A woman practicing medicine? Ridiculous! Out of the question! Yes, there was a time when folks thought along those lines, before it finally registered in the gray matter of those backwards-thinking people that wimmin could do more than wear white starched uniforms and be sexless tormentors of hospital patients. But for the time being, this “no female doctorin’” is the kind of grief intern Mary Stevens has to put up with. For instance, she’s been called into a case where a woman is about to do the most natural thing in the world—childbirth—and her husband Tony (Harold Huber, armed with Italian dialect) will be darned to heck if he’s going to entrust Mary with the delivery of his bambino. Fortunately, Mary pooh-poohs this chauvinism and gets the job done…twins, even.
Mary establishes a practice with another medico, Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot). The two of them have been bosom buds since childhood, attending school, college, and then medical school together. But Mary confesses to their shared nurse Glenda (Glenda Farrell) that she wants the relationship between her and Don to move beyond platonic—she’s been crushing on him ever since they were wee ones, and he doesn’t seem to notice all the times she wrote “Mrs. Dr. Don Andrews” in her textbook. Don has other ambitions, however; he ties the knot with Lois Rising (Thelma Todd) because her father Walter (Charles C. Wilson) has a great deal of political pull and can do things for Don’s career. No sooner have Mr. and Mrs. Andrews started to send out “thank you” cards for all the wedding gifts when Father Rising manipulates a few strings and appoints Don head of the City Compensation Bureau. Despite the skimpy pay of a lowly civil service job, Don is still able to take in enough graft to afford luxuries like a brand-new Duesenberg.
Sadly, married life for Don isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He’s unhappy being manacled to Lois, and he starts hitting the bottle heavily to cope with his discontent and stress. An innocent lunch with Mary results in a great deal of elbow bending on his part, and nearly costs him his plum position when he’s too smashed to perform a simple operation (fortunately, Mary saves the day by taking over). More dark clouds appear on the horizon when the two of them just happen to be staying at the same resort (the Greenbrier at White Sulfur Springs!) and Mary learns Don’s about to be indicted by a grand jury on charges of graft. Once his father-in-law gets him out of that scrape, Don promises to divorce Lois so that he and Mary can live happily ever after. That will be a long time coming; getting his divorce turns out to be more complicated than Don imagined, and their little get-together at the Greenbrier has resulted in Mary’s being great with child.
Two things you need to know before you tackle a Kay Francis picture. One, her wardrobe will be fabulous. Two, she will suffer a great deal but always in a noble fashion. Both of these events occur in Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933), a Warner Brothers film that was one of five vehicles in which the actress appeared that year. Kay would soon become the studio’s highest-paid female star, and while I can’t really consider myself a member of her devoted cult I do enjoy a lot of her vehicles (Guilty Hands, One Way Passage, Dr. Monica, etc.). If I were being hooked up to a polygraph, though, I would have to admit that I recorded this one off of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ because I noticed Thelma Todd was in it.
I liked Stevens more than I thought I would…but two things about this film bothered me as it unspooled. One—why would anyone in his right mind throw Thelma Todd over for Kay Francis? Okay, in Kay’s defense: Thel’s character is not particularly attractive (in a behavioral sense, of course)—she’s self-centered, fickle, and the hoops she makes Lyle Talbot’s character jump through to get that divorce confirms that she is not a nice lady. I say bah and feh—my love for the Hot Toddy is such that I probably wouldn’t care even if she did tear out my heart and stomped that sucker flat. Now here’s the second thing that nagged at me: what makes Lyle so attractive to Kay Francis? Girlfriend, you can do a lot better than Lyle. I haven’t seen all of the films he made for Warner’s early in his film career (I believe someone told me it was in the neighborhood of twenty-eight features between 1932 and 1934) but I’ve seen enough Lone Ranger reruns to advise Ms. Francis to run fast, run far. I don’t care if he was Ozzie Nelson’s neighbor—that dude is bad news.
Mary Stevens, M.D. enjoys a good deal of notoriety due to its subplot: kindly Doc Stevens gives birth out of wedlock, which was a no-no back then (when Warner’s wanted to re-release the movie in 1936, the Breen Office denied them a Code certificate). In light of the tragedy that occurs in the film, I’d say the censorship people were being a bit sensitive…but they dared not take the risk of influencing the impressionable minds of young moviegoers, I suppose.
Despite my reservations on the romantic relationship between Francis and Talbot, they both do a solid job in the leading roles—aided and abetted by Glenda Farrell at her wisecracking best as Kay’s gal pal (Joan Blondell must have been busy elsewhere on the lot). The supporting cast is also quite good; Una O’Connor (borrowed from Fox) appears briefly as a distraught mother, and there are dependable turns from members of the Warner’s stock company, like Harold Huber and Hobart Cavanaugh. My gal Thelma is also sensational, though her part in this vehicle is shorter than an in-flight wine list.
Mary Stevens, M.D. was helmed by Lloyd Bacon and scripted by Rian James & Robert Lord (based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, later nominated for Oscars for White Heat and Caged), and since I DVR’d this one from TCM it’s safe to reveal that it turns up there from time to time. But if you are impatient and cannot wait…well, you’ll just have to—because this one hasn’t turned up on any of any of the Forbidden Hollywood DVD sets yet.