A certain type of melodrama focuses on impossibly noble heroes and heroines who submit to life’s slings and arrows without a peep, displaying only the type of fortitude meant to inspire others as they bravely carry on. Examples are Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, and Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. That’s not a facetious comparison, for the Christlike parallels are emphasized deliberately to show the rest of us how the path of virtue and righteousness is a thorny one. The 19th Century was when this type of hero was most in fashion, though holdovers remain.
The medical drama is a useful source of such selfless souls, and a case in point is the 1940 film Vigil in the Night, based on A.J. Cronin’s novel. Nurse Anne Lee (Carole Lombard) takes the blame for her sister’s fatal error in the opening sequence and spends the rest of her career tending to victims of accidents and epidemics while continually returning to save her sister’s bacon. The hospital’s money problems are embodied in one selfish individual rather than blamed on the system of patronage, and that’s both par for the course and a fair example of dramatised morality. The admiration of a handsome doctor (Brian Aherne) is fortunately downplayed, and we’re not completely reassured that Anne must be rewarded with marriage.
Actually, quite a bit is downplayed in stiff-upper-lip style, thanks to producer-director George Stevens’ relative restraint with the material, RKO’s handsomely workmanlike production values, and a game cast of supporting players including Anne Shirley, Brenda Forbes and Peter Cushing. As far-fetched as it all is and always was, and as alien as it seems to today’s brand of flawed heroics in medical shows, don’t be surprised if the wish-fulfillment nobility of it all jerks a few tears by the climactic avalanche of adversity and its multiple spectacles of transformation and redemption—though as with all faiths, you must be open to such things for the Hollywood juju to reveal its power.
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