John Ford’s Arrowsmith is a richer, darker, and more complex film than his next work about a small-town doctor, Dr. Bull, whose story takes place in present-day New Winton, Connecticut.
Once again, a prologue sets the film’s relaxed tone: “Doctor Bull brings his neighbors into the world and postpones their departure as long as possible. He prescribes common sense and accepts his small rewards gratefully.” A busy practitioner, the middle-aged George Bull (Will Rogers) has served the town for decades. Modest, down-to-earth, without pretense or expertise, he is a doctor who identifies himself as a veterinarian; he miraculously cures a paralyzed man with experimental cattle medicine.
Births and deaths are daily occurrences in Bull’s work, marked by a folksy sense of humor. Asked by Louie to help his wife deliver yet another baby, Bull says: “What are you and Mussolini trying to do, fill the world with Eyetalians” He then mumbles to himself: “You never know when another Washington is being born–or an Al Capone.” And watching a patient die, Bull remarks, “I’ve seen a hundred people die, and none of them seemed to mind it.” Bull’s philosophy is that “a certain percentage of people are going to die anyway,” and “about all a doctor can do is make ’em think they won’t.” Unlike Arrowsmith, who blames himself when a patient dies (“I was a rotten doctor”), Bull believes that patients “either have the stamina to hang on and develop a resistance, or haven’t got it.”
After a long working day, Bull likes to visit Janet Carmaker (Vera Allen), a widow and sister-in-law of Mr. Banning, the town’s obnoxious capitalist. There has been too much interest in their romance; some residents think their conduct is “a shame and a scandal to this town.” “Bull’s car was up at her house three nights last week,” says one woman to another, “I’ll tell you what they’re doing up there.” But in the next scene, Ford shows Bull and Janet in a most relaxed mood. He is stretched on the couch, while she is reading to him from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
Life in town is uninteresting and conversations tend to be routine. “Did you have a good Christmas” asks the black porter the postmistress, Helen Upjohn. “Don’t be silly!” she says, “In this dull place, how could you” And exactly the same exchange occurs at the end of the movie. This routine, cyclical, life is portrayed through the visual symmetry of the film’s beginning and end. Panning the train station, Ford’s camera tracks an approaching train with its long whistle growing louder. This stylistic device, of beginning a narrative with the arrival of train, and ending it with its departure, is a dominant motif of small-town films. However, trains in such films bear differential meanings. In Doctor Bull,” the train indicates the community’s self-containment and isolation from the outside world.
The town’s hierarchy of wealth and class structure is well known. The lumber mill, owned by the greedy Banning, provides employment, but also problems. It pollutes the water supply, causing a typhoid epidemic, for which Bull is held responsible, even though he was the first to warn against the danger. Bull is accused of being against technological progress. “We know your attitude about improvements,” charges Mr. Banning after announcing the construction of a new power plant, “Bull would have us riding around in a horse and buggy, if he had his way.” In the next scene, Ford shows a modern car (belonging to a City expert), a status symbol and sign of progress. For Bull, this progress dehumanizes life and destroys nature: The apple tree (garden) is replaced with the plant (machinery): “Progress with its axe comes along.” The film thus reaffirms the myth of the garden and technology’s devastating effects.
Like other movies, the commonsensical knowledge of the country doctor is juxtaposed with the scientific knowledge of the City experts. “With all this machinery, you ought to keep people livin’ for a hundred years,” says Bull to the sophisticated Dr. Verney, who wears a sterile white coat. When Verney doubts Bull’s diagnosis that it’s typhoid, Bull says: “Of course, you’re a specialist. I’m nothing but an old cow doctor.” But the first to suggest the epidemic might be typhoid was Bull’s aunt (“She smelt it!”), and the film shows the priority of common sense, held by ordinary individuals, over scientific knowledge, created by experts in their “ivory tower.” Bull’s advice, to boil all drinking water and take the inoculation immediately, is rejected, because the town’s corrupt leaders fear that if the news gets out there will be no tourist trade in the summer.
Ungrateful and unappreciative of his service, the town wishes to get rid of Bull, and in its meeting, he is dismissed for being “grossly negligent.” But the very existence of the meeting is a testament to the operation of democratic values. Further, members are allowed to voice their dissent before a final decision (based on majority vote) is made. “Bull is no longer a young man,” says Janet in his defense, “if you get the State Board to take his business away from him, you’d ruin his life, there’s nothing else he can do.” “Sure he can,” says one resident, “he can doctor cows!” True to democratic principles, Bull is permitted to speak, but he does not ask for sympathy. “You won’t turn me out,” he retorts, “Right here and now I quit.” The town’s meeting is a sacred political institution, upholding participatory democracy, even though its decisions may not reflect the best judgment.
In an uncharacteristic manner of 1930s films, the town does not embrace Bull; he has to leave, the place has become too confining. But he quits as a winner: Having cured a man of paralysis, he becomes a celebrity, with his name all over the newspapers.
Dr. Bull belongs to Ford’s favorite type of heroes: an aging, diminished man, standing for simpler, traditional values. The film’s initial title, The Last Adam,” conveys more accurately Ford’s ideological intent. Bull is an anachronistic hero, clinging to community life as Eden, as Garden. He fights, not against technological progress per se, but against the blind belief that new machinery will necessarily result in better life.
On Bull’s agenda are social ills fought by many small-town heroes: bigotry, ignorance, snobbery and pretentiousness. He is irreverent, defying social conventions, an unredeemed individualist in a community grown too conformist and too rigid to allow for freedom of expression. For example, Bull goes to church not because he has to, but because he wants to. He derives great pleasure from singing, albeit he does it too loudly and off-key, but his singing is spontaneous and joyful. A good doctor, committed to his “old-fashioned” but proven, methods, he is not, however, an idealist in the mold of Arrowsmith.
Ford directed Will Rogers in two other films, Judge Priest” (1934) and Steamboat Round the Bend”(1935), espousing in all three his brand of populism. Rogers became a typical Ford hero, an individual torn between personal and collective interests. But Bull’s individualism is not excessive and therefore not harmful. When a choice needs to be made between private and social goals, Bull’s (like other Ford heroes) commitment is to larger causes–at the expense of private comfort and personal interests.