|Released by First National/Warner Bros. | Directed by James Flood
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Let’s just say that medicine has changed in 80-some years.
- One nervous father is sent out to find some ether for his wife, only to find you need a prescription for it for some reason.
- There’s an unwed mother, much to everyone’s shock.
- Death on the ward.
Life Begins: And The Circle Continues
“Relax? AT A TIME LIKE THIS?!”
Through an alignment of fate and my all-too-rare attempt at planning, this review should drop the exact day that my wife and I are heading to the hospital to welcome our first child to the world.
It’s an emotional time for us, as I’m sure you can imagine. They say it changes your life forever, and I, for one, am eager to get it started just to see what it’s like. It also added an extra layer of poignancy to Life Begins, so I suppose I should ask you to take this with a grain of salt. Saying that a Frank McHugh comic relief character made me tear up a little bit as he played a desperate dad waiting outside the waiting room should probably tip your hand as to my mindset.
Life Begins is an ensemble drama, seeking to explore the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that motherhood can transform a woman. This movie is made back in the time before ‘soccer moms’ became a derogatory term and the idea that “mother knows best” was something politicians could utter without arousing snickers.
Like a war movie, we have our diverse cast of candidates each equipped with a stereotype and a look of fear in their eyes before the explosions begin. There’s the fearless head nurse, Miss Bowers (MacMahon), who keeps all of the women safe and comfortable from the Depression lurking outside the windows. You have the wizened veteran, Mrs. West (Blandick), ready to offer condolences or encouragement as necessary. Then there’s the girl who’s too stuck up for this, the headcase who may put lives at risk (Peterson), the saucy showbiz personality who got drafted against her will (Farrell), and then the innocent of the bunch, Grace (Young), not wanting to die to do their duty but almost guaranteed a splendid sort of martyrdom.
That metaphor doesn’t work in exactly the same way, of course, since motherhood is about creation rather than destruction. Instead of being traumatized by these experiences, one-by-one they grow richer for them, some learning sacrifice and others touching real compassion.
Two husbands pace outside in the hallway. Ringer (McHugh) has been scuffing the floors for over half a day– his wife had previously given birth to a stillborn and she’s been a troubled pregnancy. He’s losing his mind when he meets Grace’s husband Jed (Linden). Grace– who was also in prison for a murder because, hey, this is pre-Code, buddy, and Loretta Young has to kill someone— keeps fluctuating on whether or not to continue living past the process, seeing as how she has another 20 years in prison to look forward to while poverty stricken husband and daughter must make do while they wait.
Rarely for, well, a lot of movies, the men are all impotent figures, awe struck and terrified. One woman in the ward jokes to one another, “Having a baby doesn’t amount to a thing. All a lot of hooey. Just women’s way to put one over on the men because they know darned well that men can never know for themselves.” A good gag, but not too likely.
Despite the many male doctors hovering around, it’s Bowers who negotiates the hospital’s humanity, and this is one of those movies where– yes– the institution begins to be its own character. We spend all but a few minutes of the movie confined to one floor, and director James Flood gives us an excellent sense of orientation between the flippant nurses, the arrangement of the nursery, and those ominous doors marked “Delivery Room”. Flood and the scriptwriters cleverly mess with that geography in the film’s final minutes as well, moving to an operating theater and further heightening the tension as one mother’s painful labor will result in either her death or the infant’s.
This movie, made back in a time where 1% of all women who gave birth died from it, is both sensitive and pragmatic. For being made a time when you can hardly show these actresses in pain let alone having a big belly for fear of censorship (this movie was seriously banned in London for its mild frankness) the film nimbly weaves between looking at the big questions about what life means when it’s brought into such a sad, confused world and the usual Warner Bros. comedic gaggle, with Glenda Farrell’s drunken pregnant showgirl (yes) nearly running off with the thing as she warbles a customized version of “Frankie and Johnny” before she’s dragged to the delivery room.
As for me, the big day can’t arrive soon enough, even though I know I’ll at least have the ability to stand next to my wife as she goes through all this. I can’t wait to meet my daughter– I know she’s got a hell of a scary world to come into, and I hope she doesn’t mind me trying to help her out.
And making her watch a pre-Code movie or two. 😉
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Trivia & Links
- Acidemic likes this one:
This was the age, after all, long before Lamaze or rules like no cigar smoke in the waiting room. Things are so primitive there are even mentions of rules that later proved detrimental to infant and mom’s well-being, like keeping them separate as much as possible after birth, avoiding breastfeeding at all costs (so unsanitary!) and denying your infant any maternal affection.
- Mondo 70 has a lot of smart things to say about this one, but I had to post part this because it truly is kinda nuts:
Life Begins is a maternity-ward (or “laying-in hospital) ensemble piece adapted from a play written by Mary McDougal Axelson. Forty-one years later, Axelson would be beaten to death in her hospital bed by her own daughter. I don’t think we’ll top that for irony all year.
- The New York Times admires it but thinks the movie is a bit of a bummer.
It may appeal to those who like to weep through their motion pictures, but even such persons invariably desire to have woe tinctured with something akin to joy before the final fade-out.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is pretty obscure right now, but probably a safe bet for a future Forbidden Hollywood.
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