This show has everything going for it, in fact, it has TOO much going for it: tragic drama, silly comedy, bland heart-tugs and saucy romance. Everybody’s working across purposes, with ‘stunt’ guest star Bobby Darin preening for awards attention. Angie Dickinson, Tony Curtis and Eddie Albert are terrific but are acting in different movies; and Gregory Peck seems out of his depth altogether. Does it keep our attention? You bet. Does it work? I’m not so sure.
Captain Newman, M.D.
KL Studio Classics
1963 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 126 min. / Street Date January 5, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis, Angie Dickinson, Bobby Darin, Eddie Albert, Robert Duvall, Bethel Leslie, Dick Sargent, James Gregory, Larry Storch, Jane Withers, Vito Scotti, Gregory Walcott, Ann Doran, Martin West, David Winters.
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editor: Alma Macrorie
Music: Frank Skinner
Written by Richard L. Breen, Phoebe & Henry Ephron from the novel by Leo Rosten
Produced by Robert Arthur
Directed by David Miller
I think I saw maybe twenty minutes of Captain Newman, M.D. on television as a kid, and thought, ‘Why doesn’t anybody remember this movie?’ It’s a curious item that tries to be all things to all people, to hit that magic balance between realism and comedy, with warmth and humanity. When movies of this type win us over we have no complaints. But it’s not easy to find that balance. Captain Newman has plenty of quality talent and a screenplay that means well, but few of its many working parts mesh well. It also gives credence to critics that don’t care for the acting of star Gregory Peck. I usually like Peck pictures, but he seems all wrong for this show.
Peck was also a principal producer, so perhaps he can take the blame for the show’s inability to decide what it’s going to be. We’re told that it opened at the Radio City Music Hall yet couldn’t find a mass audience. When Universal put it into neighborhood theaters the title had been shortened to just Captain Newman, and its poster tagline spoke the language of pure marketing desperation:
‘It speaks to you in the language of love, laughter and tears !…
…A picture that swings from hilarity to heart-break and back again!’
The movie received Oscar nominations, and it must be said that the screenplay by ace veteran Richard L. Breen and Phoebe and Henry Ephron has a lot going for it. At a desert Army Air Corps hospital Captain Josiah Newman, MD (Gregory Peck) is charged with rehabilitating soldiers with psychological injuries. C.O. Col. Peyser (James Gregory) isn’t happy that Newman has so many long-term cases in his ward; the War Department would prefer them to be patched up and back fighting or flying in just six weeks. In one afternoon Newman gives a ward tour to Lt. Barney Alderson (Dick Sargent), entices nurse Lt. Francie Corum (Angie Dickinson) into joining his staff, and accepts the mischievous, uncontrollable orderly Cpl. Jake Leibowitz (Tony Curtis) as well. Francie joins nurse Grace Blodgett (Jane Withers) on ward duty. Jake plays tricks on his co-orderly Cpl. Gavoni (Larry Storch). He’s an unpredictable conniver but also a good egg, winning over the patients.
Some of the patients are seriously disturbed by battle shock and emotional ruptures caused by survivor guilt. High-ranking Col. Norval Bliss (Eddie Albert) is a raving menace. Having disassociated himself from reality, he faux- commands the war front from his cell. Jake proves his worth by wrestling a knife from Bliss. Air Corps Captain Paul Cabot Winston (Robert Duvall) is near-catatonic after spending months hiding in a basement in occupied France. He comes from a family with a stiff military tradition. The war office wants Winston shut away but Newman wants to shock him out of his defensive state. He defies orders by confronting Winston with his wife Helen (Bethel Leslie).
Finally there’s the glib but desperate Cpl. Jim Tompkins (Bobby Darin), who keeps himself drunk so as to avoid the guilt of not saving a friend who crashed with him in a plane. Newman gains Tompkins’ trust and uses drug therapy (‘flak juice’) to force him to voice his suppressed trauma.
Under Jake Leibowitz’s influence the psych ward becomes a stage for wacky goings-on. The always-smiling Jake greets a group of Italian prisoners being kept in the ward because it’s the only one with locking rooms. He caps his mischievous scrounging with the theft of (part of) Col. Peyser’s twenty-foot Christmas tree. We like the low-key simplicity of the tree business — the writers avoided having Curtis’s Jake do something outrageous like blow up a building. They clearly wanted to keep the story on a believably human scale.
Although it has the best intentions in mind, the best that can be said for Captain Newman, M.D. is that it’s inoffensive and mildly diverting. There’s a good movie here that’s been bland-ified to death. The high-key TV movie lighting negates any effort at realism; and handling the subject of PTSD (the Army suppressed John Huston’s classic documentary Let There Be Light) doesn’t jibe with the otherwise lighthearted tone. Captain Newman’s ‘creative’ therapy can involve acting up, joking and heavy-duty patronizing. When huddled around a serious case (who isn’t a featured player) Nurse Blodgett wears the kind of caring, concerned expression that would convince anybody that they had terminal cancer. Newman’s approach to ‘special’ patients is pretty aggressive: cheerful conversation, blunt honesty, and when needed, drugs.
Tony Curtis’s likable rogue Jake Leibowitz is a milder version of his Lt. Holden in Operation Petticoat — and we note that the same producer made both movies. Jake’s function seems to be to balance the serious psych issues with escapist humor and hijinks. The character is curiously sexless, something we don’t expect with Curtis — from The Perfect Furlough forward, we’d expect him to be seducing every female in sight.
Angie Dickinson is once again the forthright femme interest. The film’s attitude toward Francie seems refreshing until Capt. Newman says that he wants her in the psych ward because, you know, men LIKE being around pretty women. The plain Lt. Blodgett just can’t hack it, Newman says. We then see shots of Dickinson’s legs as she strolls down the ward, causing a commotion. But don’t worry, the penned up patients behave like perfect gentlemen. If that’s not enough, Francie informs Captain Newman that she wants to quit nursing when the war is over, get married and have children.
Newman’s three ‘celebrity’ patients play as sidebar appeals for Academy Noms, and in the case of Bobby Darin publicist arm-twisting appears to have succeeded. Darin’s goofball/charmer becomes annoying in just a few minutes, but the show continues to put him front and center, ’emoting’ to beat the band. Then he’s sent off ‘cured’ in a well-written but cloyingly directed bid for sentimental transcendence. Between this movie and the hectoring Pressure Point, Bobby Darin’s efforts to become a movie star pretty much fizzled out.
Much better, in fact excellent is Eddie Albert’s portrayal of the totally bonkers commander. If poorly one, this characterization could easily have been a source of unintentional laughs. Albert’s overpowering Colonel really grabs the attention. We haven’t seen the actor this violent before — he shouts and bellows, yet his mania doesn’t come off as over-acting, as in Robert Aldrich’s earlier Attack. Albert also receives the film’s only creative lighting — his scenes are intense.
If we don’t count six TV appearances Robert Duvall is straight from his memorable Boo Radley in Gregory Peck’s fine To Kill a Mockingbird. Faced with the general dramatic chaos Duvall retreats for cover into his character’s glassy catatonia; he looks genuinely cadaverous. Duvall gets cheated for screen time, and the scenes with his uptight wife Bethel Leslie are rushed, barely sketched. Her Helen is the one of the few 1944 woman we see out of uniform, and any notion of period accuracy is demolished by her 1960s hairstyle and dress. For some reason studio moviemakers of the early ’60s must have felt that period authenticity was wasted effort — pictures like Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass were a big exception.
The quality comic mugging by Tony Curtis, Larry Storch, Vito Scotti and Gregory Walcott would be great for a farce like Operation Mad Ball. Curtis’s character is given some good hipster-trickster dialogue gems. I’ll bet that everyone involved thought they had a major hit on their hands during production… many much clunkier comedy-dramas have done well.
Captain Newman, M.D. plays okay but didn’t appeal to filmgoers, who likely were looking for something promising more escapist fare: who wants to see a movie about an Army psychologist? Spicing up the show with kooky fun in the nutso ward and a sheep round-up on the air base runway doesn’t add much, especially when Universal takes production shortcuts … judging by the process work, it doesn’t look like any of the leads spent much time at the Arizona locations.
What’s the fix? The show at basis is a ‘Service Comedy’ with a grafted-on serious psychological angle. To make it work, it needed someone in charge to enforce a tone or tones that the audience could relate to. And Gregory Peck has a hard time being Albert Schweitzer while reacting to Tony Curtis’s ‘ain’t I cute?’ act. Peck stumbled through the slapstick of the romantic comedy Designing Woman and his subdued eye-rolling here doesn’t work either.
Maybe the show wasn’t fixable, but we’ve since seen even tougher material brought into line by a director with a vision. Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H could blend incompatible front-line surgery and fratboy pranks because the bigger context was anti-war satire. Altman might not have been right for Captain Newman, because he needed censorship freedom to pull off his irreverent (and equally juvenile) shock comedy. But somebody with a vision might have found a way to channel the showoff therapy and actor showcases into something more compelling.
The show ends up in a crazy trap of its own: it’s just good enough that we wonder why it isn’t much better … and then we note all the moving parts that don’t fit together.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Captain Newman, M.D. is a great-looking encoding of a show that must have played four times on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies. It then more or less slipped under the radar for fifty years. The encoding is perfect — I saw only one shot that looks a bit damaged. The titles have heavier grain but everything improves immediately thereafter; the one Albert Whitlock matte shot I spotted is behind the titles, a view of lines of vintage planes on the airfield.
Audio commentator Samm Deighan dutifully approaches the movie from all angles — the original author, the celebrated screenwriter, the film’s status as a Gregory Peck production. We’re given a lot of information and credits on the seemingly endless cast list.
The trailer is from the just plain Captain Newman wide release. It posits the show as a slapstick comedy plain and simple. The editors even repurpose a serious, violent Eddie Albert moment to serve as part of a slapstick montage. We wish we could see a trailer for the first limited release, if one was even made.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Captain Newman, M.D.
Movie: Good, maybe better than Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by Samm Deighan, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 3, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson