I Married a Doctor is an enjoyable 1936 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 novel Main Street, highlighted by strong performances from key cast members but flawed in attempting to update the story to modern times. It will play better for those who have not read the novel, though likely not well enough to influence many new readers of the novel. Myself excluded.
While Dodsworth (1936) and Elmer Gantry (1960) can be counted as the most successful Sinclair Lewis movie adaptations, Hollywood filmed several of the author’s best known works, especially after a run of acclaimed bestsellers throughout the 1920s peaked with Lewis becoming the first American awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. Arrowsmith, with Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes, was a hit in 1931 and Ann Vickers came to the screen the very same year it was published in 1933. I get a kick out of 1934's Babbitt with Guy Kibbee, but have placed the novel next on my reading list mainly because I hope--and fully expect--that it is in an entirely different class than the Warner Bros. take on it. But before I began Babbitt I wanted to begin at the beginning, or at least with Lewis’ first hit, the massively popular 1920 novel Main Street, a realistic look at small-town life and the difficulties that an outsider faces upon arriving to interrupt its normal day-to-day proceedings.
Harry Beaumont had directed an adaptation for Warner Bros. in 1923 that starred Florence Vidor and Monte Blue, but that earliest version of the film is believed lost. Main Street had a brief run on Broadway prior to that, with Alma Tell and McKay Morris starring, but I was primarily interested in seeing how far Warner’s 1936 adaptation had strayed beyond its unfortunate choice of title, I Married a Doctor.
While the Warner Bros. film attempts to retain the scope of Main Street, simply too much time had passed from original publication for the 1936 film to grip too tightly to the book’s 1920 notions. The Lewis novel is set in a very definite time, the 1910s, but the movie attempts to seamlessly transport the story to 1936 in order to better attract and interest the modern paying audience. The impulse was correct, but in attempting to stem the flow of outdated ideas I Married a Doctor loses much of what drove Main Street to the top of the bestseller lists in 1920.
Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times agonizes best over the losses from Lewis’ original text when he complains that “The Warners have not permitted Miss (Josephine) Hutchinson’s Carol Kennicott to be frustrated.” In his well-thought review Nugent notes that the 1936 model of Carol is “misunderstood, snubbed and ridiculed” by her new neighbors, pushing the character to her ultimate limit and achieving “definite dramatic interest” by the time they’ve left her no choice but to flee town, but that the movie sacrifices all of that in the end by having “Main Street … admit its errors and welcome the fugitive back home.”
Nugent was on the right track, Hutchinson’s Carol isn’t allowed to be nearly as frustrated as Lewis’ original creation, whose lofty expectations are mocked and defeated throughout, but the movie echoes Lewis’ original description of Main Street’s “supreme council” (466-67) when Sam Clark (Guy Kibbee) and Dave Dyer (Olin Howland) forgive Carol her transgressions. It actually goes a step further when Guy Pollock (Willard Robertson) condemns their hypocrisy in doing so.
Carol’s return in the film lacks any of the explanation provided by Lewis in his original text, where he allows us to tag along with Carol to Washington and witness first-hand her realization that the grass is not always greener and that "not individuals but institutions are the enemies" (451). The movie instead perverts the novel long before Carol's departure, and this causes the final scene to be more about Carol’s relationship with husband Will (Pat O’Brien) than it does her relationship to Williamsburg, the blandly retitled town of Lewis' Gopher Prairie, itself a fictionalized version of his home town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota.
While the Times’ writer better taps into problems with characterization, I think the unsigned review from Motion Picture Daily nailed the prevailing problem with Main Street as recycled in 1936. Calling the story “somewhat out-of-date,” the reviewer states, “This theme has lost much of its significance since more important problems, including the depression, have descended on the scene of which Lewis wrote.” Noting that screenwriter Casey Robinson compromises somewhat on Lewis’ theme the writer concludes that even the scaled-down version of small-town bigotry “by present standards, seem somewhat trivial.”
The problem with I Married a Doctor is that in removing what had to be removed in order to make a movie that attempted to appeal to mass contemporary audiences, it further trivialized the very subject matter it was attempting to update. Despite Lewis’ Nobel Prize, Warner Bros. wasn’t adapting Dickens or the Brontës here. In 1936, just sixteen years after the publication of the original, they weren’t yet ready to make a film that treated the book as the classic it is viewed as today. It was simply another literary project, a remake even, that is further distanced from its original roots by a radical title change.
In the novel Lewis has the space to build upon Carol’s frustrated expectations, offering her opportunity upon opportunity to interact with her new neighbors who in turn chip away at her hopes and dreams by turning back her every idea, piling up the defeats, one by one, each further magnifying Carol's opposition to all that Main Street is and represents. This simply cannot be achieved in an 83-minute movie.
Instead, Carol is defeated upon arrival. She loses any chance with the women of Williamsburg by making a first-night smash with their husbands, who pay the pretty young wife of the popular doctor more attention than they have given their own wives in years. The men, who like the women are each fully formed characters with their own strengths and weaknesses in Lewis’ novel, are largely as big a group of buffoons as you’d expect any group headed by Guy Kibbee or Olin Howland to be in a movie.
They seem a harmless collection until Carol presses her town beautification campaign in a Chamber of Commerce meeting where each of the bigwigs turn on her and treat her as no more than the little woman.
Kibbee’s Sam Clark captures the general feeling best when he says, “I’m sure Carrie doesn’t mean this as seriously as she thinks. In another week or two she’ll have forgotten all about it.” He goes a bit further, perhaps intimating upon Carol’s relationship with the young artist, Erik Valborg (Ross Alexander), when he adds, “It looks to me like we’ve got the Doc to blame for all this. What’s the matter, Doc, can’t you keep Carrie contented?”
It’s a strong scene, even if the power is diluted momentarily by a comic old-timer railing against change in general, that not only officially places Carol at odds with the entire town, but provides an uncomfortable moment with her husband that serves to flare into the marital difficulties that overwhelm the second half of the film.
Some of the film’s most dramatic moments come courtesy of the Valborg character, yet it is this character and his interactions with both Kennicotts who veers furthest from what Lewis had written. Carol’s growing infatuation with Valborg that Lewis masterfully grows throughout the latter part of his novel is completely absent from I Married a Doctor. While Lewis’ Carol is unfaithful in mind only, perhaps even this was too much for the Production Code to bear. Still I Married a Doctor gets away with the following exchange, more suggestive than anything I recall reading in the novel:
“I’m afraid I married you under false pretenses,” Carol says to Will.
He looks a bit miffed before saying, “Now Carrie, whatever happened before we were married, well, I’m a doctor and I guess I’m just as broadminded as the next fellow—”
She cuts him off with a bit of laughter. “Oh darling, nothing so lurid.”
In I Married a Doctor any thought of romance resides solely with the intense young Valborg. It leads to two splendid scenes between Ross Alexander and Pat O’Brien, in which Alexander’s Valborg tells O’Brien’s Will Kennicott that he and Carol are in love and Kennicott later giving Valborg his opportunity to wrest his wife from him. “You mean, you’re actually sending me to your wife to take her away from you if I can?” Valborg asks. “You’re a bigger man than I thought you were,” he adds. This invention of the film leads to a more dramatic opportunity than originally offered by Lewis, even if the universally acclaimed Alexander comes off as a buffoon when he storms into the Kennicott home to declare, “You’re free!” to Carol. Now had this happened in the novel, Carol may very well have jumped into Valborg’s arms, but in the movie she’s as put off as I was and provides a swift reality check to the moody youngster, who makes a far more immature decision and subsequent exit than the meeker Valborg of the page would ever imagine.
I mentioned acclaim for Ross Alexander and strong performances from all three key actors was one thing the period reviews did agree upon. Pat O’Brien and Josephine Hutchinson had been successful together as the leads in the previous year’s Oil for the Lamps of China and had actually appeared together years before that when O’Brien made his Broadway debut alongside Hutchinson in A Man’s Man in 1926. Both are splendid here, even if each is portraying someone noticeably different than the characters Lewis created.
This goes especially for O’Brien’s Will, who is not nearly as indoctrinated in the small town small-mindedness of Williamsburg as his counterpart had been in the original Gopher Prairie. Perhaps this makes Hutchinson’s sophistication stand out all the more in her version of Carol, who feels as though she has already experienced all of the imagined urban progressiveness that literary Carol romanticizes for hundreds of pages before attempting to seek it out for herself. The difference between Carol and the town are also far more subtle in the novel, whereas in the film it is almost immediately obvious that Carol doesn’t stand a chance of either initiating change or ever fitting in with the Williamsburg provincials, who are quite happy to cling to what they already have.
I Married a Doctor improves when viewed today, far removed from the Great Depression, a reality for the original audience which is somehow evaded in the movie. What is disappointing is the dulling down of the original material, as a stricter adaptation would have provided a more accessible version of an important novel. Carol's struggle against Main Street isn't as important here as teasing the love triangle. What remains is an extremely well-acted ghost of the original. I Married a Doctor in 1936 could have never achieved what Main Street had in 1920, but if it had stuck more closely to Lewis’ original intents we could have had a more interesting peek into what all of the excitement was about upon its original publication.
Beyond the three main actors there are also memorable performances from Robert Barrat, who plays Valborg’s father, a part essentially ignored by Lewis but more fully fleshed out in the film; Louise Fazenda, who plays the part of Kennicott's Swedish maid Bea Sorensen, putting an accent on what was, interestingly, the same part she played silent in the first adaptation in 1923; and, in what I imagine was his most important movie role, Ray Mayer, as the severely toned-down version of the radical Miles Bjornstam. Bea and Miles are only minor characters in I Married a Doctor, but the film does include the dramatic conclusion to their story, offering Mayer his best scene when the neighbor women come to call upon Bea.
Mayer was actually the only actor from I Married a Doctor to be singled out by Photoplay for providing one of “The Best Performances of the Month.” That same magazine also tabbed the film one of the month’s best, naming it alongside better recalled titles such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and that year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Great Ziegfeld.
While Main Street was a sensation, lauded as a small town satire told in a realistic style and even somewhat overlooked for its impressive take on feminism, I Married a Doctor is a routine yet enjoyable movie elevated by its performances, especially that of Josephine Hutchinson. The story probably could have regained some of its original importance if made post-World War II, with the Great Depression in the rear-view mirror and the onset of ‘50s suburban sprawl, but what remains provides at least a flicker of Main Street.
Directed by Archie Mayo for Warner Bros. and First National, I Married a Doctor has yet to receive a home video release. The screen captures accompanying this post were taken from my own recording off of Turner Classic Movies, which does play it on occasion. Warner Archive has released Oil for the Lamps of China starring the same pair, Pat O’Brien and Josephine Hutchinson, and I’d imagine they’ll eventually make I Married a Doctor available as well.
Main Street remains in print as an affordable mass market paperback, among other editions. Here is the copy I purchased and which any page citations refer to.
Beth Daniels says
Very eager to see this now! I haven’t read the book in years, but remember liking it a lot. Isn’t it amazing how different the sixteen years was between 1920 and 1936 and, say, between 1998 and 2014. iStuff notwithstanding.
Another enticing and excellent review!
Cliff Aliperti says
I enjoyed the book too and have definite plans to pick up Babbitt next to give the 1934 movie similar treatment.
I’m glad you still want to see the movie after reading this. I was worried I may have been a little hard on it while trying to say it’s pretty good even if it doesn’t have the impact of the novel.
Thanks so much!
I am on a Sinclair Lewis reading spree, starting with rereading “Babbitt” after 30 years, devouring “Main Street” and now almost at the conclusion of “Arrowsmith.” I’ve seen the wonderful film versions of”Elmer Gantry” and the compelling “Dodsworth.” I’m trying to convince my husband to drive to Sauk Centre, the literary genius’ home town and think he will if he reads some Lewis. I found your excellent article in searching for other films reflecting Lewis’s beautiful, hard-hitting writing. Thanks for giving me some leads! I would love to see that 1923 silent film…
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks much, so glad you enjoyed the post. I still haven’t cracked open my copy of “Babbitt,” but surely will as I really enjoyed my introduction to Lewis in “Main Street.” If you bump into my “Dodsworth” post it’s probably worth noting that I enjoy it a lot more today than I did when I first wrote it, but am waiting until I get to that novel before I actually rewrite it. It’s probably my favorite of the Lewis adapted movies. Good luck on getting to Sauk Centre and thanks again!