Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dr. Ann

The Flame Within (1935) stars Ann Harding as Doctor Mary White, a successful psychiatrist in New York City.  For many years, she has been pursued romantically by Dr. Gordon Phillips (Herbert Marshall). Mary is aware, however, that Gordon will expect her to relinquish her career as part of their marriage and she is not ready to be just a housewife.  When Lillian Belton (Maureen O'Sullivan) attempts suicide, Gordon and Dr. Jock Frazier (Henry Stephenson) consult Mary on her treatment.  Mary discovers that Lillian is deeply in love with Jack Kerry (Louis Hayward), an unrepentant drunkard, and it is Lillian's fear for his life that drives her to suicide.  Mary determines that saving Jack is the best way to cure Lillian.  But there are consequences. 

In the pantheon of films about women doctors, this is one of the weaker ones.  Ann Harding is quite good as Mary, but the script gives her no help in creating a convincing character.  That you like and believe in Mary at all is due to Ms. Harding's abilities as an actress (according to this TCM article, she was Barbara Stanwyck's favorite actress, and with good reason!).  Released as the Production Code was being firmly enacted, it often feels like the screenwriters don't know what to do with Dr. White; as a result, the character goes from a strong, successful, independent career woman to an impulsive, dependent housewife. 

It's clear at the beginning of the film that Dr. White is good at her job, and well respected by her peers. Even Dr. Phillips, who wants her to stop working and be just his wife, refers his ailing patient to her care.  Despite this, nothing that she does from the moment she meets Lillian Belton convinces us that Mary actually knows what she is doing. Lillian attempts suicide in despair over Jack Kerry's alcoholism.  So Mary decides to cure Jack, and that will cure Lillian.  There is a highly regarded alcoholism specialist on staff, but Mary doesn't even consult him.  And how does curing Jack take care of Lillian's exaggerated co-dependence? The first time they have a fight, Lillian is probably going to again attempt a swan dive out a window. What the writers know about psychiatry one could engrave on the head of a pin.
On the plus side, alcoholism is treated as a disease, not as a joke (even if it can be treated successfully in two weeks), with specialists attached to the field. And the seriousness required to study medicine is addressed in Mary's early speech to Gordon, when he (AGAIN) asks her to give up her career to be his wife. "No work? Just Mrs. Gordon Philips, housewife? Oh what did I give up my youth for? Why did I give up most of my life to this thing if I were just to forget it and throw it away as if it had never been... it's more than a profession. It's a religion." 

It's hard to warm up to Herbert Marshall as Dr. Philips.  If he is so in love with Mary, why does he put conditions on their marriage? He seems to not love her, but loves his vision of her. At the same time, his pursuit is almost stifling, and he comes across more as a stalker than as a passionate lover. The unhappiness that will come with her selection of him over career is just not important to him.  As a result, he is unlikable, cold, and unbending.
Maureen O'Sullivan is good, if a bit manic in the role of Lillian.  At one point, the part was earmarked for Merle Oberon (AFI Catalog). Ms. O'Sulllivan had already made a name for herself in Hollywood with her appearance as Jane in Tarzan, The Ape Man (1932), notably for an apparently nude swimming scene with Johnny Weissmuller (she would ultimately appear as Jane in 6 films). She appeared in a variety of films in the 1930s and beginning of the 1940s, including The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), A Yank at Oxford (1938) and Pride and Prejudice (1939).  By the 1950s, she was primarily appearing on television; and in the 1960s, she changed to work on Broadway, both acting and producing.  She was married from 1936 until 1963 (his death) to director John Farrow; they had eight children including Mia and Tisa Farrow. In 1983, Ms. O'Sullivan remarried, and was with her second husband, James Cushing until her death in 1998 (at the age of 87) of a heart attack.

We were less impressed with Louis Hayward, a good actor who deserved a better part.  Mr. Hayward gets to do little that justify the passion of two women for his inebriated man about town.  Interestingly, it was Mr. Hayward's performance that was most lauded in this New York Times review

In some respects, this film almost feels like a precursor to Spellbound (1945), where we have a psychiatrist who becomes emotionally (and unprofessionally) involved with a patient.  Regardless, the film is worth a look, especially when compared to Kay Francis' pre-code women doctor films such as Mary Stevens, M.D. and Dr. Monica, or with Ms. Harding's other venture into medicine in The Right to Romance (1933).

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