Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- If you couldn’t tell from the title, this deals with a professional woman, one who has decided to be a doctor. I’ll touch on this a bit more below, but this is still heady stuff at the time.
- Glenda Farrell, as a touchy nurse, snaps and threatens a kid:
“If you bust one more thing around here, this nurse is going to take your temperature from below the Mason-Dixon line, if you know what I mean!”
- Not specifically Pre-Code, but Lyle Talbot is driving Kay Francis out to the country for lunch and he busts out a flask and takes a swig. Her complete non-reaction to him drinking and driving is pretty funny nowadays. Also, I like how she categorizes it to him later, and his reaction:
“Don, you’re drinking too much.”
“There isn’t that much!”
- The double whammy of both premarital and extramarital sex. And it’s fun while it lasts!
- Unrelated, but Farrell teases another nurse with this putdown, “You just haven’t had enough practice saying ‘no’.”
- This one was denied a re-release under the code in 1936 because of its portrayal of an unwed mother giving birth out of wedlock. Also, while it is very coded, there are a pair of lines where the idea of getting an abortion is floated to the mother, who decides against it.
- Lots of cute baby buttocks! … and one dead baby.
Oh, The Drama!
There’s a definite level of artifice to Mary Stevens, M.D. that is going to be a turnoff to some people. This is a melodrama with a capital ‘M’, “General Hospital” plotting with movie star wattage brimming underneath.
Stevens only works because Kay Francis simmers. Her ability to oscillate between coolly professional to warmly erotic to anxiously doting and deeper make the film a treat, even when the plot’s machinations clank about at loud volume.
To wit, we join Dr. Stevens and her lifelong friend Dr. Andrews as they wrap up medical school and start their own practice. Andrews is the general practitioner while Stevens is a pediatrician and smilingly treats a series of cute kids. Andrews is less than thrilled, and while we can tell that Stevens has a crush, he’s oblivious, and thrilled to do some social climbing by marrying a pretty young girl named Lola. Stevens is crushed, but soldiers on since he seems to be happy.
Lola’s dad is the local political boss, and he gets Andrews a cushy job where Andrews can embezzle all he wants and simply drink his guilty conscience away. Stevens, wisely realizing he shouldn’t be left to his own devices, actually follows him into surgery after one mid-afternoon bender. She takes over after he gets dizzy, and then lectures him afterward, which he doesn’t particularly enjoy. She retorts:
“Nothing’s guaranteed to break up friendship like advice. I’ll never give it to you again.”
So the two split ways. A year passes, and Andrews gets involved in a political scandal while Stevens needs a break– her heartbreak is driving her mad. She’s finally found some success, so she heads up to a resort in the mountains. Only there she runs into– yes– Andrews. He’s hiding out in the same resort, and I can’t blame him. Personally, I love it when ‘blending in’ involves tuxedos.
Mary finally admits her feelings for Don, and Don reciprocates. Well, verbally, at least. I like Talbot sometimes, but here he just can’t turn on a dime; his ‘heel’ mode is so close to his ‘sincere’ mode that it’s hard to suss out the difference. He almost sinks the picture, but, dammit, there’s still Kay.
Speaking of whom, once Andrews admits that he wants to quit his job and divorce his wife, Kay falls for his charms and the screen fades out. You know what happens next, since it’s only a few weeks later and Dr. Stevens is pregnant. She notes, to her stunned friend and confident Glenda:
“I didn’t invent the idea. Women have been having babies for a long while!”
Unfortunately Andrews is still being pushed around by his vile father-in-law (you know he’s a villain when he has a bust of Caesar in his office), and is forced to keep his marriage and job for a while longer until the scandal fully dissipates. Mary, being a coy young thing, decides to go to Europe to have her child. There she adopts it, staving off that ‘bastard’ claim and keeping her social life going smooth.
Unfortunately (yes, I”m starting two paragraphs in a row with that word, this is a melodrama) Mary, Glenda and her new beautiful baby are traveling back to America when a little girl aboard the vessel becomes stricken with polio.
Stevens treats the first child and realizes she must quarantine herself from her own child while they wait on a serum being flown in from across the ocean. In what can only be described as a “Rube Goldberg manner of baby murder”, we follow one child who has polio play with one of Stevens’ pens, and how that pen ends up in her own baby’s mouth without anyone being wiser. The movie lingers on this, like a setup for a bad joke.
And the punchline is heartbreaking. Francis, who spends most of her films as a glamor queen, goes to pieces here trying to save her child. Her normally perfectly placed hair goes to shambles, the emotions are palpable.
We go forward, with Andrews freed and aware of what’s happened to Stevens. She’s distraught and listless to the point that Glenda asks Andrews to take away from her medical instruments lest they be used for a suicide.
Unfortunately (that word again!) no one bothered locking the windows, and for one brief, beautiful shot, director Lloyd Bacon follows Kay as she teeters on that edge.
But then! The little boy downstairs has swallowed a safety pin (augh, I never want kids), and so Mary has to use her wits to remove it from his throat. She’s angry and pissed because she doesn’t have the tools for it, when an idea strikes her. She pulls the safety pin out of her hair, and uses that to remove the pin. “I wonder how a man would have handled that,” she smiles.
Degrees of Professionalism
It’s been a while, but one of my previous reviews is actually of a later Kay Francis movie, Dr. Monica. What makes this dual feature interesting is in how its female doctors have similar situations, but get extremely different results.
Both movies find Kay Francis as a medical professional. As Monica, a obstetrician, as Mary, a pediatrician; obviously, in the 1930’s, working with kids was a woman’s job, though in both movies her ability to be both a woman and a doctor are questioned. Monica much less so, simply because Monica has the support of a good husband, while Mary is always met with threats and anger– and even, at one point, a machete wielding father.
It’s hard to say which one has the harder path to travel. Monica has the man she loves, Mary must deal with a man falling apart. Monica wants to have a baby but can’t, Mary is unwed and gets a baby. Monica gets someone else’s baby, Mary’s dies. So, the arithmetic is as follows:
Dr. Monica -> Can’t have a baby (husband secretly has one out of wedlock) -> Baby lives.
Mary Stevens -> Can have a baby (out of wedlock) -> Baby dies.
Laid out like this, it’s weird that the only baby that survives was the one that didn’t emerge from Kay Francis’ proverbial womb. Considering Francis’ real-life aversion to having kids, this could be construed as darkly humorous.
I have a hard time thinking someone made Dr. Monica without first looking over Mary Stevens and making a note to do the exact opposite of the plot in the earlier entry. Monica’s conflict is also much more emotional, while Stevens is relegated to being a robot in her picture until she has her kid. Both contain a lot of ploys for sentimentality, and while Monica is the better picture overall, Stevens‘s last third is a fantastic showcase for Kay’s abilities.
Trivia & Links
- I mentioned the connections between this and Dr. Monica, but there was a funny moment watching Mary Stevens that reminded me of Mandalay. In that film, Lyle Talbot plays the doctor on the run after he drunkenly botched a child’s surgery. The scene in Mary Stevens plays out a lot like how it ended up in Mandalay, only in this film the kid survives. It’s an odd but funny little thing.
- Andre Seinweld takes on this one for the New York Times, and it’s safe to say that he did not enjoy it one bit. As usual, I do really enjoy Andre’s writing, especially something like this awkward yet earnest compound sentence:
“This is as sad a story as the cinema has offered recently, and it is a disagreeable circumstance which makes it necessary to point out that it also is one of the shabbiest of the Hollywood contemplations of the medical profession.”
- The opening shot of the film is a bell going off. Call me completely weird (wouldn’t be the first time, but isn’t the bell’s design slightly suggestive?
- The poster for this one is kind of bland, though I can say that’s a hell of a tagline:
- Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films talks about the movie and how she found the stereotypes present a bit grating. Since there was no one in blackface, I was pretty okay this go around.
- How did I just now find out this site existed? KayFrancisFilms.com launches into their coverage for this one by discussing it’s production history as a Ruth Chatterton vehicle, and raves about how great Kay’s acting is near the end. Can’t disagree.
Karen · August 21, 2012 at 10:09 am
Great stuff, as always, Danny! (Had to laugh about the suggestive bells!)
Danny · August 21, 2012 at 4:47 pm
It’s an odd enough pick for a first shot– and those are some suggestive bells. It just struck me as weird. Glad you got a kick out of it too!
Steve Burstein · June 15, 2017 at 10:31 am
Kay Francis played professional Women after the code as well, but mostly in B pictures. She also played Florence Nightingale in THE WHITE SISTER post-code, a film with a pretty feminist message. I guess it was up to Hepburn and Rosalind Russell to take up the mantle-hard to believe, but Kay Francis got tired of playing professional women!
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