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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

While The Patient Slept: Review

It’s not likely you’ve ever heard of the film, While the Patient Slept. I never had either, not until I stumbled upon it as one of the few remaining DVDs in a freebie pile laid out by the folks from Warner Archive at an event the night before the opening of the 2014 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival (TCMFF). I came across the event by accident as well, and as it turned out both the event and the film are two of my favorite things from this year’s classic film fest.

I lived in Hollywood for more than a dozen years. Right in the heart of it, just blocks away from the Chinese Theatre in one direction and even fewer blocks away from the Formosa Cafe in the other direction. In case you don’t know, the Formosa is an old school bar and cafe at the corner of Formosa Ave and Santa Monica Blvd. It’s located directly across the street from The Lot, a small studio that was previously owned by Warner Bros., The Goldwyn Company and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (it’s that old). The Formosa is nearly as old as the stages just a few yards away, and has as rich a history as you might imagine. So, it’s a natural gathering spot for those wishing to celebrate old school Hollywood or classic movies. And that’s how I stumbled upon a bunch of classic film bloggers gathering the night before the 2014 TCMFF - I was in the neighborhood and they were doing some pre-festival celebrating.

After I entered the Formosa I was of course thrilled to see and meet many of the people I had only previously known by twitter handles or Internet addresses. Even better was when I heard about the free DVDs laid out on a back table. Apparently Warner Archive was co-hosting the get-together and brought along samples. Because I was late to the table as it were, there were few films left from which to choose. However, there was one in particular that caught my eye and that was While the Patient Slept.

The first thing I noticed about the film (besides the poor DVD cover art) were the two featured stars, Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee. Both of these individuals are beloved character actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, but neither was ever a lead per se. And that’s exactly why I swooped up this DVD before anyone else noticed their over sight. The opportunity to see these two reliable bastions of the Warner stable of contract players was enough to make me want to rush home and start watching right away (which I did soon enough). I just knew I had something special in my hands regardless of the plot or the rest of the production aspects. Even if the film was a stinker I was going to get to see MacMahon and Kibbee together, and for anyone who’s seen Gold Diggers of 1933 they know what a treat that is. Fortunately, as it turns out, the two stars were not the only quality features of the film.

The plot of While the Patient Slept is based on a murder mystery by a then leading female crime novelist, Mignon Eberhart (the cover notes refer to her as the American Agatha Christie). There is a clever nurse (MacMahon) who helps a local detective (Kibbee) discover who shot the son of her comatose patient. There are plenty of suspects played for the most part by undistinguished actors, but there is also the handsome Lyle Talbot (The Purchase Price, Plan 9 From Outer Space) as a suitor to the granddaughter of the patient, and the always-enjoyable Allen Jenkins (42nd Street, Ball of Fire) as a sidekick to the detective. The story is enjoyable and intriguing enough for fans of the genre, but it really doesn’t matter. The real pleasure here is watching MacMahon and Kibbee spar as she deflects his constant attempts at flirting. Their relationship in many ways is similar to that of Edna May Oliver and James Gleason in a series of murder mysteries featuring Oliver as the schoolteacher Miss Withers.

I did watch While the Patient Slept as soon as I got home that night from the Formosa, and every night for the next four days after getting home from the 2014 TCMFF. It was a wonderful way to commemorate each day of classic film watching, and the familiar patter of two of my favorite supporting actors acted as an elixir in which to wind the day down. Although it has been said that not every old film is a classic, I believe there are old films that should be cherished for possessing the qualities that as a whole do not equal the sum of their parts. Surely, While the Patient Slept will never meet the standards of cinematic scholars to hold the distinction of being an honored classic. However, I cherish its many classic parts.

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