Monday, November 17, 2008

Mary Stevens M. D.

Kay Francis in what we can only assume is a sterile for surgery silk organza ruffle. Thanks to Trouble in Paradise for the image.

I was all set for Mary Stevens M.D. to be kind of campy. After all, it features Kay Francis in full-on clothes horse mode playing a lady doctor who changes nappies in to die for silk bias cut Orry Kelly gowns. And there is at least one scene in which I'm sure the studio employed a knitting double. Despite these conceits, Francis is really very believable as a driven professional woman who simply doesn't have time to sort out her personal life. In the opening scene, Mary Stevens arrives at a tenement apartment in a stunning wool travel ensemble only to be confronted with a stereotypically irate Italian man who grabs a machete and threatens to kill the lady doctor if she doesn't deliver a healthy child. After sending her driver out to boil water, Stevens calmly delivers healthy twins to the man, just as the police arrive to arrest the father, who responds to the whole situation by collapsing in a faint. She has an air of authority and even though don't really believe that she's in an actual tenement delivering actual twins (who are afterall movie babies, arriving clean and clothed in matching outfits) you believe her when she says that she says sarcastically, after the man has fainted, "You would [faint]. What do women know about having babies, anyway?"

Mary Stevens sets up her shingle with fellow doctor and boyfriend, Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot). The couple take on Glenda Farrell as wise-cracking side-kick and super nurse and things seem to be booming for their practice, except for the payment part, in Depressiona-era New York. Though Stevens is unfazed and undaunted by her lack of financial success Andrews wants money and an easy life. In short, he wants what he believes he is entitled to as a man whose been trained as a doctor. Perhaps because she's a woman, Stevens must work harder to make her dream of running her own pediatric clinic come true. Andrews departs for a cush job with the city's medical board and a wealthy fiancee with connections at city hall. Francis plays Mary Stevens as pained by the Andrews new relationship, but she keeps a brave face and a sense of humor about even to her best friend. Months into his marriage Andrews is drinking and missing work and Stevens who now occupies an office in the same building, notices. They take a long lunch one day where he proceeds to get drunk and then remembers suddenly that he has to do a surgery in a half and hour. Stevens drives him to work and then assists him in the operation, taking over when he realizes that he can't continue. This incident is enough that she severs her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. We next see Mary as she's working tirelessly in her clinic. After an especially long and difficult day, she's clipping articles from the newspaper and Farrell notices that she keeps a scrap book of articles about Don Andrews. After a soul-searching conversation Mary admits that she's still in love with him. Farrell insists that Mary go on vacation right away for some must needed rest, and to advance the plot of course. Mary books herself into a hotel in upstate New York where Don Andrews just happens to be lying low after an insurance fraud scandal. The pair are reunited and Mary becomes pregnant with Andrews's child.

In any post-code movie, it is difficult to imagine a woman having the reaction to this development that Stevens does: she's over the moon. She books a trip to Europe where she plans to travel and pretend to "adopt a baby." While Andrews is trying to extricate himself from his marriage and his crooked job, Stevens decides to keep the baby a secret. She confides in Farrel that has always wanted to become a mother and Farrel agrees to go with her to Europe to help her. Then Stevens tells a story about a "kid who was in my office the other day in my situation. She begged me to help her, but I convinced her that she should be a good sport about it and go through with it." The implication is that she talked the woman out of an abortion and that it would be hippocritical not to do the same herself. Even stronger is the sense that she is perfectly capable of raising a child on her own, especially when it seems that her baby daddy may never be free from his marriage. It wasn't so long ago in this country when a television show drew criticism for implying that a successful woman could have a baby on her own without a husband. Given the whole Murphy Brown/Dan Quayle culture war, Mary Stevens M.D. seems even further ahead of its time.

Things are going well for Stevens after the birth of Don junior when the baby contracts infant paralysis on the boat home from Europe. Despite her best efforts, with limited access to drugs at sea, Stevens is unable to save her own child. Francis is amazing in these scenes and those that follow where she tries to cope with this failure that not only takes her child but destroys her faith in her work, the thing she has been living for at the detriment to rest of her life, for years. The ending is classic "only in the movies" stuff, but still works given Francis' gifts as an actress. Stevens is about to jump out a window and kill herself when her doorman arrives saying that his child has swallowed a safety pin and is choking to death. Mary rushes to the boys aid and saves him using the only tool she has at hand, a hairpin. The camera zooms in for a close-up as she concludes, "they say medicine is a man's game, but I wonder what a man could do in that situation." What I love so much about this ending is that she was reunited with her ex boyfriend after arriving from New York, but it's not the relationship that saves her. It is her own skill and intelligence and her belief in her job that saves her. It is not that she's a great doctor despite being a woman. She's a great doctor because she's a woman. Mary Stevens M.D. says yes, a woman can have it all and still be a woman at the same time, fabulous wardrobe and all.

1 comment:

kda0121 said...

Mary Stevens is a wonderful pre-code soaper. I've already expressed my undying love for Kay Francis in past entries and this movie is one of the reasons why. She is so smart, determined and beautiful, that I can't help but think she put a large part of herself in the role.

Lyle Talbot is another of those pre-code stars who slipped into supporting roles. I remember him as Ozzie Nelson's neighbor from Ozzie and Harriet. Lyle was very good at playing the good looking, virile scoundrel as he did here and also in Three On a Match. And Glenda Farrell is always a treat to watch. She and Joan Blondell are both from that brassy, wisecracking dame school.