By Chris Smith
Since the birth of motion pictures, the dental profession consistently has been portrayed as the object of derision, contempt, revulsion and fear, according to a recent article in Movieline magazine.
In a story titled “The Drilling Fields, An Oral History of Hollywood’s Unfair Depiction of a Tragically Downtrodden Minority – Dentists,” author Joe Queenan documents the negative roles Hollywood has created of dentists. He made these comments about two recent movies – the HBO movie “The Dentist” starring Corbin Bensen and “Captives,” starring Julia Ormond:
“As someone who has always had great respect for dentists, and most particularly for the unfailingly professional Dr. Zegarelli (his dentist), I too was perplexed and infuriated by the unsavory portrayal of dentists in these two films. I too would have preferred something more upbeat, perhaps a dental version of “Sling Blade”, or “Shine” – “Forest Gum”, if you will. And yet, one need only glance at the profession’s long, unhappy celluloid history to see that this new case of cinematic abuse was imply par for the course.” He provides a long list of movies in which dentistry has been ridiculed.
“Greed,” made in 1925 by Erich von Stroheim featured a dentist named McTeague whose life is destroyed when it is discovered that he did not go to dental school. This film is known for its portrayal of the dental techniques of the Wild West and a scene in which the dentist kisses his future wife while she is anesthetized.
W.C. Field’s “Dentist,” a short made in 1932, features the famous comedian as a dentist who is a full-fledged lecher uttering such lines as “Hand me that 404 circular buzz saw, will you?” When he pulls a tooth from a voluptuous patient, she literally wraps her legs around him and gyrates as if having sex. Now it is offered in a boxed set of W.C. Field’s classics.
In 1933’s “One Sunday Afternoon,” Gary Cooper appeared as a dentist who believed he married the wrong woman. The right woman should have been Fay Wray, of King Kong fame.
In the 1934 thriller, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Alfred Hitchcock is believed to have created the character of a creepy dentist as a comment about the state of British dentistry. The dentist is a spy working for a fascist government in a dilapidated office in a London suburb. He removes a molar from a patient whose tooth does not need to be removed, but is overpowered by his next patient, who gives him some of his own gas. The patient then poses as the dentist and extracts information from the dentist’s sinister contact played by Peter Lorre.
In 1941, “One Sunday Afternoon” was remade as “The Strawberry Blonde” featuring James Cagney as the dentist who gets his dental diploma through the mail while in prison. The story is told in flashback and climaxes when the dentist avenges himself on the man who stole the women he loved and caused him to serve his two-year in prison. This movie stretches credibility to the maximum: If you stole a man’s girlfriend and sent him to prison, why would you go back to him for dental care, even when you knew he received his degree through the mail? This question is never answered.
Also in 1941, Errol Flynn starred in a movie called “Footsteps in the Dark.” He played an investment banker who secretly writes mysteries using a pen name. His character becomes embroiled in a murder case in which he is the prime suspect, and he squares off with a murderous dentist played by Ralph Bellamy.
In 1944, Preston Sturges directed “The Great Moment,” a story about the discovery of anesthesia with Joel McCrea portraying Dr. W.T.G. Morton. The movie features a botched operation, terrified patients and questionable dental practices, and ends with McCrea’s character ruined. When McCrea’s girlfriend tearfully explains to her mother that her fiancee intends to become a dentist, the mother responds, “Oh, and he seemed such a nice young man.”
In 1948, a musical version of “One Sunday Afternoon” was released with Dennis Morgan in the Cooper-Cagney role.
Also in 1948, Bob Hope appeared in “The Paleface playing a character called Painless Potter. In one early scene, Hope holds a hammer in his patient’s mouth while reading a dental manual. This movie, which probably is the most widely seen of any featuring a dental theme, is best-known for Jane Russell’s scene in which she has pistols strapped around her underwear.
In 1960, “Bells Are Ringing” features Dr. Joe Kitchell, a dentist who secretly dreams of writing musicals. This movie features the standard themes of dentists in movies: bad dentistry and low self-esteem.
Other movies made in the 1960s featured dentists as oddball characters: Jack Nicholson as a sadistic dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors”; crime-fighting dental students in “Dentist in the Chair”; weird dentist inventors in “Get On With It”; a blackmailing dentist in “The Secret Partner”; Don Knots in “The Shakiest Gun in the West,” a remake of “The Paleface”; and “Cactus Flower” with Walter Matthau as a grumpy old dentist loved by Goldie Hawn.
Then in 1976, “Marathon Man” was released and set the standard for sadism on the part of the dentist. “What makes ‘Marathon Man’ so fascinating is that it is one of the few films in the entire canon of dental cinema in which the dentist does not suffer from low self-esteem,” writes Queenan. “Yes, Lawrence Olivier plays a sadistic Nazi hiding out in South America. Yes, he is a fiendish killer. And yes, he’s a practitioner of some of the most aggressive dental procedures imaginable. But nothing in Olivier’s performance suggests that he suffers from any doubts about his own worth as a person or as a dentist.”
Queenan surmises that perhaps because of Olivier’s nauseating antics and over-the-top acting, dentistry did not resurface on the screen in a major way until 1985, when Joe Mantegna played a dentist rubbed out by the mob in “Compromising Positions.” Once again, the sex theme appears; the murdered dentist is referred to as “the Don Juan of dentists.” However, this comedy gets points from critics for realistic dialogue between patients and dentist and is believed to be the first time flossing is discussed in a film.
Other movies featured dentist characters in smaller roles: “Brazil”; “Housekeeper”; “Serial Mom”; “Reuben, Reuben”; the muscial remake of “Little Shop of Horrors”; and Pedro Almodovar’s “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” which features a pedophile dentist.
As a group bound together as “dental movies,” most critics would not give them the time of day. However, what makes this group interesting is what Hollywood has to say about its perceptions of dentistry — a theme that hasn’t changed much since the movie industry began.