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Something the
Lord Made

HBO: Sunday, May 30, at 9 p.m.
Baltimore Premiere (invitation only): May 18, Senator Theater.
East Baltimore: Details to be announced.

 

Hopkins Meets HBO
The result is a complete clash of cultures ... and a captivating film

On location in East Baltimore, Jan. 11, 2004

Driving over to the East Baltimore campus on the afternoon of March 22, Harold Norris was ready for a fight. Norris was about to preview an HBO film based on the story of the famed blue-baby surgery developed here in the 1940s by Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, his own father-in-law. He had seen an early script, which he had not liked. Worse, he had heard that the dignified Thomas would be played by someone known as Mos Def, a rap star no less.

Arriving at the Broadway Research Building, Norris selected a seat in the back of the seminar room so he could gauge the reaction among the handful of surgeons, development officers and others who had gathered for the preview. Fifteen minutes into the film, he was forced to concede to himself that it was actually pretty good. Soon Norris began to wonder: What am I going to have to yell about? When it was over, he was so moved he covered his face with a hand to regain his composure. How did he like it? “I was pleased,” he declared.

This riveting and poignant film, Something the Lord Made, will air on HBO on Sunday, May 30. It centers not only on the struggle to develop the groundbreaking heart surgery that would save the lives of countless children, but also on the climate of segregation that would keep a black lab technician like Thomas from attaining the recognition he deserved and a white surgeon like Blalock (Alan Rickman) from fully understanding what their relationship could have been like in a modern era.

Norris wasn’t the only one to come away from the preview with a sense of pleasure mixed with relief. The old guard surgeons—Alex Haller and Vince Gott—also had been uneasy with some inaccuracies in the early script. They had taken it upon themselves to make sure the institution’s legacy wasn’t cheapened in any way by a made-for-cable television movie. It hadn’t been easy. HBO, after all, was producing a “docudrama,” in which fact is juxtaposed with fiction. “It sometimes was a real clash of cultures between an institution with a heritage to protect and a network that wanted to make an entertaining film,” says Gary Stephenson, JHM’s associate director of media relations.

As technical advisers, the surgeons served an important purpose, however. They knew, for example, how the instruments should be held or how an incision should look. But advice on non-surgical matters was not particularly appreciated by the filmmakers, who included veteran director Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) and producer Robert Cort (Runaway Bride, Mr. Holland’s Opus).

“Joe Sargent was not interested in having some little surgeon who doesn’t know a thing about the profession tell him how to shoot a scene,” says Haller. Haller thought there was little he could do, but initially he was disturbed by what he saw as an underlying coarseness in the film. “I decided I would try my best to get across the real interrelations and emotional ties these two men had. Having lived through it, I felt I could.”

Haller is a 1951 School of Medicine graduate who worked with Thomas in Blalock’s dog lab when he was a student and intern and went on to become Hopkins’ first chief of pediatric surgery. Haller says he understood HBO’s need to dramatize the story. “But it didn’t need to be wrong. I thought it was possible to make it accurate. The real story is so good it doesn’t require any icing on the cake.”

Of course, there are some liberties taken: Blalock’s lab is shown on the Homewood campus, not in East Baltimore; the shy, partially deaf cardiologist Helen Taussig unrealistically turns up at a surgical cocktail party at Blalock’s home, for example. But gone is an original scene in which Blalock and Thomas hold a conversation over urinals (divided by a barrier that separates blacks from whites), and there’s not much off-color language, either.

Besides the surgeons, others at Hopkins also worked with HBO to help make the movie as true to the men, the medicine and the times as possible. Pre-production, Medical Archives’ Andrew Harrison supplied the photographs, documents and people who could shed light on the way things were at Johns Hopkins in the 1940s. From this, sets were built, costumes created, props acquired. Because some of those props, such as the original set of instruments that Thomas devised in Blalock’s dog lab, were supplied by Medical Archives, Harrison was often on location to guard them. Over time, he became a sort of on-site historian, suggesting, for example, as only an insider could, that some of the actors in a scene shot in the Billings Administration Building might rub the toe of the Christ statue. “There was never a time that HBO didn’t at least listen,” says Harrison.

In the end, everyone gained something and grew a little. Haller came to respect the filmmakers’ consummate professionalism and the genius of the two stars—particularly Rickman, a Brit who mastered Blalock’s Georgia drawl. (“I thought for all the world it was Blalock!”) And Norris, who had launched a letter writing campaign to make sure his father-in-law was properly portrayed, now was dazzled by Mos Def. “It was scary to watch—scary in the metaphysical sense—because Mos Def became Vivien Thomas.” When and if he meets the rapper-turned-actor, Norris says, “I’m going to shake his hand.”

As for HBO, producer Robert Cort, on hand for the preview in March, said he had decided to show the film to the Hopkins group because he wanted to reassure them that Something the Lord Made shows them in the best possible light. “In the course of making the film,” he said, “I came to understand the importance of the heritage of excellence at Johns Hopkins.”

Anne Bennett Swingle

Hopkins on Film

Did you know that the doctor who treated Tony Soprano in the emergency room last month trained at Hopkins? Or that Ellie Bartlett, daughter of President Jed Bartlett, now is a post-doc at the School of Medicine? And how about gifted college student Paige Morgan? She was dead-set on getting her M.D. here until Denmark’s crown prince distracted her with an engagement ring.

Remarkably, in productions like The Sopranos, The West Wing and The Prince and Me, the School of Medicine is playing a role. It’s a minor one, of course—nothing like its important part in HBO’s Something the Lord Made. But undoubtedly, for millions of viewers, these cameo appearances, though pure fiction, have an effect that’s very real.

 

 

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