Disputed Passage, 1939

Becoming a first class doctor is no piece of cake, especially if Akim Tamiroff is your very demanding teacher.

Medical adventure story that is half spent in the training of the star John Howard (as up-and-coming Dr. John Beaven) at the hands of the intimidating medical genius Dr. Forster (Akim Tamiroff) who is also a cynical and relentlessly critical professor at a prestigious medical school. The other half of the film is Beaven's romance with Disputed Passage's headline star Dorothy Lamour (as Audrey Hilton) and we spend a good part of the later run time in China with warfare and disaster all around us.

Tamiroff is probably the "real star" of this film and certainly has most of the best scenes. His takes-no-prisoners doctor gives an alarming introductory speech to a room of new medical students and basically accuses the majority of them as on their way to being licenced murderers and quacks. He eventually gets beaten-up by a student from a different batch of students for these kinds of comments, and though Forster probably deserves a punch in the face for his insulting nature, we know his argument that incompetent doctors are more menace to society than a help is true. This kind of accusation is mostly academic within the confines of this film, made at a time when doctors were typically given heroic or at least respectable depictions, but this idea in Disputed Passage opens the way up for a film like Kings Row (1942) to really exploit a story of doctor malfeasance. Incidentally, both films are based upon best-selling novels from the era.

As fun as Tamiroff's rampaging professor is, and John Howard certainly performs well as the understudy who is half-infatuated with the professor and half-loathes him, Dorothy Lamour provides the glamour that rounds-out this small-scale Hollywood "epic." But when her love affair with young Dr. Beaven takes flight, the melodrama floods in and the film starts to wobble over what it's actually about and where it's headed. Too Bad! The final scenes tie up the story (a bit abruptly) and the whole cast is fine, but it is in the scripting that focus is lost in the third act. Tamiroff and Howard (and Lamour) were given much more free reign to cultivate their unique character portrayals earlier into the film, but when we get to war-torn China, the magnitude of the disaster simply squeezes the actors of any space to do much (and John Howard is actually "unconscious" in a bed for his final scenes) and by this point the production has simply run out of energy.

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Original Page November 13, 2023