Saturday, August 25, 2012

PRE-CODE PARADE: Kay Francis, medical pioneer

Kay Francis was probably the closest thing Warner Bros. had to a queen of the lot in the Pre-Code era, yet she doesn't come readily to mind, I suspect, when anyone thinks of the studio and its characteristic output. There's the Warner Bros that lives forever in the cinephile imagination, the realm of gangsters and gold-diggers, but then there's the studio of Mr. George Arliss's biopics and Kay Francis's romances. Many of the familiar directors and much of the familiar stock company worked with Francis, but she herself has made less of a mark, eclipsed on one side by part-time Warners star Barbara Stanwyck and on the other by slowly-but-surely rising Bette Davis. Francis's reputation, it seems, is that of a clotheshorse and a glamourpuss. She seems to lack an edge. Yet Warner's tried to make her a studio type by casting her as a woman of power or authority, an ultramodern progressive professional. One of the privileges of being queen of the lot is that while lesser actresses played nurses, Francis played doctors.

In fact, Warner's touted Lloyd Bacon's MARY STEVENS M.D. (1933) as the first movie to portray a woman doctor. Bacon's film shows a world still uncertain about women's competence in the medical profession. It opens with Francis as a uniformed intern arriving at a tenement to deliver a baby. The man of the house is a stereotypically voluble Italian man who demands that a male doctor be sent and threatens young Stevens with a butcher knife should she fail to deliver. Mary Stevens is all business and goes about her work unfazed by the Italian's bluster and threats. When she shows him his healthy twins, the tough guy promptly faints. Soon enough, Dr. Stevens is hanging her shingle and sharing a practice with her classmate Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot). Perhaps ironically, it's the male doctor who sleeps his way to success, marrying a political boss's daughter and landing a lucrative post with the State Compensation Board, where he gets away with embezzlement, while Mary struggles to establish credibility with the public. When success goes to Don's head, along with too many drinks at a road house, Mary has to bail him out in the operating room -- after which she ends their partnership with a disgust that does little to disguise her persistent longing for her colleague. When Don has to lay low after a political scandal breaks around him, he coincidentally ends up on the same train as Mary, and things develop from there. To be specific, Mary gets pregnant but doesn't tell Don, who's struggling to get free of the boss's daughter. The girl's willing, but the boss has dealt with too much scandal already and wants the unhappy couple to wait another year. Also averse to scandal, Mary sails for Europe with her nurse/BFF (Glenda Farrell playing "Glenda") to have her baby incognito and subsequently adopt it.

Once Don, still ignorant of his fatherhood, finally gets his divorce, Mary, Glenda and Baby sail back across the Atlantic, only to have polio break out on board. Mary treats the daughters of a troubled young mother (Una O'Connor!) but leaves her purse in their steerage compartment. In an inexorable chain of events, the infected purse, and a pen gnawed on by one of the infected girls, makes it back to Mary's cabin, where her own baby seals its fate by sucking on the tainted pen. It was exceptional even by Pre-Code standards for Mary to blithely announce an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and that probably made this retribution inevitable, though it seems rough to have the baby suffer for the parents' "sins." The film hints that Mary, too, will pay as she grows more suicidal in her grief, but Bacon closes with a vindication of the heroine's career. Neither Don's nor Glenda's entreaties will snap her out of her stupor, and she's about to jump from a high window when her doorman barges in begging for help -- his child is choking to death. Mary finally snaps back to life and saves the child by extracting an obstruction with a hairpin. "I wonder what a male doctor would have used?" she wonders aloud.

The best proof of Mary Stevens's popularity was Francis's resumption of a medical role in William Keighley's DR. MONICA (1934).This one barely qualifies as a feature at 54 minutes, and the studio had to struggle with more assertive Code enforcers to get anything released. Short in length, Monica isn't short on Pre-Code edginess in its portrayal of a peculiar love triangle. Monica Braden, like Mary Stevens, is an obstetrician, but Braden is considered one of the world's experts in the field and lives in a more exalted social circle. Married to an author (a self-effacing Warren William), her female friends are women of accomplishment. Anna (Verree Teesdale) is an architect and Mary (Jean Muir) is an aviatrix. Mary is also having an affair with Mr. Braden. Since Braden still seems quite affectionate toward Monica, the affair seems to have everything to do with Monica's inability to have a child. Mary doesn't share that handicap. If you're keeping score, at this point Monica doesn't know about the affair and takes the pregnant Mary into her care, sharply rebuffing a censored yet pretty obvious appeal from Mary for an abortion. That subject was raised briefly in Mary Stevens as well, when Mary tells Glenda that after telling a patient to "be a good sport" and have her baby she could hardly refuse to carry her own to term. (Pre-Code Code: when a girl in trouble asks a doctor for "help," it usually means abortion). Monica's Mary is tempted to end her pregnancy because Braden, travelling abroad and pining for Monica, has given her the cold shoulder. Instead, Mary and Monica form a strong emotional bond until the doctor discovers her patient trying to place a call to Braden and deduces the reason easily enough. When Mary goes into labor, Monica initially refuses to attend her, warning that she might kill the girl, but her training kicks in after Anna slaps some sense into her, and she delivers the baby. Key Francis knows everything about birthing babies as far as Warner Bros. is concerned.

Afterward, Monica remains aloof from Mary, while Mary remains aloof from the baby she still doesn't want. Mary misses Monica more than the baby -- "Why don't you ever kiss me?" she asks the doctor plaintively, not knowing what she knows, before Monica makes her company conditional upon Mary accepting the child. Finally, Braden returns and he and Monica go on what she considers a kind of anti-honeymoon -- two final weeks of happy companionship before she dumps him to join an advanced medical facility in Vienna. At this point, Braden still knows nothing about a baby, and William plays drastically against his Pre-Code type in his cluelessness throughout the picture. Now Mary is horrified by the idea of the Bradens breaking up because of her, having been told by Anna that Monica knows everything, and you could be excused for thinking that the flier was in love with both Bradens. But it's renunciation time for Mary, who leaves her baby behind with a note for Monica, climbs into her plane and jokes with a mechanic that she's off for Paris on two hours worth of gas. She's last seen flying out to sea -- shades of Christopher Strong! With Braden still none the wiser, Monica presents the baby as a surprise adoption, putting her career temporarily on hold and reclaiming her obtuse spouse once and for all. This is all very psychologically suspect and it's hard to decide who's ultimately more reprehensible: the husband whose casual dalliance resulted in a woman's suicide or the wife who apparently condones the suicide while claiming the fruit of the dalliance as her own. Neither seems very troubled by Mary's apparent demise, but the film itself appears to endorse their attitude by suggesting that Mary has done the right thing. We tell ourselves sometimes that Pre-Code filmmakers were more like us in their frankness and liberation than the generation that came after them, but moments like the climax of Dr. Monica force us to question that assumption.

In both films, Francis is credible as a professional woman, and both happily avoide forcing a choice between career and family. Mary Stevens will finally marry Don and the doctors will practice together, while nothing suggests that Monica Braden will give up her more advanced work despite her emotional ordeal. While Dr. Monica may imply a link between Dr. Braden's careerism and her barrenness, and Monica calls herself a "machine" when in doctor mode, that may reflect the attitude of the original Polish play (itself written by a woman) rather than the attitude of the Warner Bros. studio. Mary Stevens's fertility, of course, allows for no such insinuations. Francis is fine in both pictures, but hers is a more subdued personality, definitely less aggressive, than her studio peers, and that may be the main reason why her films were less memorable in the decades between their original appearances and their more ready availability today through Turner Classic Movies and the Warner Archive. She deserves a fresh look and these films deserve attention for their feminist ambitions, which make them as close to politically correct, arguably, as an Pre-Code picture will get. comes through again with the original trailer for Mary Stevens M.D.

And the trailer for that "most beautiful" yet "delicate" love story, Dr. Monica.

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