rhythms of Shaw's most biting wit." That formidable cast included wonderful British character actors like Robert Morley (The African Queen, 1951), Alastair Sim (Hitchcock's Stage Fright, 1950), and Felix Aylmer (Ivanhoe 1952), and the less familiar but equally skilled John Robinson as the doctor who must decide who lives and who dies. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Morley is bouncy and breathless as the stuffed shirt...Mr. Aylmer is sober and sententious as the senior of the lot and Mr. Sim is delightfully fatuous...When these gentlemen are airing their theories and tossing around the dialogues that Mr. Shaw meant to rip the pretense off medical morality, this beautifully dressed color picture has humor as well as grace."

The Doctor's Dilemma did well at the box office in America, but not in England. In his autobiography, Dirk Bogarde had an interesting theory about why British filmgoers stayed away. He had starred in a series of popular British comedies about a young doctor, beginning with Doctor in the House (1954), and followed by three sequels. The films were enormously successful and had made him a star. Bogarde believed that when British audiences saw the title The Doctor's Dilemma, they assumed it was another film about the charming Dr. Simon Sparrow. They felt cheated when they found out it was about an immoral artist who's dying of consumption, so they stayed away. The film's success in America, however, proved to be a mixed blessing for Bogarde. Hollywood beckoned, but the films he made there were not very good. It was not until he returned to England that he moved from being a matinee idol to a long and lauded career as one of Britain's most respected character actors.

Director: Anthony Asquith
Producer: Anatole de Grunwald
Screenplay: Anatole de Grunwald, based on the play by George Bernard Shaw
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Editor: Gordon Hales
Costume Design: Cecil Beaton
Art Direction: Paul Sheriff
Music: Joseph Kosma
Cast: Leslie Caron (Mrs. Dubedat), Dirk Bogarde (Louis Dubedat), Alastair Sim (Cutler Walpole), Robert Morley (Sir Ralph Bloomfield-Bonington), John Robinson (Sir Colenso Ridgeon), Felix Aylmer (Sir Patrick Cullen), Michael Gwynn (Dr. Blenkinsop), Maureen Delany (Emmy).

by Margarita Landazuri



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