The Country Doctor
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: D.W. Griffith. Cast: Frank Powell, Florence Lawrence, Gladys Egan, Kate Bruce, Mary Pickford, Adele DeGarde, Rose King. Screenplay: D.W. Griffith.

Photo © 1909 The Biograph Company
The Country Doctor begins with its most beautiful moment, as Billy Bitzer's camera, under D.W. Griffith's direction, slowly pans over a rolling bucolic plain, eventually pausing in front of the home of Dr. Harcourt (Frank Powell), sauntering outside with his wife (Biograph star Florence Lawrence) and their child Edith (Gladys Egan). The play of natural light in this scene is gorgeous, even if the shots seem more protracted than necessary, and their beauty doesn't necessarily evoke a deeper idiom or a set of relationships like the rustic opening of Corner in Wheat does. After the pretty, languorous opening, where the sweep of wind over tall grass achieves the humble grace of Andrew Wyeth, the arrival of the prototypical Biograph intertitle "Little Edith is suddenly taken ill" feels like the lowering of a boom, and not just for Edith. You can't help feeling that Griffith is going to despoil the delicate mood with some muscular heartstring-tugging. The cut back to the action, with Edith stiff and recumbent, eyes bulging white and Mama looking worried, doesn't augur well. Give Griffith credit for the forceful cross-cutting he executes between Edith's sickbed and the home of a much poorer family who are also nursing an ailing daughter; whether or not it's true that audiences were still learning the "rules" of dramatic simultaneity on film, there's an austerity to the doctor's predicament, when he simply needs to be in tow places at once. But Griffith pushes the rich/poor dichotomy a little obnoxiously, even as he extracts some moments of unexpected tension about how things will unfold. Powell, the cynical profiteer in Wheat, is his key ally here. He doesn't sanctify the doctor but doesn't play down to him, either, and he injects more texture than early Griffith performances sometimes achieved by looking bullishly confident of his prowess, solicitous of the girls, worried for their families, and yet annoyed by the women who keep pleading with him and trying to dictate his movements. Florence Lawrence is no slouch either, but she's defeated by the exaggeration Griffith requires of her final scene, and in this way, her fate illustrates that of the film. The Country Doctor is subtler than it looks but, ultimately, broader than it needs or promises to be. Its rigorous cross-cuts are less inventive than the multiple fields of action in Corner in Wheat, and the reprised view of the dappled hills at the end feels like a compulsory "full circle" move, without the poignancy of the other film's muted conclusion in the rutted cropfields. Several shots could be trimmed by several beats without losing any force; indeed, they'd probably gain from a bit more concision. I can see how Griffith is already building techniques that will serve him marvelously in subsequent shorts and in features like True Heart Susie, but his penchant for highly rhetorical melodrama and his hesitation to abandon a proscenium sense of space prevent The Country Doctor from compelling fuller enthusiasm on its own constrained merits. Grade: B

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