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Dentists of the Silver Screen

Four out of five dentists may recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum, but if Hollywood is to be believed, pretty much all of them posses some disturbing character flaw. Whether they're homicidal, incompetent, unethical, or just plain weird, the appearance of a dentist onscreen usually means trouble.

Real-life dentists already have a bad rap. In addition to widespread beliefs that they aren't smart enough to be "real" doctors and have the highest suicide rates among professionals, their general celluloid depiction only furthers public apprehensions about them. More to the point, their cinematic portrayals play on built-in dental anxieties of audiences -- no doubt snacking on tooth-rotting candy in darkened theaters -- perpetuating fears about the so-called boogeymen of medicine.

Fairly common elements occur in the typical dental-office scenario: Patients nervously sit in a waiting room, looking at tropical fish or reading outdated magazines, as a drill's high-pitched whine (and often, screams) emanate from the exam room. Inside, the white male dentist wears either a zippered jacket or one of those button-down tunics, his female assistants wear scrubs, the patient wears a bib. The prone patient's eyes bulge with fear upon sight of the doctor's metallic tools, though with a mouthful of instruments, cotton, and tubes, they're unable to speak intelligibly. Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, is often a source of drug-induced humor. Any physical intimacy between doctor and patient, beyond normal dental work, usually leads to disaster. Of course, dental-themed porn flicks may promise plenty of "filled cavities," "drilling," and "hot oral action," but that's another article.

With these conventions in mind, here now are some of American filmdom's more noteworthy dentists, most of whom should have their licenses revoked. Open wide.

Greed (1925)

Erich von Stroheim's silent tragedy about California miner-turned-dentist-turned-pauper-turned-killer, John McTeague (Gibson Gowland). Dr. "Painless" Potter (Erich von Ritzau) rides a horse-drawn carriage into McTeague's mining town where, on the street outside a saloon, he pulls a guy's tooth. (Potter charges 50 cents per extraction, $2 per filling.) He then takes McTeague on as his apprentice. Years later, McTeague establishes his own San Francisco "dental salons."

One day McTeague is working on the attractive young Trina, who's zonked out on ether. McTeague impulsively kisses her. As he later confesses to his friend Marcus, who happens to be Trina's beau, "I couldn't help myself! I was so close to her, an' smelled her hair, an' felt her breath. Oh! You don't know!"

Marcus, being a pal, "gives" Trina to McTeague, and after McTeague serenades her with a concertina, they marry. However, a lottery makes Trina rich, so a resentful Marcus reports McTeague for practicing dentistry without a license. McTeague is forced to quit, and because Trina has gone insane with avarice, she forces them both to live in poverty. McTeague becomes a drunk, and his own resentment drives him to kill both Trina and Marcus. Then McTeague himself dies.

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

In this Gay '90s comedy, Dr. Biff Grimes (James Cagney) works by gaslight and uses a pedal-powered drill. Grimes learned his trade by mail, and in a flashback, he's seen practicing on his father. Under the influence of giggle-gas, dad alternately laughs uncontrollably and screams in agony, and finally chases Grimes out of the office.

Later, Grimes is unjustly sent to prison. He takes his final dental exam on the warden, and his diploma arrives while he's in solitary confinement. Upon release, Grimes exacts revenge on a backstabbing pal: Without administering anaesthetic, he brutally yanks the man's tooth.

The Paleface (1948)

Bob Hope's Dr. "Painless" Peter Potter roams the Wild West in a covered wagon (just like Greed's Painless Potter), and serenades Jane Russell with a concertina (just like Greed's John McTeague). The absent-minded Potter is introduced in a slapstick scene where he repeatedly consults a reference manual to perform what should be a routine extraction. His bow tie falls into the mouth of his patient, whose tonsil he accidentally drills. (How Potter got a power drill in the Old West remains a mystery.) A leaky gas mask causes both doctor and patient to giggle helplessly, and Potter pulls the wrong tooth. Patient decks doctor and, still giggling, warns him to leave town. An apparent quack, Potter gets kicked out of every town in which he practices.

Marathon Man (1976)

Laurence Olivier plays fugitive Nazi dentist Christian Szell, an infamous war criminal hiding in New York City. The SS DDS intends to smuggle diamonds out of the country, but is convinced that innocent grad student Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman) stands in his way. Szell has his thugs kidnap Levy and bring him to some vacant building, where Levy is strapped into a chair. Szell calmly washes his hands and readies his instruments, repeatedly asking Levy, "Is it safe?"

The confused, frightened Levy squirms and sweats, not knowing which response (if any) will free him. Szell inspects Levy's pearly whites and coolly tells him, "Please don't worry. I'm not going into that cavity. That nerve's already dying. A live, freshly cut nerve is infinitely more sensitive. So I'll just go into a healthy tooth until I reach the pulp."

We don't actually see the torture; we only hear Szell's whining drill, and a moment later, Levy's blood-curdling screams. Olivier's indelibly chilling performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The In-Laws (1979)

Alan Arkin is mild-mannered Manhattan dentist Dr. Sheldon Kornpett, whose stable, straight-laced life becomes a nightmare upon meeting CIA agent Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk).

Ricardo bursts into Kornpett's office just as he's filled Mrs. Adelman's mouth with wet plaster. He sweet-talks the good-natured Kornpett into running some vague errand, promising it will take "just five minutes." Unaware that Ricardo has dragged him into an international counterfeiting conspiracy, Kornpett is soon fleeing down a fire escape and through Midtown streets, clutching an attaché case. As bullets whiz past Kornpett and graze his dental jacket, he yells at his pursuers, "There's no reason to shoot me! I'm a dentist!"

But not a very good one. A full 15 minutes later, Kornpett safely returns to his office, only to find the plaster permanently bonded to Mrs. Adelman's teeth.

Compromising Positions (1985)

Long Island periodontist Dr. Bruce Fleckstein (Joe Mantegna) wears gold jewelry and pinky rings, and has a suave, swarthy chairside manner. A mere five minutes into the film, when he's alone in his office, a mysterious figure shoves a scalpel in his back. His blood trickles down the spit sink, à la Psycho.

As the murder mystery unfolds, investigative journalist Susan Sarandon discovers the not-so-good doctor was a shady lowlife, tied to several parties with plausible motives. He had regular trysts with dozens of patients, taking explicit Polaroids of his conquests in various S&M poses. As a consequence, he left behind a jealous wife, jealous mistresses, and all their angry husbands. He also was involved with mobsters and pornographers and, well, he was a dentist. Upon hearing of Fleckstein's death, Sarandon's husband scoffs, "I'd love to kill a dentist."

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Steve Martin plays the leather-clad, cycle-riding Dr. Orin Scrivello in Frank Oz's musical about a giant, man-eating plant. The abusive doctor tortured animals as a child and batters women as an adult, and works in a field that rewards his cruel urges. Conjuring Elvis in a Motown-esque number, he belts out:

I am your dentist, and I enjoy the career that I picked
I am your dentist, and I get off on the pain I inflict!

In a macabre twist on the standard dentist/patient relationship, masochist Arthur Denton (Bill Murray) drops in, telling Scrivello, "I think I need a root canal... I'm sure I need a long, slow root canal."

As Scrivello lays into him with his dull, rusty drill, Denton screams orgasmically through a mouthful of cotton. Scrivello grows increasingly frustrated that the more he dishes out, the more Denton enjoys himself, until a disgusted Scrivello finally kicks him out. Later, when Scrivello straps on a custom nitrous mask to enhance his sadistic pleasure, he accidentally gasses himself to death.

Roger Corman first brought Little Shop to the big screen in 1960, with Jack Nicholson as the masochistic patient. He refuses anaesthetic ("It dulls the senses!"), and gleefully exclaims, "I'd almost rather go to the dentist than anywhere!"

The Dentist (1996)

This grade-B horror flick exploits dental fears to a logical end -- the dentist kills his patients. Psychopath Dr. Allan Feinstone (Corbin Bernsen) views himself as a cleanser of society's impurities, both moral and oral: "I am an instrument of perfection and hygiene. The enemy of decay and destruction. A dentist. And I have a lot of work to do."

After catching his wife with another man, a vengeful Feinstone molests an unconscious female patient. Then the movie becomes an all-out splatter-fest, featuring graphic close-ups of the mad doctor's drill boring through healthy teeth and reducing them to pulpy, bloody messes. When an IRS agent unexpectedly arrives for an audit, Feinstone drills through the man's tongue. He also kills his two dental assistants, his poolboy, and a dog. Near the end, he straps his cheating wife in the chair, yanks all her teeth, cuts out her tongue, and essentially mutilates the lower half of her face. More of the same occurs in 1998's straight-to-cable sequel, The Dentist 2.

Production note: These two movies credit a "Dental Technical Advisor," a "Dental Consultant" and someone responsible for "Special Teeth Effects." Hopefully there won't be any future Dentist installments requiring their talents.

Schizopolis (1996)

An absurd comedy written by, directed by and starring Steven Soderbergh, who plays the impossibly square Dr. Jeffrey Korchek. The single, seemingly lonely Korchek wears large, unflattering eyeglasses, and when not at work, a ridiculous jogging suit. In his slow, deadpan tone, he recites corny epigrams: "You don't have to floss all your teeth -- just the ones you want to keep... Be true to your teeth, and they won't be false to you... I may vote Republican, but I'm a firm believer in gum control."

Though an apparently competent doctor, Korchek's ethics are questionable. He offers to hook up his sketchy brother with Darvocet, and faces a lawsuit after passing an inappropriately suggestive note to a female patient: "Accept my love, or at least let me pay you to accept it."

Trekkies (1997)

Among several hardcore Star Trek geeks profiled in this Roger Nygard documentary is Dr. Denis Bourguignon, whose Orlando, Florida practice bears the name "Starbase Dental." His office is decked out in all manner of Star Trek décor -- posters, toys, life-size cardboard cutouts and other memorabilia. The theme also extends to the dress code, as the whole staff wears Starfleet uniforms. While such a misguided enterprise would seemingly give customers the creeps, the sci-fi surroundings are intended as a distraction from all the drilling and filling.

"We decided to go with Star Trek because the episodes are always geared with a moral," Bourguignon explains. "They're good-doers, and we wanted to portray dentists as good-doers."

Novocaine (2001)

Fifteen years after his turn as the gas-huffing sadist Dr. Scrivello, Steve Martin plays the more conventional Dr. Frank Sangster in this sort of dental noir. Sangster runs an efficient, successful practice, which turns upside-down the day femme fatale Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter) stops by. She scams a Demerol script out of him and engages him in a dental-chair tryst, fulfilling a fantasy of his in which his hygienist fiancée (Laura Dern) has refused to indulge.

Newly corrupted, Sangster begins concocting a web of lies. "Lying is a lot like tooth decay," he figures. "A particle of food becomes imbedded behind a tooth, and there it sits, working its way in behind the enamel, rotting it from the inside out, until there's nothing left to do but pull it. One small lie, and everything unravels from there."

He soon becomes a murder suspect (his bite marks were discovered on the corpse), and then his own brother's corpse appears in his exam room, also with Sangster's bite marks.

Spoiler alert: The innocent Sangster extracts his own teeth, implants them in his brother's mouth, sets his office on fire, and flees the country. All that remain for investigators are Sangster's charred choppers, leading them to wrongly conclude that Sangster himself was scorched to death.

The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002)

Alan Rudolph's domestic drama stars Campbell Scott and Hope Davis as David and Dana Hurst, a suburban New York couple who met in dental school, married, had children, and opened a joint practice. They discuss household matters in the office and talk shop at home, yet have a chronic inability to communicate about their fragile marriage. David suspects his wife's infidelity, but instead of going on a killing spree (like The Dentist's Dr. Feinstone), he can't even bring himself to confront his her.

Where Novocaine uses a lying-as-tooth decay metaphor, Secret Lives suggests a marriage-as-tooth metaphor -- both are very sensitive, but with regular care, both can be very strong. However, any signs of trouble need to be addressed before they fester beyond repair.

This analogy is brought into focus by Slater (Dennis Leary), an irascible patient of David's. Slater's putrid mouth is a disaster, though he refuses to have it taken care of until he can no longer bear the pain. David advises Slater otherwise, yet David is unable to apply the same logic to his faltering marriage. The spineless, insecure David fears he's a failure, both as a husband and as a dentist.

As for David's wife Dana, she seems to regret her life decisions, but her character deserves credit as perhaps the first female dentist ever to appear in American film...

Snow Dogs (2002)

...Likewise, the Disney film Snow Dogs breaks the dental color barrier with not one, but three black dentists. Dr. Ted Brooks (Cuba Gooding Jr.) inherited his highly successful Miami Beach practice from his dentist dad (Rupert Judge), and has Sisqó as his wisecracking associate. Brooks zips around town in his convertible (the vanity plates read OPN WYD), passing city buses wrapped with giant ads promoting his "Hot Smile Dental Group." He later travels to Alaska to inherit a team of sled dogs, and eventually he relocates his business there. Brooks marries an Eskimo girl, and they live happily ever after...

So, what's the problem? Other than the fact that Brooks is played by the loathsome Gooding Jr., nothing. He's professional, courteous, and respectful of the Hippocratic oath. He draws not one drop of blood, nor elicits a single whimper of discomfort. Finally, bucking the decades-old trend, Hollywood has portrayed a dentist in a positive light.

Maybe if more warm 'n' fuzzy Dr. Brooks-types appeared in the movies, the public might be less inclined to consider a trip to the dentist as one of life's necessary evils. Then again, dental appointments wouldn't be so bad to begin with if people would simply brush and floss three times a day and, when at the multiplex, avoid the snack bar.

Now spit.

Steve Mandich works at a video store, his dad was a dentist. This pretty much explains everything.

Originally appeared in the debut issue of the print zine 6 is 9, Winter 2004. Order it here.

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© 2004-2011 Steve Mandich