SPOTLIGHT: Flaming Pre-Code Francis (VIII)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly under-praised Kay Francis (1905-1968), one of the most popular Warner Brothers stars of the 1930s. Known today as “Kay Fwancis” for her distinguished speech impediment, I am of the opinion that Kay Francis is nevertheless one of the decade’s most natural and captivating leading ladies. We covered one of her little known Post-Code films, The Goose And The Gander (1935), in our series on 1935, but the only Pre-Code picture of hers that we’ve featured is the divine Trouble In Paradise (1932), which is among my favorite films. There are 11 more Pre-Code Francis pictures that I want to cover here. So far we’ve covered Guilty Hands (1931), 24 Hours (1931), Girls About Town (1931), Man Wanted (1932), Jewel Robbery (1932), One Way Passage (1932), and The Keyhole (1933). Today…

 

Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)

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A woman doctor decides to have a baby without benefit of marriage. Starring Kay Francis, Lyle Talbot, and Glenda Farrell. Screenplay by Rian James and Robert Lord. Based on a story by Virginia Kellogg. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. After many films in which Kay Francis has played upper class society wives, it’s a wonderful testament to the actresses’ versatility to see her return to the working class and play a young doctor, making her way in a misogynistic profession and world. This is definitely a Pre-Code picture — and a highly entertaining one at that!

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“Dr. Mary Stevens is in love with Don Andrews, a fellow physician, but he is attracted to, and eventually marries, Lois Rising, the beautiful but selfish daughter of politician Walter Rising. Don receives a political appointment, but his marriage quickly deteriorates, and as Lois becomes bored, Don begins to drink. He is indicted for graft and leaves town while his father-in-law attempts to extricate him from the charges. At a resort, Don unexpectedly meets Mary, who is now a very successful pediatrician. They rekindle their old love, have an affair, and Don agrees to divorce Lois. When they return to New York, Rising has cleared Don and in return demands that he remain married to Lois. Mary, who is pregnant, leaves for Paris, has her baby, and returns by ship. When her baby and two others contract polio, she manages to save the other two, but her own baby dies. By the time she reaches New York, Don has resigned and has gotten his divorce, but Mary, in her grief, decides to commit suicide. She is stopped by her devoted nurse Glenda, who convinces her to help a baby who has swallowed a pin. Mary extracts the pin, saving the child, and her own purpose in life is restored. Finally, Don and Mary are both free to marry and start a new life together.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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What a Pre-Code! Working women, cheating husbands, alcoholic doctors, illegitimate babies, dead kids… and all in 71-minutes! What’s most appealing about this film is the journey on which the story takes its audience. So much happens, and as often the case with these early pictures, the machinations of the busy plot can often come off as melodramatic. (And I’ve seen this complaint regularly applied toward this film.) But I surprisingly did not find the proceedings trite or overwrought. Instead I was invested in the characters and engaged in the story. In fact, I thought it was deliciously paced — just right. But much of this film’s storytelling success, in addition to its “amoral” slant, is the rich characters. They’re adult, they’re flawed, and we understand and believing every single one of them.

Surely credit must be given to the capable performers. Although Glenda Farrell gets the best dialogue, the versatile Kay Francis, as mentioned above, is dynamic as our protagonist, a doctor in an age when sexism was the law of the land. This really drives the picture, and despite all the juicy twists and turns (which put the titular Mary Stevens through the metaphorical ringer) her strength and determination make for consistency. In addition to the relative novelty, it’s just a pleasure to watch — especially when Dr. Stevens, naturally, saves the day with a safety pin. And if there is a flaw with Francis’ performance it’s that she’s too perfect for the role. (But, then again, is that really a flaw?) Meanwhile, she and Lyle Talbot share ample chemistry. It’s not of the romantic or sexual kind — you know the magnetism that makes for iconic screen duos. But rather, their connection is of the realistic kind. These are two adults, problems and all, who come together and share the screen. Again, it’s a pleasure to watch.

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Mary Stevens, M.D is a well-made film. Wonderful Pre-Code fun. Recommended.

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Come back next Friday for another Francis Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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