As a film, Lloyd Bacon’s Mary Stevens, M.D. isn’t much, but it offers great opportunities for Kay Francis to emote to her heart’s content.
The Production: 3/5
In the early to mid-1930s, Kay Francis became Warner Bros. elite dramatic actress. Her reign at the top in A pictures was a brief one; the ambitious Bette Davis came to the studio in 1932 and was in a hurry to establish herself, but for a while, Kay Francis got her pick of the leading lady roles at the studio. One of the pre-Code films she chose for herself was Mary Stevens, M.D., a fairly predictable but nevertheless entertaining look at a lady doctor attempting to establish her credentials in the depths of the Great Depression. As a film, Mary Stevens, M.D. isn’t much, but it offers great opportunities for Kay Francis to emote to her heart’s content: in and out of love, glowing and despondent, and both determined and professional to the end.
Best friends Mary Stevens (Kay Francis) and Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot) grow up together and eventually attend medical school and do their residencies together and ultimately decide to hang out their shingles in the same office. Don considers them best pals, but Mary obviously feels more deeply for Don and is slightly heartbroken when Don meets, falls in love with and marries Lois Rising (Thelma Todd), the daughter of a politically connected mob boss (Charles Wilson). While Don succumbs to a crooked high-paying job and lets his professional ethics slide, Mary dives ever more deeply into her work earning a great reputation and much respect as the city’s leading pediatrician. But Don’s quickie marriage quickly founders, and Mary is there to pick up the pieces eventually learning that she herself is going to have a baby though Don’s wife has yet to give him a divorce. Big problems require big decisions on everyone’s part in order to secure a happy future.
Based on the novel by Virginia Kellogg, the screenplay by Rian James and Robert Lord speeds through both good times and bad at a rapid pace (the movie’s 72-minute running time suggests that director Lloyd Bacon doesn’t dawdle over anything). Even the movie’s tensest moments, an operation about to be botched by a tipsy Don practically fainting in the operating room only to be saved by Mary or a child in an oxygen tent struggling for life with life-saving medicine only moments away, go by so quickly that their innate drama isn’t milked for nearly the maximum impact. True to its melodramatic roots, the film shows us a man slipping from the straight and narrow somehow coming through the scandal untouched while a woman who makes even the tiniest slip must pay cruelly for a single lapse in judgment. It’s a cliché of the genre which might have been side-stepped (especially in the pre-Code era) especially since the film bends over backwards otherwise to show us the efforts a woman must go to in order to break through stereotypes and earn the trust of the public as a more than competent and trustworthy medical doctor. Director Lloyd Bacon is a workmanlike director: all meat-and-potatoes with no fancy side dishes. Even a sojourn in Paris late in the movie doesn’t allow us to enjoy the City of Light at all.
Kay Francis does take every opportunity to relish the extremes of emotion she must play as Mary Stevens works hard to earn the trust of her patients and the love of the man she’s always fancied. Later scenes when tragedy strikes are also played honestly but with great restraint. She never resorts to being overly theatrical. Lyle Talbot is young and trim here, enjoying the high life in his few key early scenes and playing a more grounded and responsible character later on. Glenda Farrell, of course, steals all of her scenes as Mary’s hard-working nurse and Girl Friday, and her every appearance on camera is worth waiting for. Thelma Todd, though lovely, has precious little to do as the spoiled rich girl who steals Don’s heart and then casts it away. Two of Hollywood’s most famous character actors, however, seize their brief scenes and make them completely memorable: Harold Huber as a frantic soon-to-be Italian papa threatening the young Mary with decapitation if she botches the birth of his child and Una O’Connor as the mother of a stricken child whose interactions with Mary lead to the doctor’s own later tragedy.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. It’s amazing how good even this simplistic little melodrama can look when given the Warner Archive Blu-ray treatment. There are no problems with age-related scratches, splices, spots, or frame skips, and the grayscale is beautiful with rich black levels and crisp whites. There are no problems with aliasing or moiré in the men’s patterned jackets, and contrast has been dialed in wonderfully to make for an arresting viewing experience. The movie has been divided into 22 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is as solid as a rock. Dialogue is clear and clean with no problems evident with hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter. The occasional music interludes and the necessary sound effects have been blended with the dialogue quite expertly.
Special Features: 1/5
Theatrical Trailer (2:08, HD)
Lloyd Bacon’s Mary Stevens, M.D. is an unexpected choice for the Warner Archive Blu-ray series: it’s a melodramatic programmer that hardly ranks as a classic, and yet it looks and sounds as solid as the just released genuine classic Dinner at Eight. Fans of the stars or the genre should be more than pleased with this one.
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