A really bad bedside manner

I was battling insomnia last night (would fall asleep, wake up, fall asleep) . I finally gave up the fight and turned on the TV. TVLand has started on the downward slide to mediocrity and now does paid programming in the wee hours so I flipped to TCM which was airing No Sad Songs for Me,

There is Margaret Sullavan at the doctor’s to see if she and Wendell Corey will ever be able to give Natalie Wood a little brother or sister. The doctor (played rather coldly by John McIntire) informs her bluntly that “you will never be able to have any more children.” No explanations, no sympathy, just straight out nope, no kids. ever. End of consultation. She leaves and then after she regains some gumption, goes back up to the office to get some kind of clarification. The receptionist is trying to reach husband Wendell Corey because the doctor wants to speak to him.

After some begging the doctor says “you’re going to die.” Turns out that Mary (Sullavan) has some kind of inoperable cancer. He wasn’t going to tell her, but he was going to call her husband. Made worse is the fact that we learn that the doctor and his wife are good friends of theirs.

Now I realize this is 1950 and an era when it was not considered polite to share the details of your recent colostomy at the dinner table with acquaintances; when cancer wasn’t something you talked about, etc. but already I’m horrified.

Mary decides not to tell her husband and for the rest of the film tries to live her remaining months as best she can. It gets tragic and sad. Corey is finding himself drawn to Viveca Lindfors who works side by side with him at his architectural job site (they’re off in the mountains measuring stuff or something). But that’s not the point.

As the film continues I’m still left floored by the deplorable attitudes and behavior of the doctor. Not only does he lie to the patient initially, but he delivers the false diagnosis with appalling brutality. He’s planning on telling the patient’s husband (without her consent or knowledge) the truth. When pressured, he does tell her the truth, but again with utterly no compassion. She’s the one who asks the questions about treatment and he dismisses them with a wave of the hand.

I thought perhaps it was a conscious choice to help portray Mary as being isolated, but given how the rest of the film proceeds and the depth of Sullavan’s performance, that seems like overkill. Margaret Sullavan did not need help when it came to acting and by the time of this film she had a large body of work to prove that.

What I’m left with is the feeling that the scriptwriter didn’t think there was anything wrong with this kind of doctor/patient interaction or with the violation of the patient’s rights. And that is utterly appalling to me.


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