Kay Francis … Dr. Mary Stevens
Lyle Talbot … Dr. Donald A. Andrews
Glenda Farrell … Glenda Carroll
Thelma Todd … Lois Rising
Harold Huber … Tony
Una O’Connor … Mrs. Arnell Simmons
Charles C. Wilson … Walter Rising
Hobart Cavanaugh … Alf Simmons
George Cooper … Pete
John Marston … Dr. Lane, S.S. Bellocona
Christian Rub … Gus, Mary’s Janitor
Walter Walker … Dr. Clark
Directed by Lloyd Bacon.
Produced by Hal B. Wallis.
Based on the story by Virginia Kellogg.
Adaptation by Rian James & Robert Lord.
Gowns by Orry-Kelly.
Music Direction by Leo F. Forbstein.
Music Composition by Bernhard Kaun.
Edited by Ray Curtiss.
Art Direction by Esdras Hartley.
A Warner Bros. Picture.
Released August 3, 1933.
Box Office Information:
Cost of Production: $150,000
Domestic Gross: $360,000
Foreign Gross: $139,000
Total Gross: $499,000
See the Box Office page for more info.
“The Pre-Code’s Last Frontier,” wrote Mick LaSalle in Complicated Women, “was presenting women onscreen as successful professionals. Kay Francis, in the final stage of the era, emerged as an actress home in such parts.”
And that’s the significance of Kay’s work in Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933), a film which provided her with one of her best roles. She’s a successful doctor who gets pregnant with the illegitimate child of a married man. She decides to raise the child herself, and after saving countless lives with the dedication to her practice, she fails to save the life of the one most important to her.
It is then Mary must decide to give up, or move on with her work…
Warner Bros. was the studio where Kay Francis really came into her own as an actress. Professional roles like this one and Man Wanted (1932) made her accepted by audiences as a legitimate star. She had finally found her niche, something Paramount was really undecided about. The adult atmosphere of the Pre-Code movies between 1929 and 1934 emphasized her success on the screen. In films like Mary Stevens, M.D. she is successful, yes. But she is also human, and giving into sexual temptation is something that not many people can resist.
It is with characters like Mary where audiences realized that they can have success without having to conform, which is what the Catholic Legion of Decency was most against.
The film was based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, which Warner Brothers had adapted for the screen specifically for Kay. Originally, George Brent was to play her foolish male counterpart. But his honeymoon with Ruth Chatterton upset this concept, and the part was given to Lyle Talbot, who would work again with Kay in Mandalay (1934), a Ruth Chatterton reject which cast Talbot again as a doctor on unstable grounds.
Lloyd Bacon, who had directed Kay in First National’s A Notorious Affair (1930), was chosen to direct Mary Stevens, M.D. Bacon was one of Kay’s finest directors, one who did good at refreshing recycled plots and showcasing them in a new light. This film can sort of be an example of that, but there is a spark to it which makes it stand out among the rest of its Pre-Code predecessors.
Of that era between 1929 and July 1934, Mary Stevens, M.D. would become one of the most memorable. Variety considered the film “exceptionally good, adult entertainment,” and thought that Kay “avails herself of unusual opportunity.”
Over eight decades later, it still doesn’t fail to entertain.
Mary Stevens and Donald Andrews are new to the world of medicine.
The film opens with an emergency call to 1112 Orchard Street. Kay Francis is introduced to the audience right away. Arriving at the front door she is immediately underestimated by the patient’s husband who “needs a man doctor.” (The irony being that his wife is about to deliver a baby.) After threatening to kill Mary if the “bambino” dies, the sexist jerk is silenced when she walks out the door holding twins. We next see Mary and Don completing their training in medical school and opening their own office. “You said a woman couldn’t do it,” says Mary.
“A woman couldn’t,” responds Don. “But you, well, you’re a super woman.”
“I don’t know whether to take a bow or be insulted.”
Mary next assists Don in surgery. Don’s irresponsibility makes one realize it should be the other way around. He eventually leaves with Mary taking over. She lectures him about his drinking before a surgery and drive for only money. “If that’s all you want then I’m out,” says Mary. A friendship which has lasted since childhood now ends.
A year passes. Mary and Don meet again on a ride to a local hotel. They dance, make eyes at each other, talk about how much has changed, then confess their love to each other. It’s old mush, but done in a charming manner. Kay looks stunning with her hair down and costumed in a beautiful white evening gown. They make love, plans for marriage, and then face trouble when Lois, Don’t wife, is talked out of getting a divorce by her father. Adding to the melodrama, Mary realizes she’s pregnant. What’s surprising about the situation is how care-free she is about her status as an unwed mother, at least until she realizes that Lois has no intentions of divorcing Don. There’s a beautiful close up of Mary’s eyes tearing as Don assures her they can still go on with their romance, while Mary keeps her pregnancy a secret.
Being an intellectual, Kay’s character decides to vacation in Europe, have the baby, then come home and tell everyone she’s adopted a child. Unlike her contemporaries, Kay always seemed genuine when portraying the love between her and her onscreen children. It makes one wonder what kind of mother Kay would have been had she not terminated her pregnancies. Her sentimentality almost brings a tear to one’s eye as she gives her child a bath.
On a house call, Mary leaves her purse outside where a little girl goes through it, putting a pen in her mouth. The purse is returned to the room where Mary is staying, and her infant puts his mouth on the same pen, catching the same fever she was on a house call for. The child dies. Kay’s photographed beautifully in a tragic way. As she mourns for the loss of her child, she looks up not wearing any elaborate make up and with tears running down her eyes. Its simple photography, but the situation and Kay’s response to it play out excellent. Unlike how some of her contemporaries may have handled the situation, Kay legitimately cries for the one child she couldn’t save, her own. She doesn’t scream or go over the top, just mourns and down plays the entire scene. It’s one of the better examples of Kay’s acting abilities.
After thinking about nothing but her child, Mary begins to contemplate suicide. She looks out a window, gets herself ready, but is cut off by an emergency call. A baby has swallowed a safety pin. Mary insists that she has given up practicing, and then relents when Glenda tells Mary it’s her chance to redeem herself. Mary saves the child with a hair pin, and then gives off one of the best feminist lines, “I was just wondering, they say medicine is a man’s game. I wonder what a man would have done in a case like this.”
Mary then decides to go on with her work, and ends up with the perfect balance of Don (who is now free to marry) and her career.
Lloyd Bacon was one of Kay’s better directors. Aside from this movie, he had also directed her wonderfully in A Notorious Affair (1930). Her acting throughout Mary Stevens M.D. is excellent, but so is that of the rest of the cast. It’s too bad that she was never assigned to Bacon more, perhaps she may have been better regarded as an actress.
The scene where Mary contemplates suicide is probably the best dramatic acting of Kay’s early career. It’s difficult, as an actor, to get the audience to understand what your character is thinking at all times. In that scene, Kay’s nerves are on the edge, and she has us completely understanding her lack of direction. “Dare I or not?” Is the question Mary is faced with.
Saved, ironically, with an emergency about a baby who has swallowed a safety pin, she’s able to pull herself together realistically. To come back from such a drastic circumstance in such a short amount of time is a true estimate of Kay’s dramatic range.
For some reason, Glenda Farrell never really interested me. I like her better in this one than the other films I’ve seen her in—Life Begins (1931) and The Keyhole (1933)—but she just never gave me any ambition to stand up and take a real interest in her. This isn’t a strike against her talent, it’s just that she never really clicked with me.
Lyle Talbot does okay with his role, but I really liked him much better in Ladies They Talk About (1932). This one doesn’t require much from him, and the fact that he would show up to a surgery drunk really just turns one off. Situations like this shift the audience attention more towards Kay, which is probably why this is remembered solely as a Kay Francis Pre-Code Melodrama.
Taped from Turner Classic Movies, the black and white photography is excellent, and the sound is crisp and clear with virtually no static. One of the more famous movies of the PreCode Hollywood years, the film was rereleased in 1936 but denied the seal of approval by the Legion of Decency. “An unmarried woman having a baby was just too, too much,” wrote Lynn Kear and John Rossman in The Complete Kay Francis Career Record.
Reviews for the movie were strongly positive, and one can easily see why. A big hit of its time, Mary Stevens M.D. is one of the better pictures of Kay’s career, and is long overdue for a major rediscovery.
(Below) From Photoplay, September 1933:
Life, as the song writers have already pointed out, is so mysterious that it may not be altogether safe to question the realism of the melancholy events described in “Mary Stevens, M. D.,” which is at the Strand. Kay Francis, in the new film, is a woman physician who has a startling amount of trouble preserving a professional detachment toward the primitive emotions.
When Dr. Andrews, her suppressed desire, marries the daughter of a political boss and reveals himself as an unhallowed rogue by performing operations on children while under the influence of whisky and also by getting mixed up in a political scandal, she continues to find it impossible to live without him. The result of several illicit rendezvous with the fellow is that Miss Stevens, now a great baby specialist, finds herself in an interesting condition and has to run off to Paris. On the boat coming back the baby dies of infantile paralysis. The good doctor is on the point of hurling herself out of a fashionable hotel when Dr. Andrews bursts in with the glad tidings that he has obtained a divorce and can now make an honest woman of her.
This is as sad a story as the cinema has offered recently, and it is a disagreeable circumstance which makes it necessary to point out that it also is one of the shabbiest of the Hollywood contemplations of the medical profession.
Although the story, written with proper sincerity, might have been an interesting study of the problems confronting a woman physician in her work, this fatuous exhibit does not come within miles of dramatic integrity. There are the customary operating-room scenes and, for humorous sidelights, there is the customary flip and caustic nurse.
Both Kay Francis and Lyle Talbot (the latter as the vacillating Dr. Andrews) perform competently, and there is one brief and excellent bit of acting by Una O’Connor, the English actress, who appeared as the cockney wife in “Cavalcade.”
The New York Times, August 5, 1933.