Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: THE CITADEL (1938)

Have you ever had a movie just suck you in?  You sit down, not intending on watching a movie, and all of a sudden two hours have gone by and you are left wondering what happened.  That happened to me yesterday, while TCM was airing a Robert Donat birthday tribute and I sat down to take a short break after lunch.  I watched the end of KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR (a fantastic movie by the way) and fully intended to get up and do something else when THE CITADEL came on.

Andrew Mason (Robert Donat) is a Scottish born idealistic new physician, who has recently come to work in a Welsh mining town as apprentice to a Dr. Page.  Life is not wholly pleasant for Andrew as the town is sorely lacking in updated medical supplies, rife with superstitious townsfolk, and Dr. Page’s wife is a pain.  She forces Andrew to work for almost no money and gives him a tiny room to live in.  The townsfolk are initially standoffish of the new doctor but once Andrew saves an apparently still-born baby, they warm to him and make him into a hero, much to Mrs. Page’s dismay.  It is around this time that Andrew makes friends with Denny (Ralph Richardson), a fellow doctor who likes his drink a little too much, and meets the local school teacher Christine Barlow (Rosalind Russell).  Denny is attracted to Christine but is too shy to approach her romantically.

Andrew soon hears about a nearby town in need of a new doctor and he eagerly applies for the post.  The committee is willing to hire him but they are only offering the position to married men.  Andrew quickly says that he is engaged to be married, once he gets a position of course, and the committee offer him the job.  Andrew accepts and then goes to find Christine.  He tells her about his problem and how he needs to find a wife.  Christine tells him to go and tell the committee that there are no problems with his application and the two are soon married.  Both soon realize that they are in love and being their life together.  In their new home Andrew begins making waves by not being anything like the old town doctor, namely by not giving the patients what they want without a medical reason.  He also realizes that many of the miners are affected by a mysterious lung ailment.  He begins to do research, helped by Christine, and soon comes to the realization that the miners are contracting tuberculosis due to the dust in the mines.  He sets about writing a paper to submit to medical journals and is soon attracting the attention of fellow physicians for his forward thinking and advances.

But the townspeople are becoming suspicious of Andrew for just those reasons and they soon take action.  One morning, Christine comes rushing into Andrew’s office to tell him that all their work has been destroyed by a mob who rushed into their home.  Angered and hurt, Andrew resigns his position and takes Christine to London.  There Andrew sets up a practice and hopes to soon be caring for more appreciative clientele.  Unfortunately this is not to be and Andrew is soon left selling his own possessions in order to make ends meet, and piercing the ears of less than fashionable women.  One day Andrew and Christine go out to lunch at a local Italian restaurant, run by Mrs. Orlando and her daughter Anna.  Mrs. Orlando treats the couple kindly, having been their only friend during their time in London, and Anna shows them her new dance steps.  Lunch is scarcely begun though when Andrew is summoned to a local department store where a young woman appears to be having a seizure.  Andrew clears the room and helps the woman onto the couch.  When she starts screaming and crying again, Andrew slaps her as he has realized that she is simply putting on an act and not having a seizure at all.

The young woman’s name is Toppy Leroy (Penelope Dudley Ward), one of the richest women in London, and she asks Andrew to see her home where she offers him a drink to celebrate.  Andrew declines and heads for the elevator where he runs into Dr. Lawford (Rex Harrison), an old medical school friend.  Lawford invites Andrew to come and see some patients with him at a fashionable nursing home.  Andrew agrees and is soon caught up in the world of high-end private practice.  His days are full of golf outings and consultations which require no great medical effort on his part. Christine is suspicious about the sudden influx of cash for little work, but Andrew dismisses her worries.  In fact, Andrew has become more and more distant lately and has even begun having an affair with Toppy.  Christine is worried about Andrew and so, when he asks where she would like to go to lunch one day, takes him back to Mrs. Orlando’s kitchen.  On their way there the couple runs into Denny and the three go to lunch, where they find Mrs. Orlando but no Anna.  She tells them that Anna is sick with a lung disease but Andrew barely acknowledges this.

Denny begins to tell Andrew his new plans for an affordable care clinic for the people in the small villages and asks Andrew to come and work with him.  Andrew turns him down and asks Denny where he will get his money from, especially if he will care for people for free.  Denny is disenchanted by the changes he sees in Andrew, and though he has managed to stay sober for some time, goes out drinking.  He returns later that day, thoroughly soused, and tells Andrew exactly what he thinks of him before turning and hurrying out into the street.  Christine looks out the window in their apartment and sees an automobile accident occur.  Horrified she realizes that it is Denny who has been struck and Andrew runs to the scene.

This movie was nominated for four Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.  Once again, King Vidor takes a story of ordinary people and makes it into something extraordinary.  I literally could not turn this movie off and had to sit there and watch it all the way through.  The story is so well done, so absorbing, but also so real and affecting.  The story of a medical man struggling to keep his ideals and scientific curiosity in a field where money and social-climbing are becoming more the norm definitely hit home for me, a former nurse.

Rosalind Russell is wonderful in this film, quite different from we are used to seeing her.  So often in her roles, Rosalind Russell is just a little edgier, tougher, louder, brasher, and more energetic than other leading ladies.  But this film really gives her a chance to be a more reserved and gentle character, to portray a woman who loves her husband deeply and quietly and much more realistically than is usually shown.  But the one who really steals this movie is Robert Donat.

I have loved Robert Donat since I first saw him in THE 39 STEPS.  There was a special quality about him that was so different from most other leading men, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.  But I think after watching THE CITADEL I might have a better idea.  I think it is because he is kind.  There is an element of kindness and humbleness to him that comes through in so many of his performances, and it does again here.  Andrew is a kind man, who even when he becomes angry and speaks forcefully will still remember to say “Thank you for letting me speak” and “Good day”.  He is idealistic without being naive, his excitement and desire to help and heal people coming through without seeming to be contrived.  And that is what makes his fall into the superficial world of fashionable private practice all the more devastating.  To see a man who had such ideals fall so far away from that which he once held dear, shows so clearly how badly his trust and his heart must have been betrayed by the actions of the fearful townspeople.  As I said before, there is a kindness to Robert Donat and a humbleness that makes him so watchable and so wonderful.  He is an actor that suffered greatly from anxiety and shyness, perhaps so much so that it ended his career and possibly his life far too soon.  This film is a true testament to the great talent of an actor who deserves to be known not only for his career but his spirit and soul, because when Robert Donat acts that is what he gives each and every time.


If you want to learn more about Robert Donat, Meredith over at Vitaphone Dreamer has written a fantastic profile of him!  Also, there is an entire site devoted to Robert Donat so definitely go and check it out.

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