The Man Who Found Himself (1937)
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Anyone looking for sophisticated and believable entertainment should probably look elsewhere, as the plot of this drama is a bit contrived and predictable. Yet, despite this, I found the film to be very watchable and fun--probably because it had rather modest pretensions and was a low-budget (or "B") film. Given its pedigree and cast of unknowns, it was a decent film that is a bit better than just a time-passer. The only big name in the movie is Joan Fontaine--and this was made before she was an established star. You can tell this, by the way, because she speaks with her normal British accent--something you really don't hear in later films. In the films she made just a few years later, she either spoke in perfectly annunciated upper-class English or in an American accent.
"The Man Who Found Himself" stars Beal as Dr. James Stanton, Jr., the son of a prominent doctor. He is also an amateur pilot. One night a married woman, a friend of his, begs him to fly her to Pittsburgh. The weather is bad and he hesitates, but relents. The plane crashes and she is killed. People assume the worst, that he and the woman were having an affair. His fiancée (Jane Walsh) breaks up with him because he wants to help poor people. Discouraged with the way his life is going, Stanton does what any man with a doctor's license would do: he hitchhikes to California and becomes a hobo.
Once there, he becomes an airplane mechanic and meets a pretty nurse (Fontaine) who, when an accident occurs, realizes that he's a doctor. She encourages him to turn his life around.
I actually watched this because of John Beal, whom I met over twenty years ago. The mid to late '30s were the high points of his film career. He was young and handsome with a lot of stage experience. He never made it to stardom but continued to work until four years before he died (1997).
This is a short film, fairly predictable, but worth seeing for the cast, which includes Philip Huston and George Irving as well.
A rather forward nurse (Joan Fontaine in one of her earliest leading parts) becomes curious about him and even though he spurns her, she won't leave him alone. Pesky reporter Jimmy Conlin discovers the facts on Beal as he goes from mechanic to pilot (taking over in a medical emergency on a single piloted plane from the frazzled Fontaine), and as his past becomes about to be exposed, Beal once again tries to run out. A medical emergency that ironically has both Fontaine and Beal's father on it forces Beal to snap out of his lost world of self pity and self hatred, also involving the socialite fiancee (Jane Walsh) who dumped him after the initial scandal broke.
So much happens here in this enjoyable but convoluted medical drama that it takes on far too many themes for a rather short B movie. There are moments of light comedy involving Fontaine, although her character at the beginning is unbelievably intrusive, deserving every snub that Beal gives her until she finally makes him laugh. The scenes with Beal and the hobos (Billy Gilbert among them) are absolutely ridiculous, and the fact that Huston would discover Beal working on the road just so out of the blue is beyond absurd. When the film settles down to get away from these unbelievable plot twists, it seems quite like another film. Beal tries hard to show this character's transition, but the lack of screen magnetism makes him an awkward hero, even if there is a sense of triumph in watching his character grow up and become a real man.
It is interesting to see early flying doctor concepts, but what almost amounts to a "flying hospital" seems extremely impractical, whether in 1937 or now. In fact the whole overall movie is mostly far-fetched and not believable. However, in this case the good direction and acting overcome the negatives and make "The Man Who Found Himself" worth your viewing time for entertainment only, not expecting any sort of classic.
Fontaine is earnest and does an acceptable job, nothing more, and John Beal is okay as her love interest. But it's obvious that PHILIP HUSTON (who has the appearance and cocky manners of a young James Garner) is the actor who should have shared top billing with Fontaine. Whatever happened to this handsome actor? Why didn't RKO promote him, along with Fontaine? He showed skill as a light comedian.
These are the kind of thoughts that went through my head as I watched this rather tepid drama which never quite lives up to the stark promise of its title. The story itself is rather tiresome, only occasionally coming to life because of Fontaine's spirited heroine.
She photographs prettily as the nurse and wears her serious expressions skillfully, suggesting that there was more to be tapped at a future date. Beal never did go on to a distinguished career and his performance here shows why. Strictly lackluster.
But whatever happened to Philip Huston? Evidence here is that he should have had a worthwhile film career.
Trivia note: Watch for Dwight Frye (of "Dracula") as the out of control patient aboard the airplane.
Ms. Fontaine receives a special introduction in this, her first co-starring role. She is not only very obviously like her famous sister, but also very engaging. Fontaine's performances would grow more individual and adept, with increasingly better material. Although never growing into stars of Fontaine's stature, Beal and Huston are also quite good. It's nice to see the expressive Beal, who presided over the witchcraft trial of Quentin Collins on "Dark Shadows", as a leading man. And, Huston essays a very convincing "drunk" scene.
***** The Man Who Found Himself (1937) Lew Landers ~ John Beal, Joan Fontaine, Philip Huston
Too bad that the film lacks the grit to go with the times. It's filmed in straightforward fashion, without needed emotion that would dramatize Stanton's dilemma. At the same time, Beal may well lack the depth needed to be convincing, though I've not seen enough of the actor to be conclusive. Then too, events are directed by Lew Landers who was well known for coming in reliably under-budget but in pedestrian fashion. That may have made him a natural for TV, but not for material showing promise. What the film does have is a sparkling Joan Fontaine at her most attractive and just starting out in her illustrious career. That's probably the main reason to catch this otherwise forgettable programmer.
The biggest problem was Joan Fontaine, who is so young here that if I didn't know she was in the film, I wouldn't have recognized her! Here, in her second starring role, I found her to be rather stiff and awkward, and not as asset to the film.
On the other hand, I thought John Beal was superb! I've never been very aware of him before, and I know that he never became an A list actor, but seeing him here, I'm not sure why.
The only other actor here whose acting is of note is George Irving. One of those character actors that you recognize but probably don't know his name. Quite a good performance as the father.
The story here is just unique enough to score a few extra points from me. A young, rather brilliant doctor is repeatedly chided by his respected doctor-father, particularly for his interest in flying. Rather than continue in the charade of working in a field he has come to despise, he walks away from medicine and goes to work for a small airline out west. Joan Fontaine, a nurse, falls in love with him even before finding out who he actually is. She attempts to bring son and father back together, and oddly enough that happens during a train wreck, which is nicely staged.
There are places all the action doesn't seem quite logical, but overall the story works. The only significant problem is Joan Fontaine...she "gets by". In my view it is not until 1940-41 that she comes into her own as an actress with "Rebecca" and "Suspicion".
Give this one a try. It's no masterpiece, but it's quite entertaining.