Kay Francis is a rare (for the time) female M.D. who uses her wits and her gender to save a child from asphyxiation by adapting her own hair pin as a tool to retrieve a swallowed object from the child’s throat. As the scene ends, Kay muses, “I wonder what a man would have done.” Mary Stevens, M. D., (Warner Brothers, 1933), directed by Lloyd Bacon.
[On Tuesday, August 21st, as part of their annual "Summer Under the Stars" series, Turner Classic Movies will devote the entire day (6AM EDT on 8.21 thru 6AM EDT on 8.22) to the films of Kay Francis. In conjunction with "Summer Under the Stars," sittinonabackyardfence.com and scribehardonfilm.wordpress.com are hosting a related blogathon dedicated to those stars and films being highlighted all of August by TCM. This modest entry is my contribution. In addition, several prior articles that I have written on Kay Francis can be found here, on 11 East 14th Street.com: Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman: Girls About Town; Kay Francis, William Powell: Jewel Robbery; Kay Francis: One Way Passage, A tragedy in miniature; and The Fascinating Miss Francis (one phase). ]
* * *
Kay Francis was one of the most popular female stars of the 1930s, and the highest paid as well. She ruled the Warner Brothers’ lot in the period between Ruth Chatterton and Bette Davis. Francis became a star during her first three years in Hollywood, with Paramount, the studio that emphasized sophistication with a continental flair, and Kay Francis was the epitome of elegance and sophistication, sexy, but with a warmth, sincerity and intelligence that was rare on-screen. She also carried, somewhat uncomfortably, the title “best dressed woman in Hollywood.” In her private life, she was much earthier and without such pretense. Given the success of her onscreen persona with Paramount, her move to Warner Brothers has been seen by some film commentators and historians as a mistake.
But working at the studio that was becoming known for tough, male-dominated dramas starring James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and their equally rough and tumble female counterparts, Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck and Mae Clarke, suited the real Kay Francis, one known to her friends and colleagues as an independent and outspoken woman — not exactly popular traits in what was then strictly a man’s world.
It is not surprising that she would jump at a role in which she could play that rare commodity of mid 20th century America, the female physician, in 1933, in her sixth film for Warner Brothers, Mary Stevens, M.D. (Thirty years later, in the 1960s, medical dramas became a staple of prime time American television, yet not one featured a female lead as a physician.)
Unfortunately, her first eighteen months with Warner’s had brought Francis only more of the same — roles in which she had become typecast at Paramount — wealthy, beautifully coiffed, dressed and accessorized ladies (or “high-class” ladies of the evening); intelligent and sexy, but hardly salt of the earth. Even her co-stars were of the same mold. In Man Wanted, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage, Warner’s obviously feared breaking that mold: all three paired her opposite William Powell with whom she had previously co-starred in three films while both were at Paramount. (Powell came to Warners with Francis and Ruth Chatterton at about the same time in late 1931 to early 1932 during a “war” between the two studios over film distribution. Paramount had ceased distributing some of Warner’s product to their theaters, ergo Warner’s raided Paramount’s talent.)
In addition to those three films with Powell — all of which were box-office and critical hits (and are now classics of their kind) — Warners loaned Francis to Samuel Goldwyn, then to MGM and back to Paramount for, respectively, Cynara, Storm at Daybreak and Trouble in Paradise — three more hits, as well. No wonder Warners was reluctant to change the Francis formula.
But Francis was by this point the hottest star in Hollywood and had earned some leverage in selection of roles (although in her contract the studio had the final say over her assignments, typical for that era). Mary Stevens, M.D. would depart from that formula considerably and would break barriers — walls that prevented women from being portrayed as professionals or unmarried mothers — that unfortunately would be resurrected shortly with enforcement of a production code the following year, 1934. And in Mary Stevens, M.D., Francis would portray both a female physician and an unwed mother.
Playing opposite Lyle Talbot in a role originally slotted for George Brent, Kay’s Mary Stevens and Talbot’s Don Andrews are two medical students learning the ropes on the streets of New York. The film wastes no time establishing a gritty tone. Mary works with an ambulance crew called to “1110 Orchard Street, 2nd floor” — the address of a Lower East Side tenement where a woman is going into labor. At the pregnant woman’s side is her hysterical husband screaming at the ambulance crew for a doctor. When Mary calmly appears to answer his plea, “I’m the doctor,” he brandishes a butcher’s knife before being subdued by police and firemen who have also appeared on scene. Of course, Mary delivers the baby into this turbulent world without breaking a sweat, proudly showing the newborn to the crowd gathered in the hallway as if it were her own.
Graduating in the same class, the newly minted physicians open up a practice together. But Don is more interested in Lois (Thelma Todd), the beautiful blonde daughter of a man who is both wealthy and politically influential — someone who can advance his career with minimal effort on Don’s part. Mary, who obviously has feelings for Don, tries to accept it and moves on, reluctantly. Don doesn’t abandon Mary, in fact he shares his good fortune and his new practice (with a wealthier clientele) by setting her up in an office next door to his.
But Don’s new connections allow him to overcharge the City for his services, which he rationalizes by telling Mary that everyone does it. And Mary can’t help but notice when Don’s partying with the upper crust begins to affect his work. Missed appointments after late night drunks progress rapidly to drinking during the day — he swills bourbon from a pint bottle while driving Mary to lunch in his new $18,000 Duesenberg coupe. Things get worse as Don returns for an afternoon surgery too intoxicated to work, and Mary must take over for him.She confronts him, but to no avail. Don rationalizes his behavior: “Who wants a career? The less I do, the more money I make.” Mary: “I’m not talking about money, I’m talking about you — your self-respect, your professional standing.” “Here you are, tossing it all away — I’m disgusted with you!” The hospital administrator tells Don that despite his important connections, they can’t afford his reckless behavior. Don promises to toe the line from now on.
A year later, Mary’s practice is booming, she’s busy day and night seven days a week. On top of that, she’s still pining for Don. Her nurse assistant Glenda (Glenda Farrell) convinces her to take a vacation. In the meantime, Don has gotten himself into some unspecified legal troubles and is sent away, too, until it is “fixed.”
Mary manages to keep her wits about her telling Don that he’s still married and that their relationship would be a mistake. “I’m getting out before we do something both of us are going to regret.”
Back in her room, Mary receives a call from Glenda telling her that a grand jury has indicted Don and a warrant has been issued for his arrest. She goes to his room to tell him, but within minutes, Don receives a telegram informing him that the indictment has been “quashed” and the coast is clear for his return. Don and Mary celebrate by spending the night together.
Don returns to the city, but the political party boss, Lois’ father, won’t allow him to quit or go straight, promising him a prison sentence if he does. Lois tells Don she’ll go to Reno right away to file for a divorce. Relieved, Don tells Mary, “In a few weeks, it’ll all be over.” Mary sees light at tunnel’s end: “Darling, we’re so lucky it scares me!” “When everything’s arranged, call me. I’ll be waiting.”
Lois tells her father, “I want a divorce more than he does. Don’s in love with someone else and so am I.” Daddy has other concerns, especially any negative news tied to his name in the newspapers such as his daughter’s divorce from Don, will lead to a “rehash of the medical bureau scandal.” He orders, “No Divorce!”
Mary has surprising news to break to Glenda: “Now. Take a good grip on that desk, plant you feet firmly, and prepare for the shock of your life.” “What?”“I’m going to have a baby.” Glenda shakes her head in disbelief: “Would you mind saying that again, slowly?” “Pleasure — I said I’m going to have a baby!”“I never suspected YOU.” “I don’t know if that’s a sincere compliment or a dirty dig!” “And you’re happy about it?” “Walking on air!” Mary intends to tell Don the news tonight at dinner.
But Don has his own shocking news: He tells Mary that Lois isn’t going to Reno. “Lois is going to have a baby. Naturally, she doesn’t want to divorce me now. I can understand her attitude perfectly.” Mary: “So can I.” It’s only a postponement to Don. “After the baby’s a couple of months old, she’ll give me the divorce. We’re young. What difference can a year or so make?” Mary decides to keep her pregnancy a secret from Don.
Mary decides to take a sabbatical in Paris and will take Glenda with her (Glenda is one lucky nurse/assistant). Glenda is worried about “scandal” if Mary has the baby. “What scandal? I’ll have my baby, adopt it over there and simply return with an adopted child. And she won’t even consider aborting the pregnancy: “Yesterday a youngster came in here asking me to ‘help’ her — I advised her to go through with the thing. Now I’m going to live up to my own advice!”
Mary has her baby in Paris, and adopts it there. Don informs Mary that Lois was never really pregnant and she is going to file for a divorce, freeing Don to marry Mary. But while returning to America to reunite with Don, Mary treats two young children stricken with polio. She saves both. But her baby also contracts the disease and dies.Arriving in America, Mary is inconsolable. Having been unable to save her own baby, she vows never to practice medicine again.
And she is suicidal . . .
* * *
Less than twelve months after completing Mary Stevens, M. D., Kay Francis would play another physician in Warner Brothers’ Dr. Monica (1934, directed by William Keighley), an adaptation of a hit stage drama starring Alla Nazimova. Dr. Monica also dealt with the issue of unmarried pregnancy, but this time the baby is conceived by her husband and her best friend.
The issue of abortion, touched upon briefly in Mary Stevens, M. D. (when Glenda ever-so-gently raises the possibility to Mary), is dealt with more directly as Kay’s Dr. Monica Braden flat-out refuses to perform the procedure on her friend. But Mary Stevens, M. D., and Dr. Monica and the mature adult themes with which they dealt were not to be repeated.
Dr. Monica was released in June, 1934, just barely before the imposition of the new Hollywood film production code, and the administrators of the code attempted, without success, to have Warner Brothers pull the film from release. However, several years later, Warner Brothers was denied permission under the code to re-release both Dr. Monica and Mary Stevens, M. D., due to content that was now classified as immoral and indecent. Neither was seen again until the age of television, and even then rarely until the advent of Turner Classic Movies and, in particular, the efforts of TCM host Robert Osborne, a fan and champion of Kay Francis and her work.
* * *
With Dr. Monica, Warner Brothers would present a more glamorized version (and vision) of the female physician portrayed by Kay Francis, closer to the image the studio wanted and expected from Francis when it hired her away from Paramount a little over two years earlier. But even in the relatively gritty, earlier Mary Stevens, M. D., the theatrical advertising campaign emphasized the chic and romantic image of Francis, downplaying the novelty and the heroics of the woman in a man’s profession.
* * *
Mary Stevens, M.D. was directed by Lloyd Bacon whose career in motion pictures stretched back nearly to their beginning. He began his film career acting for both Keystone and Essanay, where he worked with Chaplin, most memorably as the lucky boyfriend of Edna Purviance in Chaplin’s first true masterpiece, The Tramp (1915). As a director, his work spanned a period from Mack Sennett silent short comedies to CinemaScope, nearly a hundred feature films from the mid 1920s to the early 1950s.
Lloyd Bacon’s peak years were the 1930s when he helmed a head-spinning variety of films of all genres primarily for WB/First National, among the best being dramas such as Moby Dick (with John Barrymore), The Office Wife (with Dorothy Mackaill, both films from 1930), and Marked Woman (1937, with Bette Davis); and also popular comedies with Joe E. Brown, Fireman Save My Child and You Said a Mouthful (both 1932). But he found his groove (with an assist from Busby Berkeley) in a streak of three outstanding musicals for the WB in less than twelve months: 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), and Wonder Bar (1934, also with Kay Francis). His final film as director was the Robert Mitchum/Jean Simmons comedy, She Couldn’t Say No, for RKO in 1953.
* * *
It is testament to the curious and often fleeting nature of fame that, at least until the last half-decade, the name Thelma Todd was more recognizable to classic movie fans, even those with an interest in film history, than that of Kay Francis. Thelma Todd was a blonde beauty pageant winner from Massachusetts who entered the movies initially as a beautiful prop in comedy shorts in the mid 1920s, and then found a niche in early sound comedies with Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy.
Her career reached its peak in the early to mid 1930s when she appeared in supporting roles in numerous comedy features including two Marx Brothers hits at Paramount, Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932), at MGM with Buster Keaton in Speak Easily (1932), in two features with the extremely popular Joe E. Brown at First National, Broad Minded (1931) and Son of a Sailor (1933), with Wheeler and Woolsey in Cockeyed Cavaliers (1932) and Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934) for RKO, and back at Hal Roach Studios with Laurel and Hardy in Fra Diavolo (1933) and, in her final feature film appearance, The Bohemian Girl (1936).
Todd also teamed with ZaSu Pitts in a memorable series of short comedies for the Hal Roach studio. Her screen partnership with ZaSu Pitts may have been the funniest female comedy duo of the Hollywood studio era — it’s certainly my favorite. Beginning in 1931, Todd and Pitts made 18 shorts for Hal Roach. After Pitts left the series in 1933, Todd was teamed with Patsy Kelly until Todd’s death in 1936.
Her talents weren’t limited to comedic roles. She appeared in musicals such as Sitting Pretty (1933, Paramount), with Ginger Rogers, Jack Haley and Jack Oakie, and dramas — the 1931 version of Warner Brothers’ The Maltese Falcon (as Mrs. Archer), Call Her Savage (1932, Fox) with Clara Bow, and Counsellor at Law (1933, Universal) with John Barrymore and Bebe Daniels. Todd’s increasing deftness in both comedy and drama, combined with her extraordinary looks, made her a hugely promising superstar-in-the making, and her premature and somewhat mysterious death at 29 (officially ruled as accidental carbon monoxide poisoning) that much more tragic a loss.