Green Light (1937)


Director:  Frank Borzage

Starring:  Errol Flynn, Anita Louise, Walter Abel, Margaret Lindsay, Cedric Hardwicke, Spring Byington, Henry O’Neill

Screenplay:  Milton Krims, based upon the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas




Lloyd C. Douglas was Senior Minister at the First Congregational Church of Akron, Ohio, during the 1920s. He became a published author of non-fiction works during that time and then, having moved to Los Angeles in 1926, he began writing fiction, telling stories that illustrated his own passionate belief in the need for faith, and of the benefit to the many that comes through the self-sacrifice of the individual. Douglas’s first novel, Magnificent Obsession, was an enormous best-seller; it would eventually be filmed twice, in 1935 and 1954.

A number of Douglas’s other novels would also become films. His most frequent interpreter was Frank Borzage, and anyone who has any knowledge of the director’s career will have no difficulty understanding why. As is the case with Douglas’s novels themselves, there is no cynicism in Frank Borzage’s films, and nary a breath of irony. When his characters talk about “God”, they mean it; when they talk about “love”, they mean that, too. His films deal primarily with men and women who can recognise each other’s souls; who struggle not just with love and passion – although there is plenty of that in Borzage’s work; refreshingly, he never shied away from the sexual aspects of love – but with issues of dedication, of loyalty, of self-sacrifice and self-denial. They are intense, romantic, and utterly sincere – and they have, consequently, an almost unparalleled ability to make modern audiences squirm with discomfort. Indeed, Borzage’s only serious rival in this respect is probably Douglas Sirk who, significantly, directed the 1954 version of Magnificent Obsession.

Green Light is perhaps the least known of all the Lloyd Douglas adaptations, yet it is nevertheless a classic example of the author’s work. It tells the story of Newell Paige (Errol Flynn), a rising young surgeon whose career is destroyed when he takes the blame for his mentor, Dr Endicott (Henry O’Neill), who botches an operation and causes the death of a patient. Paige’s heroic gesture leads to further heartbreak when he falls in love with Phyllis Dexter (Anita Louise), the daughter of the unfortunate patient, only to have her recoil in horror from, as she believes, the man who killed her mother. The film follows Paige as he struggles up from the depths of despair to the salvaging of his sense of self-worth; and finally, to his gaining of both love and faith through, in typical Douglas fashion, an act of near-fatal self-sacrifice.

Much of Green Light, particularly the first half of the film, is taken up with debates over the nature of faith, and the eternal versus the here-and-now. In this, the medical profession, in the shape of Newell Paige and the nurse who loves him, Frances Ogilvie (Margaret Lindsay), faces off against the positively saintly Dean Harcourt (Cedric Hardwicke), who was the human inspiration of the doomed Mrs Dexter (Spring Byington), and who later helps Phyllis Dexter to work through her feelings of anger and hatred against those who caused her mother’s death.

How the viewer reacts to all of this is, I suppose, a very individual thing. Some may find it full of truth; others, unbearably heavy-handed. For myself, I have to confess that the interest of Green Light lies not in the redemption of Newell Paige per se (after all, there’s precious little doubt how those “debates” are eventually going to turn out!), but in how he finds his redemption. Unusually, Green Light is the story of a man who finds God through science.

Moreover, the science we see is all the more interesting for being entirely based upon fact. Early in the film, we meet Dr John Stafford (Walter Abel), a close friend of Paige’s who is also a bacteriologist attached to program researching spotted fever. When Paige accepts the verdict of the hospital committee and resigns, Stafford comes to him a fury, upbraiding him for what he sees as his spinelessness. He then announces that he, too, is resigning; in his case, to take over the running of the research laboratory in Montana, the previous head having just died of the very disease he was attempting to combat.

Later, his career over, his heart broken, his life in ruins, Paige does the only thing that there still seems left for him to do: he joins Stafford in Montana, and devotes himself to scientific research. You may think of this, if you will, as the biomedical equivalent of joining the Foreign Legion.

Jokes aside, Green Light justifies its existence for the way it highlights both a tragic chapter in America’s medical history, and gives recognition to some very brave men. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, hundreds of people in the north-western states contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever, also known as “the black measles”, and many of them died. The disease is caused by tiny bacteria now called Rickettsia ricketsii, which must actually live within the cells of their host, as viruses do. This fact, plus the complicated life history of the main vector, the wood tick (which requires three different hosts during the various phases of its development), thwarted investigators for many years.

Two men were most instrumental in battling this scourge: Robert Cooley, once head of the Department of Entomology at the Montana State College, and Howard Ricketts, who in 1906 set up the first spotted fever research lab in Missoula – in a tent.

Ricketts and Cooley, along with a number of their students, took on the challenge of understanding the disease. Moreover, Cooley was eventually responsible for the establishment of the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever Laboratory, set up in an abandoned schoolhouse in Hamilton, Montana, in 1913. None of this happened without a struggle. Many local officials, fearful of the effect the news would have upon development in the Bitterroot Valley, refused to accept that a tick could be the disease vector; while incredibly, the scientists were vehemently opposed by the Montana Board of Health, whose doctor-members resented the “intrusion” into the field of medicine of “mere bug-ologists”. (Ah, plus ça change…)

The scientists fought on, however, and eventually both identified the organism responsible for the disease, and produced a vaccine against it. These triumphs did not come without extreme cost: four of the researchers died in the course of their work. Ironically, Howard Ricketts, who gave his name to the deadly bacterium responsible for spotted fever, died in Mexico in 1909 of typhus – which is also caused by a strain of Rickettsia.

Through the characters of Newell Paige and John Stafford, Green Light recounts the struggles of these brave men, some of whom gave their life for the cause. Indeed, not once but twice Stafford recites a list of his predecessors, reflecting sombrely that the public that owes so much to these people is barely aware of their existence, let alone their courage and sacrifice – “No-one knows their names.” Slowly, Paige and Stafford make their way along the path hewn by their real-life counterparts (their work punctuated by visits from ungrateful locals, wanting to know why they don’t do something, instead of “playing with rabbits and guinea pigs”), until an experimental vaccine is ready to be trialed. But where to find a suitable subject? Well, Newell Paige has an answer to that: he injects himself, then lets a tick bite him…

Although his swashbucklers and adventure films were what made him famous, Errol Flynn’s career took some interesting deviations over the years, and Green Light is one of those films. He’s quite good as Newell Paige, and manages to convey the young man’s almost unacknowledged dissatisfaction with life, the restless yearning for something that will eventually lead him to religious faith. As Phyllis, Anita Louise hasn’t much more to do than look beautiful; while as Dean Harcourt, Cedric Hardwicke is just too sanctimonious for words. No, I take that back; that’s a bit unfair. It’s just that, as I’ve said, the script tends more than a little to the heavy-handed, and it’s Hardwicke who must bear the burden of it. Under the circumstances, he actually does a very good job.

For me, though, the performances of the film come in the supporting roles. Margaret Lindsay is quite charming as surgical nurse Frances Ogilvie, in love with Newell Paige without a hope of return. (She knows she’s doomed when he sums her up as “a good egg” with “a great talent for surgery”.) As the film progresses, we learn that Frances hasn’t a selfish bone in her body. When Newell and Phyllis meet – she not knowing who he is, of course – it’s love at first sight. Despite her pain, Frances accepts this without a murmur, even taking the bereaved girl under her wing; the two end up firm friends. Indeed, so very likeable is Frances that you kind of have to wonder what Newell doesn’t see in her – except that she’s a professional woman in a 1930s movie, and that’s rarely a good thing. The end of the film implies both a new career and a new relationship for Frances – and personally, I think it’s not a bad consolation prize.

Walter Abel is not an actor who ever received much acclaim, but I’ve always liked him, chiefly for his ability to take a supporting role and really make something of it. (See, for instance, his performance as the immigration officer in Hold Back The Dawn, filmed from Billy Wilder’s first American screenplay). Here he does exactly that, adding some welcome solidity and acerbity to the inevitable esoterics of the story. I particularly like the moment when Stafford, disgusted with Paige’s decision to resign without a fight, accuses him of being, “Lost in whiskey and heroics.”

And you know— Call me a heretic, but for all Newell Paige’s struggles and self-sacrifice the real hero of Green Light to me is John Stafford. No grandstanding, no desperation, no consciousness of sacrifice— Just a man who saw a job that needed doing, and did it, despite the danger. The world is, after all, full of such heroes…and no-one knows their names, either.

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2 Responses to Green Light (1937)

  1. RogerBW says:

    Now you’ve distracted me with the Scientific Foreign Legion…

    “Everybody does his duty at the Montana Spotted Fever Lab, dead or alive!”

    or maybe even

    “I am Doctor Markoff. I make scientists out of scum like you, and I don’t do it gently. You’re the sloppiest looking lot I’ve ever seen. It’s up to me to prevent you from becoming a disgrace to the Laboratory. And I will prevent that if I have to kill half of you with work. But the half that lives will be scientists. I promise you!”

    Liked by 1 person

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