CONTAINS SPOILERS. 'Grand Canary' is based on a novel by Scots author A.J. Cronin, who specialised in stories about doctors caught in ethical crises. The star of this film is Warner Baxter, whom I usually like, but his performance here seems to be a practice run for his later role in 'The Prisoner of Shark Island'. In both films, Baxter plays a disgraced physician who redeems himself when an epidemic breaks out on a remote island where Baxter is in exile. The principal difference between the two stories is that, in 'Grand Canary', the exile is self-imposed. Also, 'Grand Canary' has got more women in it.
Baxter plays Harvey Leith, an English physician whose refusal to accept current medical standards leads him to develop an experimental vaccine. In the charity ward, he tests this on three patients who are terminally ill; they're going to die anyway, but Dr Leith wants to see if the vaccine will relieve their symptoms before they succumb. A.J. Cronin's medical protagonists tend to be crusaders who must contend with the bloody-minded obstinacy of their administrative superiors, so it's no surprise what happens to Dr Leith: the hospital governor blames Leith's vaccine for the deaths of his three patients. In disgrace, Leith leaves the country, boarding a Liverpool steamer bound for the Canary Islands. (Hence the title.)
Aboard the steamer, Leith meets attractive Lady Mary Fielding, who's bound for the Canaries to rejoin her husband. Lady Mary is attracted to the debonair doctor, but ... she's bound for the Canaries to rejoin her husband. The ship reaches the Canaries just in time for a malaria epidemic. Dr Leith's career and reputation are over, so he's not afraid to die. He rolls up his sleeves and gives medical aid to the malaria victims.
At this point, as in most of A.J. Cronin's stories, soap-opera rears its ugly head. Lady Mary follows Dr Leith into the quarantine zone. Of course, she gets malaria. Of course, Dr Leith just happens to have a handy batch of his miracle serum to use on Lady Mary. When the blackballed doctor saves this green-eyed blue-blood from yellow fever, he becomes a hero back home in Harley Street. Dr Leith goes home to England, vindicated. Lady Mary discreetly tells her husband that she loves Dr Leith, and her husband obligingly gives her a divorce and steps aside. Whisky and soda all round, eh what? (UPDATE: My review is based on a British print of this film. I've since seen an American print, which has a different ending.)
There are several irrelevant subplots, and quite a few characters could easily be pruned from this movie. I usually welcome character actress Marjorie Rambeau, but here she supplies some inept comic relief that merely distracts attention from the main story. A better performance is given by Carrie Daumery, as an elderly marchioness who lets Dr Leith use her mansion for a malaria ward.
In the central role, Warner Baxter has the sense to avoid attempting a British accent. Unfortunately, he gives Dr Leith a stiff-upper-lip characterisation that seems to conform to some stereotype of Britishness rather than evoking a human being. H.B. Warner, an extremely variable actor, is quite bad here. Most of what's good in 'Grand Canary' was done better in 'The Prisoner of Shark Island', which had the merits of being a (heavily fictionalised) true story without nearly so many subplots. 'Grand Canary' is a well-meaning movie that manages to be very 'worthy' without actually being very good. I'll rate 'Grand Canary' 5 out of 10. Next patient!
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