JUNE IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH
Sometimes when we had exhausted the fare at the Onteora (or if a special “biggie” was playing elsewhere), we’d pile into cars and (usually) head for neighboring Margaretville’s Galli-Curci Theater (no skin off the Onterora’s nose; at one time the same dude – one Max Silberman – built and owned both houses). A special “biggie,” mostly geared toward grownups, certainly unfurled in July 1963 with the announcement of CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D.,now on Blu-Ray from the staff at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Home Video.
When my mom (who took me along with her pals) saw the cast (especially star Gregory Peck, late of To Kill a Mockingbird, and forever in her heart since Gentleman’s Agreement), she was pumped; when I saw the poster, featuring co-star Tony Curtis, so was I. The pic was sold as a wacky military WWII comedy, the one-sheet mimicking 1959’s Operation Petticoat. Count me in! Boy, was I in for an electro shock.
CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D., while indeed containing many comedic episodes, generally is a drama with many hard-hitting moments. It takes place at an Arizona military rehab hospital, in 1944. Here the broken bones are shared (ridiculously) with the broken minds. Captain Josiah Newman (naturally, Peck) heads the psych ward, battling ailments that were still “new” to the profession (specifically, what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD), but also at war with his superiors…and time. Six weeks was the max given to cure these “nutjobs,” then send them right back for more. Of course, this sounds barbaric, since traumatized G.I.s could hardly be counted upon to perform as if normal (whatever that is); worse so for deranged patients with a rank in the high command. A nightmare waiting to happen.
Newman with his shanghaiing savvy beauteous head nurse Lt. Francie Corum to his side (Angie Dickinson in a really nicely done understated role) and scavenger orderly Cpl. Jackson Leibowitz (Curtis, a neurotic streetwise dude who eventually becomes a self-taught junior shrink, lacking everything but a diploma and a decoding ring) remarkably manages to perform medical miracles, but not without occasional sacrifice and at a devastating cost.
As indicated, CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. was a “big” summer Catskill resort special for Universal (the official nationwide rollout would be in December). At the time I was surprised that it didn’t play the Onterora, as they usually handled all the Universal output (only rarely did the Gallic-Curci run Universals, most notably with Spartacus). The picture generally (and deservedly) got rave reviews. I wasn’t so sure. The uneven broad marker between the borderline slapstick and dark psychological drama played upon my psyche. Not a major surprise when one realizes that the director was none other than the previously heralded David Miller, championed here a couple of columns ago with his 1952 noir triumph Sudden Fear (this movie, with its sharp change in tone, has more in common with his freakish 1949 musical Top O’the Morning, which has to be seen to be believed). I think if the NEWMAN posters hadn’t pointed in one clear direction, maybe I would have felt better (check out the Blu-Ray cover below, which was the one-sheet). Looking at the movie today with adult eyes makes me appreciate the efforts of all concerned; in fact, in 2021, it’s the lowbrow comedy (which I so loved in ’63) that seems out of place.
NEWMAN, as one might expect, is extraordinary for tackling PSTD, still a controversial subject in the Sixties (and definitely one in the Forties). The handling (aka Newman’s approach) is quite reasonable and even modern.
Of course, having a cast of psychotics to deal with is a guarantee that you’ll be headed toward Snake Pit territory come Oscar time, and here CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. didn’t disappoint either. The key lunatics in question are Eddie Albert (two years away from Green Acres, and whose NEWMAN performance terrified me), Robert Duvall (following up on Mockingbird), and Bobby Darin (whose tour de force turn as a racist in the previous year’s Pressure Point won him acclaim); Darin got the Best Supporting Oscar nod, along with screenwriters Richard L. Breen and Phoebe and Henry Ephron for Best Writing Based on Material from Another Medium (the bestselling novel by Leo Rosten); another nom was given to Waldon O. Watson for Best Sound.
Peck and Curtis, who coproduced the show with Universal, give it their all, and exhibit what classic movie star power is all about. They are ably supported by Bethel Leslie, James Gregory, Dick Sargent, Robert F. Simon, Jane Withers, Vito Scotti, Gregory Walcott, Barry Atwater, Ted Bessell, Cal Bolder, Calvin Brown, Ann Doran, Mike Farrell, Martin West and Curtis’ real-life bestie Larry Storch. Two Russells likewise did exemplary work, the great d.p. Russell Metty and the wonderful composer Russell Garcia (remember his beautiful music for George Pal’s The Time Machine?), the latter who shared the score duties with house talent Frank Skinner.
It’s terrific to see this oft-faded Eastmancolor title in a crisp, sparkling new widescreen 1080p transfer (only the main credits and occasional opticals briefly mar the pristine look). Extras include audio commentary by Samm Deighan and the theatrical trailer.
FUN FACT: author Rosten’s book was based on actual U.S. Army psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson. In the movie’s climax, Newman is faced with the offer of staying on and further helping returning soldiers with their mental probs, an honor and a privilege to be sure. Peck weighs the options, and the flick wisely doesn’t reveal his decision. For good reason. The real Newman/Greenson ditched the military, and headed West for the monetary glories of Hollywood, where he became ultra-rich analyzing the endless throngs of movie stars, directors and producers. Oh, well.
Driving back to Fleischmanns after the showing in 1963, my mom turned to me, pleased with the pic. “Good movie,” she said to me. I shook my head. “I dunno, mom, it was good when it was funny, then it got too serious and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.” My sage parent patted me on the noggin and replied, “Welcome to life.”
CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K25126. SRP: $24.95.