Think hiring bankable actors to star in musicals and teaching them to sing and dance started with Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall? Think again. At the beginning of the 1930s, when motion pictures started to talk, dance, and sing with a vengeance, Hollywood studios scrambled to hire Broadway singers and dancers to meet popular demand for musicals like the ground-breaking The Jazz Singer (1927). The Fox Film Corporation, however, made the decidedly modern move of taking their most popular team, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and training them to be musical comedy stars. Their maiden voyage as a musical duo was 1929’s Sunny Side Up, and the great success of that picture almost guaranteed a repeat performance.
Delicious reteamed Gaynor and Farrell with David Butler, a director who has not been rediscovered by the cinephile community despite having a solid career that included helming several Shirley Temple pictures in the 1930s, the stellar Hope/Crosby/Lamour vehicle Road to Morocco in 1942, and a number of Doris Day films in the 1950s. Butler’s way with musicals offered audiences diversion, but he also brought an edge to Delicious that makes it of a piece with light entertainment of that decade that offered slices of reality from the Great Depression along with crowd-pleasing spectacle. Interestingly, Delicious is a film that must have had a direct influence on the ballet sequence in the classic Vincente Minnelli musical An American in Paris (1951) 20 years later. And why not—both films offer a magnificent suite by George Gershwin; indeed, Delicious boasts an entire score by George and his brother Ira, their first done especially for the movies.
The social issue discussed in Delicious is immigration. As economies collapsed around the world, hopeful immigrants set sail for the rumored gold-paved streets of the United States of America. Of course, with Americans falling out of work and into poverty in record numbers, too, immigrants had to prove they would not be a drain on the economy before they would be allowed through the gates of Ellis Island. Our heroine, Heather Gordon (Gaynor), is a Scottish lass who expects to live with her uncle in Idaho, which she imagines is close enough to visit her newfound friends in steerage, a musical troupe from Russia set to work at a nightclub in New York City. The composer of the troupe, Sascha (Raul Roulien), is in love with Heather, but once she meets Larry Beaumont (Farrell) in the onboard stable that holds his horse Poncho, there’s no doubt about who will be in the final clinch.
The film’s comedy is a little flaccid, relying heavily on the dubious skills of Swedish impersonator El Brendel, as Beaumont’s servant Chris Jansen, to bridge the complex plot. A little of El Brendel’s mugging goes a long way, and it is a small crime that he was allowed to introduce the wonderful Gershwin tune “Blah Blah Blah” to the world. He even gets an encore. The direction and editing are often sluggish. A scene of Detective O’Flynn (Lawrence O’Sullivan), an Irish immigration officer, chasing an escaped Heather around the ship after she is denied entry into the country, is interminable, neither funny nor suspenseful. O’Flynn pops up more often than Inspector Javert in Les Misérables to dog poor little Heather as she tries to prove she can pull her own weight in America as a member of the Russian troupe. Fortunately, as a consequence, we get treated to the delightful “Katinkitsha” at the Russian nightclub, which plays on the Gershwins’ own heritage as the children of Russian Jews and gives Gaynor a chance to show off her dancing skills while made up to look like a Russian nesting doll.
It’s interesting to see Virginia Cherrill, the sweet, blind girl in Chaplin’s miraculous City Lights (1931), as insincere socialite Diana Van Bergh. She toys with Larry’s affections, schemes with her granite-minded mother (Olive Tell) to keep Heather away from him, and even calls the cops on the lassie while pretending to help her, making her one of the more hissworthy villains I’ve seen in recent times. Hollywood always tended to side with virginal innocents, and despite the fact that Diana looks more Larry’s type and Gaynor plays Heather like a 12-year-old Kewpie doll with the worst Scottish accent I’ve ever heard (that is, when she even tries to put the accent on), there is no denying how magnetic Gaynor and Farrell are together.
The immigrant experience is treated both realistically and somewhat offensively. On the boat, each ethnic group gets a short vignette singing and dancing in their native garb, a caricature that telegraphs the setting to the audience with ease, but also one that reinforces stereotypes. The humorous, hopeful dream Heather has early in the film, “Welcome to the Melting Pot,” offers an equally unrealistic image held of America, as a cohort of Uncle Sams shake her hand, an imagined Mr. Ellis steps into the ocean from Ellis Island and emerges dripping wet to welcome her, and the Statue of Liberty boogies on her pedestal and rains money on her.
However, the chain blocking the stairs between steerage and the higher classes brings it home that the divisions in American society are not easily breached, and that guardians of the ruling order like O’Flynn, though they be immigrants themselves, are always available. The spacious, luxurious Beaumont estate and the one-room flat that houses the Russians contrast realistically, and the furtiveness of being an illegal immigrant is more than well documented. The best scene in the film, which clearly presages Gene Kelly’s dance through Paris, comes near the end, when Heather is on the run in the streets of New York, facing the rush of the crowds from the subway and seeing the skyscrapers loom and turn into the long-nailed hands of ghouls swallowing her up while Gershwin’s “New York Rhapsody” scores her journey. The special effects may be a little old-fashioned even for 1931, but the expressionistic horror remains shocking nonetheless.
Delicious isn’t the greatest musical to come out of the 1930s, but it’s a fascinating look at how marketing mechanisms Hollywood still employs today meshed with the social consciousness of the time. Further, it shows how the Gershwins told their own story on the silver screen through song. Although it is not any more fleshed than the Gershwin film biographies that came later, it does offer their unfiltered wit and vision in a vehicle that was truly a part of their own time.
There aren’t many actors with as defined and recognizable a screen persona as James Cagney. From his eccentric dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) to his maniacal boast “Made it, Ma. Top of the world,” from White Heat (1949) and his star-making turn as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1930), which contained his most indelible moment—shoving half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s kisser—Cagney stands out like the genius performer he was to even the most casual film fan. Many people are familiar with the line “You dirty rat,” a stand-by for impressionists doing their best to imitate Cagney. That line, always misquoted, was actually “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat,” and it came from the film under consideration here, Taxi! The film is fairly typical fare from Warner Bros.: action-packed, urban, socially conscious, a scrappy central love affair between the lead performers, a comic secondary love affair between two character actors. Yet it has some interesting characteristics well worth closer examination: the toolbox of acting techniques Cagney developed from real life, the Irish-Jewish connection so common in the early decades of cinematic history, and scenes that harken back to the days before moving pictures talked.
The story of Taxi! borrows from Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), but instead of the consolidation of New York’s street cars, Taxi! concerns itself with the attempt of a taxicab company to drive independent cabbies out of business. As befits the pre-Code 1930s, Taxi! is more violent. In Speedy, the streetcar company merely tries to make Pop Dillon break his city contract by missing a day’s run, whereas Consolidated Cab, under orders from strong-arm boss Buck Gerard (David Landau), actually wrecks rival cabs—the film’s opening scene shows a metal worker fitting a Consolidated cab with steel beams under the wheel fenders to use as battering rams. Taxi! is also more topical, with Cagney’s character Matt Nolan preaching violent retaliation to an assembly of independent cabbies against the pleas to negotiate union-style terms by Sue Riley (Loretta Young), the daughter of a cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who went to prison for shooting the man who wrecked his cab. The fireworks of disagreement fan the attraction between Sue and Matt, and the two eventually marry.
What is so interesting about Taxi! is that it presents the complete Cagney: the tough guy, the lover, the dancer, and the mime. The latter isn’t something one necessarily thinks of when reviewing Cagney’s career, but his dancer’s background makes him a great physical actor. Director Roy Del Ruth, a silent film veteran, enjoys focusing on the wordless chemistry between Matt and Sue. Early on, Sue runs up the steep stairway to the elevated train, away from Matt, his friend Skeets (George E. Stone), and his brother Danny (Ray Cooke). The camera focuses on the backs of her legs, her stocking seams pointing toward parts more interesting, until Skeets finally says what our eyes have told us, “She’s got a great set of pins!”
When Sue and Matt have a fight, a pantomime routine brings them back together. Matt throws his hat through Sue’s open door. She looks at the name in the hat band and signals to her friend Ruby (Leila Bennett) with just a nod that she will see him. Matt comes in. Sue turns away, as Matt silently cajoles. When they break their silence, Sue says something rude to Matt. He grabs her by the neck, puts a fist near her face and say, “If I thought you meant it,” and then kisses her. The last gesture was taken straight from Cagney’s father, one of many appropriations the actor would make from people he observed.
Perhaps to contrast the elegant simplicity of these gestures, Ruby is a chatterbox with one of the world’s most annoying voices. Methinks Del Ruth was making a bit of a comment on the annoyance of shooting with sound. Nonetheless, the director knew how to use sound economically to great effect. In a scene of two cars motoring urgently toward the hideout of Gerard—one bearing Matt to kill him for murdering Danny and the other carrying Sue, racing to try to prevent it—all we hear are the different pitches of the car engines in quick cross-cutting that builds to the film’s climax.
Del Ruth had a sophisticated approach to his material that favored realism even while giving audiences what they wanted. He knew how to position the camera to show Cagney in all his fury, shooting him straight on with the pitiless look in his eyes the public craved. He shot a musical number, but avoided the usual production number obviousness that might have come from fellow director Mervyn LeRoy by making it a nightclub act and cross-cutting with Matt and Sue canoodling at a table as they celebrate their marriage earlier in the day. He also inserts a dance contest where Sue and Matt lose to a young woman and her dance partner (George Raft, in his screen debut), offering a bit of music while establishing Matt’s hot temper, which will drive a wedge between him and Sue and lead to tragedy.
In an unusual tip of the hat to realism, an early scene has Matt listening to a Jew speak in Yiddish to an uncomprehending Irish cop. Cagney went to school with Jews and was fluent in the language. When he cuts in to the conversation and susses out what the man wants, he says to the man in Yiddish, “Did you think I was a gentile?” and replies to the cop’s skeptical question, “Nolan! What part of Ireland did you come from?” with a Yiddish-inflected, “Delancey Street,” a street Jews settled when they came to New York. At the time this film was made, Jews and Irish shared a similar experience as working-class immigrants who were near the lowest rung of American society, and as such, they were often paired in movies to suggest a social milieu audiences would identify immediately. With a plot built around the plight of the independent worker in a society that was fixed to favor big business, this suggestion of working-class solidarity would have driven home the social message with the subtlety that distinguishes this film and makes it relevant today. There is even a divorce to wrestle with.
Cagney and Young are a very attractive couple who run hot and cold with believable intensity. Any actress who can hold her own with Cagney has my respect, but in fact, Young was making pictures before Cagney ever set foot on a sound stage (she has a cameo in Her Wild Oat ). Some of my favorite character actors, like Guy Kibbee and David Landau, turn in affecting performances, and there is even a treat for fans of The Public Enemy. Matt and Sue double-date with Ruby and Skeets to see “Her Hour of Love,” a dummy film starring Donald Cook, who lost the part of Tom Powers to Cagney, settling for the part of Tom’s brother instead. When Sue praises Cook’s romantic technique, Cagney bests him again by giving Sue a passionate kiss that would curl anyone’s toes. The whole scene is a bit of a commercial for Warner Bros. (they also advertise John Barrymore’s The Mad Genius  with a poster and a bit of dialogue) and a vintage bit of insider referencing for cinephiles that I adored.
James Cagney has a huge body of work, but for me, his work in the ’30s is unparalleled. The roiling social conditions, the frontier aspects of working with sound for the first time, and the pre-Code freedom filmmakers took full advantage of make many ’30s films unique treasures. Taxi! is one of them.
“In the beginning was the Word.” Atheist Elmer Rice, author of the play Counsellor at Law as well as its screenplay, disagreed with what the Bible said that word was, choosing instead to make all words his god. He made a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter, and was lucky enough to find his perfect director in William Wyler. A rarity among Hollywood directors, Wyler respected the words on the page and did little to shape them into an auteuristic vision. His self-described mission was to entertain and make a lot of money, a stance to filmmaking that sent his star plummeting from the skies when the mid-century French critics anointed a canon of auteurs that expressly excluded him.
The fact that Wyler was content to be a showman did not preclude him from having a few expressive tics that show themselves in Counsellor at Law, a stagebound film that nonetheless allowed him to showcase some truly dazzling dialog. Further, sharing a Jewish background with Rice allowed Wyler to coach the badly miscast patrician John Barrymore to a halfway believable performance as a Jewish lawyer whose Lower East Side roots make his marriage to a blueblood with two children a decidely lopsided alliance.
In common with many films of the day, Counsellor at Law has the fast pace and snappy humor of a screwball comedy. Switchboard operator/receptionist Bessie Green (Isabel Jewell) adopts a rat-a-tat, sing-song style to answer phone calls and greet clients that might have been less grating and more funny if it had been played with more of a Jewish spin to it. A controlled chaos within the office, underlined by Jewell’s manic delivery, conveys the rapid-fire business of the successful law practice of George Simon (Barrymore) and John Tedesco (Onslow Stevens). Two Italian clients wait for Tedesco, peppering the dialog with their native language. Several people want to see Mr. Simon, including Zedorah Chapman (Mayo Methot), whom Simon has just defended successfully in a murder trial; Sarah Becker (Malka Kornstein), a friend from the old neighborhood who wants Simon to defend her son Harry (director-to-be Vincent Sherman), who has been roughed up and arrested by the cops for making pro-Communist speeches; and Charlie McFadden (John Hammond Daily), a process server and investigator Simon rescued from a life of crime.
In one of his characteristic flourishes, Wyler teases the audience like another client waiting in line by keeping Simon out of sight; our lead-up to the “reveal” is Barrymore’s hands working the phones on his desk. When Barrymore finally appears, it seems designed to encourage applause, a frequent occurrence in the theatre when the big-name star makes his or her first entrance and a nod to the stage origins of the film. Over-the-shoulder shots with delayed reaction shots, a Wyler staple, also dot Counsellor at Law. The most effective one shows Harry standing, his fist clenched, when he hears Cora’s children disparage the working class. When we finally do see his beaten face wild with anger, Wyler switches to the children and moves slowly in on their frightened faces.
Among the clichés of the script is Simon’s hard-working, ultra-efficient secretary “Rexy” Gordon (Bebe Daniels), a beautiful, young woman whose unrequited love for her boss plays out in painful expressions every time she must interact with his snobbish wife Cora (Doris Kenyon) and her repeated rebuffs of law clerk Herbert Wineberg’s (Marvin Kline) too-frequent attempts to ask her out. Wineberg’s persistence is deeply annoying, but Daniels’ beautifully modulated distress and growing agitation make these scenes a somewhat harrowing experience.
Another cliché is Simon’s mother Lena (Clara Langsner), a patient, self-effacing Yiddishe mama who repeatedly answers “I’ve got all the time in the world” when she is kept waiting to see her son. Nonetheless, Wyler keeps Langsner from overdoing it or tipping over into melodrama when she tries to guilt Simon into helping his wastrel brother David out of yet another jam or offering a hurt look when she speaks with Cora and it becomes clear that she has not seen Cora’s children in some time. I got a delightful jolt when Barrymore called his brother a gonif (crook), a beautifully integrated Yiddish expression that almost made me forget Barrymore’s perfect British profile.
The disconnect between Barrymore’s appearance and his character was a serious handicap for me; indeed, I could have seen Melvyn Douglas, who played a rival for Cora’s affection, as a better choice to play George. Yet, Barrymore offered a kind of intensity that stayed kosher, and suggested the avarice of his profession without making it a stereotype of the grasping Jew. When he lathers over a potential $100,000 payday that would compromise a friend of his wife’s, his eyes could light half of Manhattan; however, like the doting Jewish husband, he lets the suit go to please Cora.
George has blinded himself to his real position in his family—Cora’s children from a previous marriage, Dorothy (Barbara Perry) and Richard Dwight (future director Richard Quine), disdain George and proudly declare their father is in Washington, DC, yet George persists in calling himself their father. When he learns that Cora is abandoning him, his despair goes a bit too big, but Wyler achieved the appropriate somberness by keeping Barrymore in the shadows and having Daniels interrupt his intended leap out a window in a very quick scene that doesn’t allow for too much mugging for the camera.
Many small comic moments brighten the film. For example, when the adults who see Dorothy and Richard unfailingly exclaim, “my, how you’ve grown,” or words to that effect, not only does young Richard predict their comments, but he also adds, “What do they expect us to do? Get smaller?” Wise-cracking Bessie insults an inattentive boyfriend with, “Sure I missed you—like Booth missed Lincoln.” Middle-aged, ample secretary Goldie Rindskopf (Angela Jacobs) moves languidly through the office, her broad beam a vision of delight for the two Italians and a thoroughly refreshing, if superficial look at the sex appeal of an older woman.
Rice studied and practiced law for a short while, and his jaundiced view of the profession, from the emotional tricks and fake alibis that help lawyers get criminals acquitted, to the lobbying on behalf of big business and the flexible fees to cover losses, gets a full airing in the actions of George Simon. Class conflict is also well represented in the scenario, but anti-Semitism is only vaguely alluded to. Rice had seen the rise of the Nazis during a trip to Germany in 1932, but with only a few exceptions—most notably, the films of Frank Borzage—the studios stayed far away from the impending calamity; Counsellor at Law is no exception. Nonetheless, George Simon remains a fairly sympathetic character, and the subtext of presumed Aryan superiority represented by Cora and her set gives this film the kind of meat a thorough professional like Wyler could sink his teeth into.
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Director: John M. Stahl
Debut film of: Margaret Sullavan, actress
By Marilyn Ferdinand
According to actress Louise Brooks, Margaret Sullavan remains “mysterious… like a voice singing in the snow.” While this description may itself seem a bit inscrutable, if you think about how snow refracts and muffles sound, then there certainly is something to this comparison. Margaret Sullavan was an actress who made only 16 films, almost all of them hard to find and view. She might be entirely forgotten today if not for her starring role in the only recognized classic she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Yet it wasn’t really the paucity of performances and the obscurity into which most of them fell that made Margaret Sullavan an actress who was hard to pin down. She had a presence that seemed to hold dark, tragic secrets, an old soul who seemed mature beyond her years, even in her screen debut. Indeed, Only Yesterday began a string of screen deaths to which Margaret Sullavan would bring her special brand of stoic poignancy.
The story begins on October 29, 1929—the day that marked the end of the Roaring 20s and the beginning of the Great Depression. Frantic traders milling at the New York Stock Exchange share their collective misery as their fortunes crumble around them. One dejected man moves as though bent by a strong wind; he is persuaded by an eager worker to climb up on his shoeshine stand. Before his shine is finished, the man rises, gives the fellow some money, goes into a nearby men’s room, and blows his brains out.
In the next scene, we see a gay couple under a shop sign, the slyly named Deux Freres (Two Brothers), catching a taxi to attend one of the nearly daily soirees held at the home of society doyenne Phyllis Emerson (Benita Hume). The stock market crash is the talk of the evening, but it doesn’t supplant the usual intrigues. Phyllis cozies up to her lover, who wants her to leave her husband Jim (John Boles); Phyllis would rather play games with Jim’s latest lover Letitia (Noel Francis), who has just arrived at the party and is flashing the “famous” pearls Jim has not so discreetly bestowed upon her. Phyllis admires the pearls and then tells Letitia to be sure to pay for them—a great line that leaves Letitia nonplussed.
Jim arrives home and puts off the guests who seek his financial help. The Emersons are wiped out, too, and Jim sneaks off to his study, where he prepares to end it all as well. He sits down at his desk, pulls a gun out of one of its drawers, lights a cigarette, and goes through his mail. One letter catches his eye, and he opens it. Inside is the story of a woman who knew Jim long ago. The film moves into full flashback as we follow the story told by the letter writer, Mary Lane (Sullavan).
The flashback takes us from the Emersons’ sophisticated New York party to a much more quaint affair—a ball given by a good Virginia family for soldiers about to muster out to fight in the First World War. Mary Lane, just 18, flirts outrageously with Captain James Stanton Emerson, flippantly remarking that she has been in love with him for years. When he asks her to dance, we see from her looks and the way she holds him that this flip remark is absolutely true. The pair leaves the ballroom and goes for a walk in the formal garden. They disappear under a leafy canopy; when they return, Jim is helping Mary refasten her sash. The party’s over, not only for the guests at the ball, but also for Jim. Mary is the last thing on his mind when he musters out a couple of days later. Soon, Mary learns she is pregnant and elects to move in with her suffragette Aunt Julia (Billie Burke) in New York to spare her family embarrassment. She eagerly awaits the end of the war, when Jim will return to her and little Jimmy, the son she bears in his absence.
The end of the war and return of the troops have all of New York out in the streets to welcome them home. Mary works through the crowds, trying to catch sight of Jim, and then running the gantlet of well wishers to reach him as he leaves the parade to join Phyllis and some friends. The series of screen caps below wordlessly tell the story as Sullavan embodies Mary’s quiet excitement, and even quieter disappointment and hurt, as Jim looks her square in the face and fails to recognize her. Once at home, she yields to her broken heart and dreams, then forthrightly faces the reality of her life now as an single mother with little hope of uniting with her baby’s father.
The director, continuing to use devices like the calendar to place the characters in time, shows Julia perusing a newspaper whose headline indicates that the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) has been passed. That makes the year 1919, only a few months after the troops returned following the 1918 Armistice, and in that time, Mary has made no attempt to contact Jim. That day, however, Mary tells Julia she intends to end her torment and tell Jim who she is. Too late. The newspaper serves a plot-related purpose as well—Aunt Julia shows Mary the Emersons’ wedding announcement in that same paper. (It would have been fitting to have another newspaper announce the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, because Mary becomes the epitome of the modern woman—an unwed mother supporting her child by becoming a success in business. Alas, the film’s greater interest in Mary’s private life counts as a missed opportunity, even though forward-thinking Julia and a suitor of Mary’s look at her unwed motherhood as something that “just happened.”)
The final meeting between Mary and Jim occurs again at a party—New Year’s Eve at the St. Regis Hotel. Mary and her date are out with Julia and her younger husband. Jim passes behind them and joins his party at a nearby table. Mary is happy and carefree until she notices Jim. He mistakes her stares for flirtation—it’s clear to the audience in this scene and the one that follows in which Jim and Mary take a taxi to his bachelor pad that Mary is very angry. Her every word is a veiled recrimination against a man too superficial and careless with the feelings of an 18 year old—a time when first love can mean everlasting love—to remember a night that meant the world to her. Again, Sullavan’s understated emotions simmering with indignation allow us to understand her as Jim never could have and make her obsessiveness through the years—a telegram every December 31 to Jim from “One Who Does Not Forget”—a bit easier to take.
This ability to act both text and subtext believably would serve Sullavan extremely well in The Shop Around the Corner, where her Miss Novak maintains a prickly, insulting demeanor with her coworker Mr. Kralik (James Stewart) while melting with genuine admiration and affection at the letters this same coworker—obviously a completely different man to her—sends her pseudononymously. However, in playing Miss Novak, it is Sullavan this time who is blind, who reacts to circumstances as they occur, just as Jim Emerson had. Yet, Sullavan’s ability to suggest emotion with the slightest of gestures—for example, the sight of her hand (shot from the rear of a bank of mailboxes) reaching into her mailbox, feeling around her cubbyhole thoroughly for an expected letter from “Dear Friend,” and then shrinking slightly and slowly sinking in disappointment to the bottom of the cubby—always allows audiences to identify with the woman beneath the prickly or stoic exterior.
Sullavan’s first performance is slightly mannered; even though she really was a Virginia belle, her giggly girlishness at the beginning of the film seems somewhat put on. Her deathbed scene in Only Yesterday is a bit of a wallowfest, but she’d soon learn to tame that tendency. In two other films of hers I’ve seen, The Mortal Storm (1940) and Cry Havoc (1943), she uses her emotional containment to embody bravery during wartime; she goes to her death in each of these films with the same clear-eyed realism tinged with emotional idealism with which she started her film career. Thus, remarkably, Sullavan’s screen persona seems pretty close to fully formed in Only Yesterday, elevating what could have been an ordinary melodrama (reproduced by Max Ophüls in his more sudsy 1946 film Letter from an Unknown Woman) to a memorable debut picture. l
Dan Callahan provides an excellent review of Margaret Sullavan’s career in the August 2005 edition of Bright Lights Film Journal.
“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. l
Before Jeanette MacDonald paired up with Nelson Eddy to define boring, sexless romance on the big screen, she made several films with that prototype of French bon vivants Maurice Chevalier. Most of these films were made with the fabled touch of director Ernst Lubitsch; the final mating of this threesome, capped by the great operetta compositions of Franz Lehar, is the most sublime of them all—The Merry Widow (1934). Somewhere in the middle, Rouben Mamoulian, whose knockout debut as a director was the melodrama Applause (1929), was given his chance with these appealing stars and fashioned one of their stock stories of an aristocratic woman and her common courter. While Mamoulian falls short of the waltzlike grace and romantic sensuality of Lubitsch, his comedic moments more than make up for it.
The famous opening scene gives a panoramic view of the Paris skyline and then moves in to listen to the rhythms by which the city wakes up—a woman beating a rug, some men cobbling shoes together, smoke stacks churning, and so forth. Finally, the camera moves to Maurice Courtelin (Chevalier), a Parisian tailor readying for his day while singing of the noise of Paris in “That’s the Song of Paree,” the first of several delightful—and some memorable—songs by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers.
Maurice reaches his shop as his fellow shopkeeper Pierre (George Davis) comes by to pick up the tuxedo Maurice has made for his wedding. Pierre forces a 2,000-franc fee on the reluctant Maurice, who prefers to give him the suit as a wedding gift. As Pierre goes off to try it on, Maurice welcomes the Viscount Gilbert de Varèze (Charlie Ruggles), for whom he has created an entire wardrobe. The Viscount, dressed in his underwear after escaping the arms of a woman whose husband had unexpectedly appeared, needs a suit—fast. Maurice quickly shoos another underwear-clad man—Pierre—out of the dressing room to make way for the Viscount, on whom Maurice is pinning the hopes for his fledgling shop. The Viscount emerges, pleased with the fit. Maurice asks him about the bill. The Viscount, a freeloader notorious throughout Paris, promises to pay him—he is headed to his uncle the Duke’s chateau that very evening for financial refreshment. On the way out, the Viscount touches Maurice for 500 francs. Maurice offers 1,000, pulling out the two 1,000-franc notes Pierre gave him. “Let’s just call it 2,000,” says the Viscount, snatching the bills before Maurice can figure it out. It’s an old gag, but Ruggles is such a master of timing that it works.
All is forgotten when Pierre emerges looking like a king himself. His and Maurice’s delight spins into the classic tune “Isn’t It Romantic,” which carries from the shop to the people along the street, through the countryside by train and horse-drawn wagon. Each singer tailors the lyrics to his or her individual circumstances in a symphony of clever, particular rhymes. Finally, it reaches Princess Jeanette in her country chateau, who sings the standard lyrics while lounging sensuously in her satin-sheeted bed. In this way, Mamoulian brings the lovers together, letting the audiences know they can expect exactly what they hoped for.
Maurice, spurred on by the other clothiers to whom he referred the Viscount, heads off to the chateau to demand his money. On the way, he hears a woman singing (“Lover”). It is the princess. When she stops he declares his love for her in song, the impertinent and naughty tune “Mimi” (“I’d like to have a little son of a Mimi by and by!”). We watch her full face assume an insulted but gauzily romantic look in the camera of Victor Milner, who shot several films for Lubitsch and knew how to get just the right touch. A small flash of humor crosses Jeanette’s face, but she’s soon slapping Maurice and running back to the chateau—where she passes out cold. The diagnosis? Dr. Armand de Fontinac (Joseph Cawthorn) says, “You’re not wasting away, you’re just wasted.”
We spend the rest of the film getting to the inevitable clutch in most entertaining fashion. Maurice is passed off as a baron by the Viscount to prevent his uncle Duke d’Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith, whose chipper rendition of “Mimi” in one of the film’s pass-around song sequences is wonderful) from learning of his debts. The Viscount’s sister, the man-hungry Countess Valentine (Myrna Loy) (“Do you ever think of anything but men?” “Yes, schoolboys.”), chases Maurice at every opportunity. Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth), Jeanette’s nebbishy suitor, spends hours pouring over geneology books, suspecting there is no noble family named Courtelin. He also arranges to trip up Maurice on the stag hunt by choosing a challenging steed named Thunderbolt for him. Jeanette, appalled to find Maurice at the chateau as her cousin’s guest, says that she has chosen one instead—Solitude. Maurice, encouraged by the name, gladly agrees to it over the deadly sounding Thunderbolt. Unfortunately he learns that Solitude is so named because he always comes home alone. The gag showing the stall where Solitude is kept—danger signs, loud whinnying, and cowering stable hands—is corny, but funny, particularly when we get Maurice’s reaction shot. Another funny sight gag is when the princess, 22 years old and a widow for three years, shows Maurice a photo of her late husband, a comically posed elderly man (Tom Ricketts). The timing of the edit is perfect, and drew a big laugh out of me.
For a pre-Code film, this one’s attempts at suggestiveness are pretty tame. Maurice insults Jeanette’s seamstress for building her a dowdy riding habit. He makes a bet that he can do it better. Then we get to see him remove Jeanette’s unfinished riding jacket and take a tape measure to her every body part. It could have been sexy, but Mamoulian plays it safe. Maurice is all efficiency, and Jeanette doesn’t melt even a little at his ministrations. In fact, Jeanette is pretty stiff throughout this film—including her singing—a portent of what was to come with Nelson Eddy. Seeing her flirty, womanly performance in The Merry Widow was, for me, like seeing an entirely different actress, and again, with Chevalier. Thus, I blame Mamoulian for the tepid romance.
Nonetheless, there’s not too much wrong with this romantic comedy that’s sure to put a smile on your face. The Kino DVD also includes among its extras Chevalier singing his signature song “Louise” with all his cabaret charm. l