Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- A couple of interns lament that one of their friends isn’t going to go out on the prowl with them: “That’s the trouble with being in love– it kills your sex life.”
- Dr. George Ferguson (Clark Gable) raspberries his comrades’ recitation of the Hippocratic Oath.
- Dr. Hochberg (Jean Hersholt) remarks to Ferguson about Ferguson’s future bride, Laura (Myrna Loy): “You should have seen the bride when I delivered her!” Implication being that, well, she was naked and stuff. It’s an odd thing to say, that’s all.
- When talking about a later romantic rendezvous, and, seriously, I’m not taking this out of context or anything: “Boy, what a chest!”
- The film’s plot involves a nurse’s unsuccessful attempt at receiving an abortion. The aftermath isn’t very pretty.
“Above all else is humanity.”
Men in White contains something I haven’t seen since elementary school– a sense of wonder at the state of medicine. After a churlish trio of interns begin to complain about their studies, an older doctor lambasts them for their tomfoolery– medicine has gone a long way since he was born, and that they’re there, studying what they’re learning, has taken centuries of toil, and would take endless centuries more.
Into this lecture comes Dr. Ferguson (Gable), a wide eyed young idealist who agrees that medicine is the future– just not the immediate future, you see. He has plans to marry his high society sweetheart Laura (Loy), who has grown fond of him in spite of the long hours he keeps. However, she’s still quite selfish– perhaps his year-long apprenticeship in Vienna would be a good honeymoon if only he didn’t insist on so much dreadful work.
Gable is too driven to give this as much at first, but as his desire to– as to put it bluntly– get laid begin to override his common sense, him and his mentor, Dr. Hochberg (Jean Hersholt) grapple with what it means to be a man of medicine. Their debates range from making money to making something of a man, and Hochberg never lets Ferguson forget what he’s come from and what great things he could do if only he didn’t let the fairer sex distract him.
Gable is at his leering, bravado-laden best as Ferguson, but also gets plenty of moments of tortuous contemplation; his lack of mustache gives him a clean cut face, and free of playing the gangsters and rascals that littered the early part of his career (like in A Free Soul or Red Dust). It’s surprising to see him act in such a straight manner, and the role suits him surprisingly well.
The movie does its best to encompass as many stories of the hospital as it can, starting with an accident on the high rise and following its patient with the ambulance to the waiting room. The art deco hospital designed for the piece is expansive and ominous. We see doctors, patients and nurses in all walks of life, struggling with personal fears.
One of those afraid is young nurse Barbara (Elizabeth Allan), who finds her work to be a constant reminder of her own mortality. The more experienced Ferguson comforts her, and, after she sees him override an older doctor and save a young girl’s life, she’s smitten.
Things take a turn for the hairy once she finds Ferguson at a low point. He’s stuck working yet another late night and Laura has refused to see him when it turns out the young boy he stayed late to do a transfusion on unfortunately passed away.
Staring out the window into the snowy night, grieving for the boy he unknowingly lost and his own lack of a social life, he begins to turn his ideas away from his future in medicine and towards the closeness– the sex— he wants.
Barbara enters at that moment to borrow some medical notes he generously promised. What happens next isn’t an act of seduction– Laura is too meek, and Gable too distracted– but a matter of inevitability. Her admiration and his need for gratification intersect in a way that will nearly doom them both.
The crux of the climax involves Barbara checking herself into the hospital after she runs into a serious medical issue. It’s never directly stated, but, after a consultation between Hochberg and Ferguson, it’s determined that she’d gone to get an abortion, and that it has failed, putting Barbara on the brink of death.
Ferguson is devastated– “Why didn’t she come to me?” he whispers in agonizing self reflection– and, to top matters off, he’s the doctor best equipped to operate on her. To further add to the dramatics, Hochberg, ever loathing of Laura’s attempts to steal Ferguson away from medicine, offers to let her watch him do the surgery so that she can understand what it is that he does and why it’s so important. He’s not so cruel that he knows Ferguson and Barbara are closer than he realizes, but it soon becomes apparent much to his shock.
Much of the third act revolves around the operating room, as we see a procedure prepared in intimate detail. A gallery of men in dark suits gather above in the observation room, and you can tell that Ferguson is feeling every eye on him.
It’s a hell of a climax, ridiculous in how tight the character choices had to be to get them into such a situation, but Gable’s own sense of determined worry and Loy’s growing respect both intersect grandly. The conclusion to the film is a little too pat– it’s always a disappointment when the hardest decision for the characters gets made for them– but it’s still not an easy solution.
What’s obvious is that the audience, who has spent most of the film watching patients in varying states of decay, is quite obviously supposed to sympathize with Barbara– look at her death scene to the right for an unsubtle clue– which is remarkable since I can’t imagine this getting played so heroically today. Also keep in mind at this point in history that abortion was illegal and it was by far less safe to get one than to actually have the child, let alone how much society still shunned the act as wholly immoral back then.
Pre-Code films shied away from it, with the only other movie I’ve even seen it alluded to being Bad Girl. In both cases, abortion is an understandably desperate act, from people who are emotionally unequipped to deal with the consequences otherwise. In neither film were the woman chastised for their decision (or possible decision), only given to thoughtful contemplation of what moral boundaries are worth in the face of a anger and resentment.
A lot of things have changed from the hospital we see in the movie, from the technology to the decorations, but it’s not unrecognizable. When you listen to the characters marvel about how far they’ve gone and how much further they want to go, you can’t help but believe that they could envision a future where people like Barbara wouldn’t have to go through such dangerous procedures on their own, that the future was always there, ready to be taken head on.
But, then, I forget I’m talking about characters in a movie. It’s hard not to feel for them, as Gable, Loy, and Hersholt make an engaging trio, and the film’s pains to create a world in the hospital allow it to vibrate off the screen with life. It deals with a touchy subject matter in a thoughtful pained way, and, though like I said before, it works out to be a little too pat, the film’s themes of healing and understanding for the name of progress are good food for thought.
Trivia & Links
- Over in the New York Times, the Follies’ eternal pal Mordaunt Hall dismisses the film against the stage play version and insists that the film has been dumbed down. Since I obviously don’t have the comparison to make myself, most of it sounds like haughty apples, if that were actually a thing. Hall also really hated Gable’s performance here, but thought that Hersholt was an improvement. To wit:
Mr. Gable dominates his scenes, not, however, as a surgeon, but as a romantic individual. And even then he is always Mr. Gable and not Dr. George Ferguson. The rôle is not suited to Mr. Gable, for although he endeavors to give the producers what they think the public wants, he appears to be somewhat nonplussed at times concerning the mood of the character. In fact, there are moments when both Mr. Gable’s seriousness and his smile seem not a little forced. He looks as though the burdens of the part were a trifle too much for a popular screen actor. […]
Jean Hersholt does appear to advantage as Dr. Hochberg, an elderly surgeon, a rôle acted in the play by J. Edward Bromberg. Mr. Hersholt lends sincerity to his performance and is one of the few players in the film not given to overacting.
- Meanwhile, the Variety review from the 30’s is pretty much the exact opposite of Mordaunt’s. They praise Gable and rag on Hersholt for his acting, though that latter part may just be me reading that into their wording.
The story permits Clark Gable to disclose a tenderness wholly foreign to the rough stuff he often does. He dominates the picture, though he has to share many scenes with Jean Hersholt.
- If you read either of those above reviews and wonder why they talk so much about the stage show, Men in White was still being performed first-run in New York and Los Angeles. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1934 and the bigwigs at MGM wanted to strike while the iron was hot. According to IMDB, the film was released national but had its release delayed in those two markets until the plays had ended their run.
- Because of the plot centered on abortion, the Legion of Decency apparently called the movie “unfit for public consumption” and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found it to be “cloying”.
- According to IMDB, Gable started work on this film immediately after wrapping up It Happened One Night. That’s a hell of a mood change right there.