The pre-code era allowed women to do a lot of things. They were allowed to openly express their sexuality. They were allowed to cheat on their husbands. They were allowed to kill people and actually get away with it. And they were allowed to live in the professional world. To take jobs that made them equal to men. Usually, this was in the business world (for example, Ruth Chatterton in Female). There really weren’t many films about women becoming doctors. There are two really great ones, and they both star Kay Francis. I wonder what it was that made her so convincing as a woman of medicine that she took on the role twice. She certainly possessed a unique strength that gave her both a commanding and comforting presense.
In Mary Stevens, MD, Francis plays a gifted doctor who goes into practice with her best friend (who she really loves) played by Lyle Talbot. The film shows her talent as a doctor, but it also shows people’s prejudiced views against a female doctor in those times. We’re shown on more than one occassion adults who refuse to be treated by her because she’s a woman. So she specializes in children.
We get to see Francis’ Dr. Stevens as an incredibly strong woman, both in her professional life and her personal life. She becomes pregnant by Talbot while he is still married, so she goes to Europe to have the baby on her own. This really is a great depiction of strong professional women. In a lot of movies like this, the woman gives up her career because the man wants her to. Here, they get together in the end and continue practicing medicine. It’s really an impressive pre-code film.
The next year, at the tail end of the pre-code era, Francis played Dr. Monica, who isn’t quite as strong a character as Mary Stevens. It’s also much more of a soap opera. She discovers that her husband (Warren William) has had an affair with her best friend (Jean Muir). William leaves them both, and without his knowledge, Muir is pregnant. Monica discovers the truth, and decides to stick by her friend and help with the baby. And of course, true love has to prevail in the end. Whether he cheated on her or not.
Made at the end of the era, this follows the conventional storytelling of the man being completely forgiven for cheating on his wife. All in all, it’s a little difficult to watch Francis play such a strong character as Mary Stevens, and then to watch her play someone not half as strong as Dr. Monica. It’s not a bad movie, and its themes of adultery are pre-code goodness. But the martyrdom of the characters is hard to swallow.
They do handle similar themes, just in very different ways. There’s adultery in both, but in Mary Stevens Kay Francis is the other woman, while in Dr. Monica she’s the one being cheated on. Babies are also a core plot point in both films.
Both are good movies, but if you really want to see Francis as a strong professional woman, watch Mary Stevens, MD.
By Katie Richardson