By Ed Garea
By Ed Garea
The Murder of Doctor Harrigan (WB, 1936) – Director: Frank McDonald. Writers: Peter Milne & Sy Bartlett (s/p), Mignon G. Eberhart (novel), Charles Belden (dialogue). Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Kay Linaker, John Eldredge, Mary Astor, Joseph Crehan, Frank Reicher, Anita Kerry, Robert Strange, Phillip Reed, Mary Treen, Joan Blair, Johnny Arthur, & Don Barclay. B&W, 67 minutes.
The Murder of Doctor Harrigan was the second of seven films featuring the character of Nurse Sarah Keate, a sleuth conceived by novelist Mignon G. Eberhart, a best-selling American writer who specialized in romance-mysteries in a career that lasted from 1929 to 1988. Keate was the subject of Eberhart’s first novels and The Murder of Doctor Harrigan is based on her 1931 novel, From This Dark Stairway.
Warner Brothers, like other Hollywood studios, always on the lookout for a successful B-series, took a flyer on the novels, and in 1935 released the first of the series, While the Patient Slept, starring Aline MacMahon as Keate and Guy Kibbee as her detective-boyfriend, Lance O’Leary. While the first adaptation did decent business and word-of-mouth with the public, this sequel and the subsequent films never really caught on, a rather unusual occurrence in a decade that saw several popular series featuring such female sleuths as Nancy Drew, Hildegarde Withers, and Torchy Blaine.
A large part of the problem was that Warners never kept the same actress in the role. Worse, the character of Keate herself had her name shifted from film to film. In The Murder of Doctor Harrigan, her name is “Sally Keating,” the name Marguerite Churchill starred as in Murder by an Aristocrat (1936). In 1937, the character somehow wound up at 20th Century Fox, where Jane Darwell played her as “Sarah Keats” in The Great Hospital Mystery. Then it was back to Warners for two more films in 1938, this time with young ingénue Ann Sheridan as “Sara Keate” in The Patient in Room 18, and later that year as “Sarah Keate” in Mystery House.
Also that year, Warners in England filmed a remake of The Murder of Doctor Harrigan as The Dark Stairway (a famous lost film), but the character is not named Sarah Keate or Keats, or even Keating.
For The Murder of Doctor Harrigan the studio originally cast Mary Astor as Sally Keating, but Astor refused the role. So, with its usual sensitivity, Warners signed Broadway actress Kay Linaker to make her film debut as Keating and forced Astor to take a supporting role as another nurse in the hospital. With Linaker making her debut, top billing went to Ricardo Cortez, playing a doctor with whom Nurse Sally is romantically involved.
The action in the film takes place in a hospital. Our first scene is that of an ambulance speeding through the city, seemingly on its pay to pick up a patient. But the bus stops at a tenement, where Nurse Sally disembarks and goes to the front door. A woman answers, hands Sally a locket, and Sally returns to the bus for the ride back to the hospital. Accompanying Sally on her joy ride is Dr. George Lambert (Cortez), who is in love with her and wants to marry her. But that part of the plot will unfold later. The locket belongs to one of the patients, and this is an establishing scene to give us a clue as to Sally’s character, as she’ll go out of her way to deliver that extra care to her patient.
In this case, the locket belongs to Peter Melady (Strange), founder of the hospital, and it contains something that will set the complicated plot into motion: the formula for a new anesthetic developed by Melady that can be used on people that cannot tolerate ether. But we know it’s never just as simple as that, for Melady has chosen Dr. Harrigan for his heart operation. There is bad blood aplenty between the two, as Melady has shut Harrigan out of any credit for his new wonder drug, although Harrigan worked with Melady in developing it.
As the plot develops, we’re treated to a tour of the hospital and its main characters. There is Nurse Margaret Brody (Treen), whose forte here is comic relief. Nurse Lillian Cooper (Astor) also works the floor. We learn shortly thereafter that she is embroiled in some sort of situation with Harrigan. Whatever it is, he wants her gone from the hospital the next day.
Also at the hospital is Harrigan’s wife, Ina (Blair), who is nursing a broken arm she received in a traffic accident while two-timing the doc. When the paramour, Kenneth Martin, arrives to visit, Harrigan confronts him and tells him to stay away in the future unless he wants trouble. Another patient residing there is Jackson (Barclay), a hopeless dipsomaniac. His next-door neighbor, Mr. Wentworth (Arthur), a nervous wreck staying there for a rest cure. Suffice to say, he gets no rest. And, just to make it a family affair, Melady’s daughter, Agnes (Kerry), a good friend of Sally, is also healing there from a case of sunburn.
When Melady’s regular physician, Dr. Coate (Reicher) objects to another doctor operating on his patient, Harrigan moves the operating time up from the next morning to that night, and informs Sally that she’ll be the nurse assisting. But when Sally arrives in the operating room, neither Melady nor Harrigan is there. She calls for a hospital-wide search, and Harrigan’s dead body is found in the elevator. But there is no trace of Melady anywhere to be found. The police are called, and several things throw suspicion on Sally. But George, who is in love with her, takes action to clear her name. Searching the hospital, they find the body of a black man in the basement. He had died earlier that evening and was supposed to have been taken to the morgue. Sneaking a ride to the morgue, Sally and George find the body of Melady. An autopsy reveals the cause of his death was due to fright.
Sally is arrested upon her return to the hospital, while George tells the police that he believes Agnes, afraid of what Harrigan might do to her father, dropped some of the anesthetic into Harrigan’s drinking water, which rendered him unconscious. Also, according to George, Melady died of fright when confronted by the killer, who was one of the inventors of the drug. Meanwhile, Sally has secured the formula for the drug. There is a tense scene with Coate, who is also head of hospital administration. He wants Sally to hand over the formula to him, but she refuses. The tension in the scene comes from her suspicion that Coate may be the murderer. Shortly afterward, someone attacks Sally in the stairwell, obviously after the formula.
When the attacker is caught, he turns out to be Dr. Simon, another of the interns. It turns out that Simon was another person Melady tried to screw out of any recognition for developing the drug. Simon had allowed Melady to use him as a guinea pig during the trials. He also stabbed Harrigan. When the police ask him if he wiped his prints from the knife, Nurse Cooper comes forward to confess that it was she who performed the deed. She did it because she knew Simon was the murderer. Besides she hated Harrigan with a passion. He was her former husband, and divorced her to marry his current wife, who is very wealthy, which is why her presence at the hospital upset Harrigan so much. Coate, who has fired Sally during the course of the investigation for “improper procedures,” apologizes to Sally and offers to place her back on staff. But Sally tells him she’s leaving anyway – she’s going to marry George.
For a movie this short in length to have such a complicated plot tells us that something has to be jettisoned. In this case it’s the dialogue and the logic of plotting, for things have to move quickly. Thus, most of the action is described rather than seen, and, at the end, George lays out the solution of the murder to the police rather than letting us see it unfold.
The rather unfortunate decisions that help sink the film are the sacrifices of plot to bits of comic relief. I already mentioned that the alcoholic Jackson and the nervous Wentworth. There’s a scene early on where Jackson gets an alcohol rubdown from Nurse Brody. When she accidentally leaves the alcohol bottle in his room, Jackson proceeds to drink it down, necessitating the need to have his stomach pumped. But the nurses confuse Wentworth’s room for Jackson’s and proceed to pump the wrong man’s stomach. The time wasted in this unfunny scene would have been better served concentrating on the mystery.
The performances, for the most part, are good. Although he has a tendency to be wooden at times, Cortez is fine as Dr. George, although he’s much better at playing sleazebags than heroes. Linaker is competent in her film debut, though the screenplay gives her little to do. Whereas in the earlier film, and subsequent entries in the series, Nurse Sally is a sleuth. Here she’s strictly second banana to Cortez, who character becomes the sleuth. Astor is decent in her role, although there are times when she looks as if she’d rather be anywhere else. The rest of the cast is merely adequate, save for Joseph Crehen, who acquits himself well as Lt. Lamb, the lead detective in the case.
This was the second film for director Frank McDonald, who would go on to a lengthy career directing in the world of B-movies and television. The Murder of Doctor Harrigan is another entry in the short-lived “Clue Club” series – a promotional partnership between Warner Brothers and Black Mask magazine. Patrons were encouraged to attend Clue Club presentation by the promise of prizes that could be won by filling out special cards at the theater.
As for lead actress Linaker, movie stardom was not in the cards. She would go on to appear in 56 features – most of them on the “B” side of the marquee – before retiring in 1945. She enjoyed a second career as a writer, penning scripts for radio and television. She did write one screenplay. It was for a 1958 science-fiction film called The Blob, for which she received $150. The film went on to make millions. She tossed the writing career for one as a college professor in New England, teaching courses on acting, writing, and public speaking, retiring in 2005 at the age of 92. She passed away in 2008.