Director: Lloyd Bacon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“Men trusted her with their loves, but not with their lives…”
In my travels around the classic film blogosphere, the name “Kay Francis” makes a mighty roar. It comes up so frequently among classic film buffs that I had to wonder what was wrong with me that I had never heard of her or even seen one of her pictures. Delving a little deeper, I found out that she was in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. As a big Lubitsch fan, I wondered why I hadn’t seen that film or registered her connection with him. I should have made Trouble in Paradise my introduction to Kay Francis, but instead, the first film I laid my hands on was a lesser work, Mary Stevens, M.D. Serendipity, I suppose, that this late pre-Code film also costars Greg Ferrara’s fave rave Glenda Farrell. He’s got a picture of Farrell holding a cat at the top of the right rail on his blog and greatly admires (as do I) her performance in another 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum. So this one’s for all the legions of Kay Francis fans and for you, Greg.
The film opens to immediate action. A medical dispatcher takes an emergency call and hops in the ambulance with the doctor on call. When they arrive, an Italian immigrant named (whatta ya know?) Tony (Harold Huber) is hysterical with worry. When he sees that the doctor answering the call is a woman—our girl Mary Stevens (Kay Francis)—he refuses to let her near his wife. She asks him what’s wrong with his wife, and he says she’s going to have a baby. “Is that all?” she replies. He becomes incensed, saying that they lost another baby during delivery. He pulls out a cheese knife that looks more like a machete and tells her he will kill her if anything goes wrong. Her assistant Pete (George Cooper), worried about Tony, calls the police. By the time the baby arrives, the entire neighborhood is roused and the stairwell to Tony’s apartment filled with cops. Just another day in Little Italy. Just the kind of thing you’d expect to happen around a lady doctor.
Despite this first taste of prejudice, Mary graduates medical school with her childhood friend Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot), whom Mary considers her boyfriend. They open a practice together, he as a GP and she as a pediatrician. Glenda Carroll (Glenda Farrell) becomes their wise-to-the-world nurse. Business is slow for Don and slower for Mary. One night, Don breaks a date with Mary, making some poor excuse. He has met a glamour girl, the symbolically named Lois Rising (Thelma Todd), and falls in love with her and her well-connected father (Charles Wilson). Mary is downcast to hear that Don is going to marry Lois, but wishes him well. When Don’s father-in-law gets him a patronage job as head of the workers compensation office, Don invites Mary to take an office across from his in a location where she can get more than charity cases. She accepts and brings Glenda along.
Mary’s practice grows, but she still pines for Don, who has begun drinking because he is dissatisfied with both his phone-in job and his marriage. Mary, struggling to forget Don, takes off for a vacation. Don, who, with his political sponsors in government, is under suspicion for fraud, is told to leave town for a while. He and Mary end up going to the same place and eventually confessing their love for each other. Don says Lois wants a divorce as much as he does; Mary, reassured, spends the night with Don and makes plans for a future with him. In the morning, Don learns that he’s in the clear and feels free to quit his job and go back to practicing medicine the way he intended to.
Lois’ father gets wind of the pending divorce and forbids Lois to go to Reno, saying it will look suspicious if Don suddenly quits the Rising operation. Lois feigns pregnancy. Meanwhile, Mary really is pregnant. She arranges to go to Europe, where she will adopt her own baby, and then there will be no scandal. On her return with Glenda and baby Don, an outbreak of infantile paralysis (polio) is detected on board their ship. A race to get serum to the afflicted children in time gets underway, but tragedy waits in the wings.
This film may sound a bit melodramatic—and the trailer won’t disabuse anyone of that impression—but it actually deals with social problems in a fairly realistic way. Like all women’s films, Mary Stevens, M.D. has a heroine facing challenges in her life. The unwillingness of patients to accept her as their doctor, the scourge of polio and infant mortality among the immigrant classes, the difficulties faced by unwed mothers, and the perception that professional women are dowdy and masculine (helped along by the very unglamorous look Francis is given in the beginning of the film) were real obstacles.
On the other hand, the film’s indulgence in ethnic stereotypes, from Tony to a Jewish mother and her nebbish son, are a bit hard on the nerves. Mary transforms from ugly duckling to swan when she is with Don in their little hideaway, and her clothes conveniently start to fall dangerously low on her shoulders. Indeed, in the scene before Mary goes to Don’s room for their night of love—and there is no mistake about what they are up to—Francis has a top of some kind under her robe. When she shows up in Don’s room, the top is conspicuously missing.
Kay Francis is not only a beautiful and charismatic actress, but also a very good one. She brings so much nuance to her characterization of Mary, a woman trying to have it all in 1933! The pre-Code aspects of this film are important to that characterization, because we can see Mary as a sexual being without the lurid attractions of other pre-Code films. While her unwed mother isn’t quite as realistic as Margaret Sullavan’s in another 1933 film, Only Yesterday, it does show that audiences didn’t used to be cowards about the facts of life.
Lyle Talbot isn’t bad as Francis’ love interest, but he’s less able to make hay out of a somewhat sketchy role. Glenda Farrell is a little too wisecracking in this film for my tastes—an annoying characteristic of sidekicks through the ages—but she shows herself to be a solid friend and warms her Glenda up very nicely as the film progresses. In general, she’s a delight to watch. I also liked Thelma Todd in a small, but snappy role. Lloyd Bacon, the director of such fine films as Footlight Parade, Larceny, Inc., and Brother Orchid, kept a firm grip on the more hammy portions of the script and somehow made this 72-minute film seem very full.
Mary Stevens, M.D. is a solid women’s film from an era in which women were allowed to be real human beings on the silver screen. I hope we can see a resurgence of great leading ladies who, in their prime career years, are allowed to be mature women as well.