|Released by Warner Bros.
Directed by William Keighley
Run time: 53 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- Mary has had an affair with Monica’s husband and produced a child out of wedlock. She tries to terminate her own pregnancy just about every way she can think of, from drink to really-unpleasant-looking horse jumping accidents to implying to her doctor that– you know. She wants to be rid of it.
Dr. Monica: Ain’t That a Mother
“What this child needs is a mother.”
That line could actually refer to a number of characters in Dr. Monica, a twisted melodrama about a love triangle, a child out of wedlock, and the womanly urge to give birth, and maybe still have it all at the same time.
Kay Francis, who gets some choice gowns and teary eyed close ups, plays Dr. Monica Brayden, an extremely successful obstetrician. She has a husband, a nascent– nee unsuccessful– author named John (William). John has had a fling with Monica’s aviatrix friend, Mary (Muir) and she’s wound up pregnant. John has no idea, and through a number of complications, Monica delivers Mary’s child shortly after learning who the father is.
The movie is often described as a woman’s picture, and there’s no doubt about it. The three major roles, that of Monica, Mary, and Monica’s best friend, Anna (Verree Teasdale), all have their own careers– doctor, aviatrix, and architect, respectively. Monica and Anna are both strong and intelligent, though Anna is far more into serving up cocktails than Monica’s preoccupation with babies. Mary is young and inexperienced, and its up to the two older women to deal with the consequences of her actions and all the guilt and anger it generates.
Of course, Monica isn’t exactly all there herself. She talks about her husband as if he’s a child, even telling him, “I should be your mother– you’re such a little boy.” She goes so far to explain that her own desire to having a baby would be to maker her a better mother to her John. Monica has lost perspective on what makes her husband a husband, and it’s no surprise to the audience he ran to Mary, even for just a dalliance. Later in the film, Monica picks up a handful of lingerie and growls, “It’s amazing what junk one collects.”
Mary sees that John and Monica are still deeply in love, and, knowing that Monica can’t have a child, decides to kill herself and leave the kid to the happy couple. It’s a strange bit of sacrifice, but an emotionally tinged one played with great, teary tones. Monica gets what she always wanted in a “Gift of the Magi” way, without even giving up her career to boot.
The fact that John will never find out about the truth about the child is a morbid little coda, a secret between women to preserve one another’s dignity. There’s a very strong sense in the movie that John just can’t handle his shit, and no one ever doubts it– men are simply too emotional.
The cast here is keenly professional. Kay Francis delivers a strong, coying performance with many moments of flourish that illustrate why she was one of the most capable of playing professional women in movies– you believe her ability to project smarts and class. Jena Muir has to anguish quite a bit, and is good for it. Verree Teasdale plays Anna with great deadpan heart; the scene where she slaps Monica to remember her professional demands is an especially strong moment that elevates the film. This is a movie about a kind of nobility that is extinct, one towards both professionalism and sacrifice for a greater good.
That makes Dr. Monica a movie about growing up, in relationships and life. Everything is an evolution and life is messy. If only things were always delivered with such sophistication and grace.
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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links
- Often confused with (at least by me) with the other Kay Francis pre-Code doctor movie, Mary Stevens, MD. They’re both definitely worth a watch.
- This is a new review written in July 2018. The original from 2011 is probably somewhere else on the internet if you want to find it. Regardless, here’s my summation of film the first time around (spoilers included):
Regardless, Dr. Monica plays like a sick joke most of the time, a horror show for Monica as she goes from naive wife to eventually overcoming the fact that she and her husband are going to raise his lovechild without him even realizing it. As silly as that is, it’s the stuff of good melodrama, and the film never stops taking this stuff seriously. It’s goofy, but an honest kind of goofy that I always enjoy.
- Based on a Broadway hit play. Originally the screen version was set to have Joel McCrea play the Warren William part. No offense, but I don’t think it would have made a lick of difference. Unless McCrea was wearing a mustache for some reason.
- Speaking of, Cliff at WarrenWilliam.com bemoans William’s part here:
Maybe it’s the clean upper lip. Warren appeared in Cleopatra directly after Dr. Monica, even had to come back to Warner Brothers for some Dr. Monica retakes in between, so he is clean shaven. Does the ‘stache claim Samson-like powers? Was Warren’s vitality so drained by those few swipes of the razor? I half expected another actor to come shove him aside and claim that he in fact did this to Miss Muir.
- The article over at TCMDB talks briefly about how despised this film was at the soon-to-be-empowered Breen Office:
Even then the Code office recommended that it be pulled from theaters because of references to adultery and pregnancy, and Code official Joseph I. Breen objected to characters he saw as a lesbian, a nymphomaniac, and a prostitute. Few would nominate Dr. Monica as Hollywood’s best medical melodrama, but Francis’s glamour somehow fits right in with its crackpot plot.
- Cliff at Immortal Ephemera also mentions this below-the-radar moment that undoubtedly made Breen’s ears red:
In case you weren’t quite sure about Dr. Monica making it in under the mid-1934 pre and post code dividing line we have the following brief conversation between Mary and her pal, Dr. Monica after Monica has given Mary her diagnosis:
Mary: “Monica, you’ve got to help me!”
Monica: “Don’t you ever dare talk like that again. Don’t you ever think that way again.”
Now Monica is completely willing to help Mary. In fact she helps her above and beyond proper expectations once all of the facts are known. But what Mary really wants Monica’s help with is an abortion. As heavily veiled as the typed dialogue makes this appear it is quite obvious when watching Kay Francis and Jean Muir put the scene over.
- Variety’s review is downright mean:
It moves apace and the acting is excellent.
- Lynn Kear and John Rossman’s Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career note sadly that Dr. Monica, “was another role that did little for Kay’s career.” Kay admitted in interviews that she was tired of taking such parts and felt like her acting was hitting a standstill.
- John Strangeland’s Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood points the blame at this film and Smarty for knocking Warren William out of major starring roles at Warner Bros. He also notes that the orginal stage production of this movie didn’t feature John Brayden at all– he was offscreen for the whole drama, and William was “unquestionably there simply to personify a character that the author had deemed irrelevant.”
- Louise Beavers pops in briefly as Mary’s maid. She and William would appear together again soon in Beavers’ most famous role, Imitation of Life.
- The Self-Styled Siren berates this one, groaning that, “[n]obody really knows anything in this movie.” She does note, however, that the movie “has some historical interest for those who want to see how unwed motherhood, infidelity and infertility were treated just on the cusp of the Production Code’s implementation.”
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is an obscure one and plays occasionally on TCM. I wish you luck in finding it!