For the past 50 years, `good’ doctors have nearly always been portrayed on TV and in the Movies as being young, brash, and irreverent.
Older TV doctors . . . with the notable exception of Marcus Welby . . . have generally been portrayed as being stodgy, behind the times, and sometimes even dangerous.
But for 17 years – starting in 1937 - arguably the most famous and beloved `doctor’ in America was kindly Dr. Paul Christian, portrayed first on the radio, and then in the movies and on TV by veteran Danish born actor Jean Hersholt.
Already an established character actor in Hollywood – with his first American movie roles coming in silent films as far back as 1915 – Hersholt was cast as Dr.John Luke in the movie The Country Doctor, loosely based on Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the doctor who delivered and cared for the most famous babies in the world - the Dionne Quintuplets of Ontario, Canada.
Up until May of 1934, no set of quints had ever survived infancy, and the so the Dionne Quintuplets were a global sensation. The Canadian government – concerned over the parents ability to care for and raise these babies – made them wards of the Crown making Dr. Dafoe and two other's their legal guardian.
A special nursery was built, and thousands of tourists each day were allowed to view the quints at play from an observation gallery. The Dionne quintuplets quickly became a major tourist attraction, and their likenesses – along with Dr. Dafoe’s – were used in advertising of everything from Karo syrup to Quaker Oats.
Despite the money and fame, life for the Dionne Quintuplets would prove more of a sad melodrama than a fairy tale.
Hollywood, recognizing the possibilities, cast the quints in 4 movies over the next few years. The first, The Country Doctor - starring 49 year-old Jean Hersholt – strongly identified him in the public’s mind as the perfect `country doctor’.
Hersholt would make two sequels (Reunion 1936 and Five of A Kind 1938) and wanted to bring the character to radio, but was unable to obtain the rights. Instead, he created his own Dr. Paul Christian – who lived in worked in the small mid-western town of River’s End.
While technically a soap opera (it was broadcast on Sunday Afternoons on the CBS radio network), don’t let that put you off. Each episode is a self contained story, and the show was a charming blend of drama, gentle humor, and 1930s Americana.
And quite unusually, by the 1940s, most of the scripts were submitted by loyal listeners ( sometimes polished by the writing staff) which – beginning in 1942 – resulted in an annual script-writing competition.
Top prize was $2000 (big money back then) and several runners up received $500. Among the many winners were Rod Serling and Earl Hamner, Jr..
The Internet Archive has 175 episodes of the Doctor Christian radio series – including the first episode which introduced the series.
When a movie star ends up starring in a successful radio series it only makes sense to produce a Hollywood feature as well. And Jean Hersholt played Dr. Christian in 6 movies over a three year period.
- Meet Dr. Christian (1939)
- Remedy for Riches (1940)
- The Courageous Dr. Christian (1940)
- Dr. Christian Meets the Women (1940)
- Melody for Three (1941)
- They Meet Again (1941)
So far, four of these movies have shown up on the Internet Archive.
Dr. Christian Meets The Women (1940)
The movies often shifted easily between drama and comedy, and the last entry They Meet Again was clearly the weakest entry in the lot. The radio series would continue another 9 years, however.
Jean Hersholt would appear one last time on screen as Dr. Christian in the opening episode of the 1956 ZIV TV series sequel called Dr. Christian – starring the subject of last week’s blog – MacDonald Carey as elderly Paul Christian’s nephew Mark who took over his practice.
Hersholt died shortly after that appearance from cancer, but is well remembered for his many movie roles (including Shirley Temple’s grandfather in Heidi), his work translating the works of Hans Christian Anderson into English, his radio series, and his humanitarian work in Hollywood.
The Academy Awards, in recognition of Hersholt’s work for 18 years as president of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, periodically awards the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Past recipients have included Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Elizabeth Taylor, Danny Kaye, and Oprah Winfrey.
All in all, not a bad way to be remembered.