Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Dr. Kay

 As I've mentioned before in this blog, I have a personal fondness for films about women doctors, so I was very pleased that the film my group selected for this week is Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933).  Kay Francis is Mary StevensWe meet her as she and her best friend, Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot) conclude their internships and open an office together, with Mary's devoted friend - and nurse Glenda (Glenda Farrell) in tow.  It's rough going at first - Mary, as a woman, finds it hard to recruit patients.  But, just as things start to improve, Don decides that he'll be better off married to Lois Rising (Thelma Todd), the daughter of a powerful politician.  And, while Mary now has a thriving practice, she loves Don and he is now, seemingly, out of reach.

The pre-code elements in this film are fairly simple: Don and Mary have an adulterous relationship,  and Mary has a baby out of wedlock.  There's even a brief hint at abortion (Mary refuses to "do something" about her pregnancy, since she'd recently advised a patient to "go through with the thing" and now she is "going to live up to [her] own advice!"  My fellow blogger at Pre-code.com also provides a nice overview of the film (though be warned - there are spoilers).  But Mary's integrity as a physician and as a human being are never in question.  She is a good, dedicated doctor, who just happens to fall in love with a very wrong man.
We loved Kay Francis as Mary Stevens.  Sure, she's got nicer clothing than any struggling physician should have.  Regardless, she presents a picture of a woman who is competent and who KNOWS she is competent.  Despite her love for Don, she won't brook medical sloppiness, and when she realizes that his drinking is destroying his ability as a doctor, she breaks all ties with him.

Lyle Talbot also does a good job in portraying someone with real ethical issues.  Talbot has the ability to switch from likeable to reprehensible with very little effort, a real asset with Don.  And he needs to do it in such a way that the audience will root for him when Mary and he meet years later.  We talked about Mr. Talbot at length in our review of A Lost Lady.  He is equally good here, but in a very different part.
Poor Glenda Farrell gets very little to do here, except be supportive to Kay.  She is seldom out of her nurse's uniform, and doesn't even have a last name.  But she makes the most with what she is given, making Nurse Glenda memorable. With 116 film and television credits, Glenda Farrell's career extended from an uncredited role in 1928 to 1970.  She excelled at comedy, and could do zany and/or dumb characters with her eyes closed.  Frequently paired with Joan Blondell (they would do 9 films together), Ms. Farrell really broke out when she first appeared as intrepid reporter Torchy Blane in Smart Blonde (1937).  She would play the part 6 more times   Lola Lane played Torchy once in 1938's Torchy Blane in Panama when Warner Brothers decided they wanted a new Torchy - it didn't work out, and Ms. Farrell appeared again in the role.  Jane Wyman would conclude the film series with Torchy Blane...Playing with Dynamite (1939) when Ms. Farrell left Warners to head back to New York and Broadway.  Between 1929 and 1970, Ms. Farrell appeared in 12 Broadway plays, including Forty Carats (her part went to Binnie Barnes in the film version), as well as appearances in many television shows.  While appearing in the Broadway play Separate Rooms (1941), Ms. Farrell met Dr. Henry Ross (he was treating her sprained ankle at the time).  They married, and were together until her death of lung cancer in 1971.

Another actress with a minuscule part is Thelma Todd, who only has a few scenes as Don Andrews' wife Lois.  We see her briefly prior to their marriage, then again when Lois' father forbids her from divorcing him.  Todd had started her career in silent films, but talkies gave her the opportunity to show off her comedic talents, often teamed with ZaSu Pitts in a series of short films about two hapless women (patterned after Laurel and Hardy) named Thelma and ZaSu (surprise!).  But Todd is perhaps known because of her mysterious death at age 29; she was found in her car, dead, in what the coroner called a suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning.  The truth behind her death has been debated for decades.  Did she die at her own hand, or was she the victim of a murder? In 2012, William Donati published The Life and Death of Thelma Todd, which revisited the investigation.
Two major incidents happen towards the end of the film that bear some mention.  Dr. Stevens is called in to treat a child with infantile paralysis.  She needs a serum.  Really?  Infantile paralysis - or polio - was not treatable in the 1930s, and the only "serum" currently available are the polio vaccines, discovered by Jonas Salk and by Albert Sabin in the 1950s.   The other incident revolves around Mary's depression at the end of the film.  As Don tries to bring her back to herself, it is her career that he uses as a motivator, not their pending marriage.  That, combined with a final scene that is described in this TCM article are, for me, the most interesting aspects of this film on the role of women in medicine.

This New York Times review points out the excellent work of Una O'Connor in her small part as the mother of two sick children.  All in all, it's a positive review, and we agree and highly recommend it.  We leave you with a trailer.

Next week, we'll look at another Kay Francis film in which she portrays a doctor.

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