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

Year: 1933

Director: Albert Ray

Cast: Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Harvey Clark, Purnell Pratt, Lillian Harmer, Arthur Hoyt, Louise Beavers

Before she got famous with Fred, Ginger Rogers made a lot of B-grade films. A Shriek in the Night is a better one, and another film that has a low rating on IMDb that I don’t understand. It’s certainly not a great movie, but it’s a good one.

Ginger plays Pat, a reporter who’s been working undercover as the secretary to a possibly crooked public figure. When that man is killed, she’s in the prime position to get a good scoop. However, her scoop is stolen by her sometimes paramour Ted (Talbot). The two eventually end up working together, and the closer they get to the murderer, the more danger their lives are in.

Ginger is incredibly spunk and likeable in this movie. In a lot of films of these types from the early 1930s, when they had a pretty young actress playing an inquisitive reporter, the actress often didn’t seem anywhere near smart enough for the role. But Ginger comes across as being extremely intelligent and resourceful. And she has good chemistry with Talbot. The relationship begins with the usual hate/love of the two leads of strong personality. Fortunately, though, it goes a different direction and sticks mostly with the ‘love’ side of things. Which is a good choice, because as good as they are when they’re fighting, Rogers and Talbot are much more adorable as a couple.

The film does have some tone problems. It’s a mystery/comedy. It is very funny, with Rogers and Talbot delivering their fair share of zingers, and Purnell Pratt being funny and quippy as the lead Inspector. He especially earns some great laughs in the first scene. It also has some extremely well done moments on the thriller side. Towards the end there are some very well executed moments of genuine creepiness and suspense. However, the two tones never really gel completely. While both comedy and suspense are done well, they don’t come together well. It’s like watching two different movies.

There is a good central mystery, though. Unlike a lot of movies of this type, A Shriek in the Night is more focused on it’s murder mystery than it is on the romance. Sometimes with mysteries, you follow the story with some interest, but not trying to figure it out because you know they’ll just tell you it all in the end. With this film, however, I found myself constantly engaged with the mystery, greatly interested in all the clues and revalations, and trying to figure it out before the end. They do kind of blow their load by revealing the killer a little too early.

With its great cast, charming leads, and intriguing mystery, A Shriek In the Night is definitely a chiller worth your time.

NOTE: This movie is available on YouTube.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1934

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell

I’ve watched this film twice in the last month. The first time I saw it I was not too impressed. I felt the film never seemed to lift itself off the ground that it was lifeless in the first half and only slightly improves in the second half. After a second viewing of the film I have to say that while this is not classic in the sense of The Petrified Forest, which it is sometimes compared too at least in setting, Heat Lightening is an entertaining film with a stand out performance by Aline MacMahon, an almost forgotten actress today.

This 1934 Warner Brothers “B” movie involves two sisters, Myra (Ann Dorvak) and Olga (Alice MacMahon) who run a gas station/restaurant/rest stop in the California desert. This is where the entire film takes place and where the similarities to The Petrified Forest come from. But the films are entirely different. The Petrified Forest, made two years later, in 1936, had loftier goals commenting on capitalism, class distinction, and race. Heat Lightening just tells a good story.

The movie opens with director Mervyn LeRoy panning his camera right, across the desert and coming upon the rest stop run by the two sisters. This opening panning shot reminded me of D.W. Griffith who frequently used the pan shot to open and close many of his films such as The Girl and Her Trust. The films start on a comical bent with the first customers to arrive, Herbert (the great Edgar Kennedy famous for his slow burn in many Laurel & Hardy films) and his domineering wife Gladys (Jane Darwell). Their car is over heated and Herbert is seen pushing the car into the station. Olga, the older and overall wearing mechanic of the two sisters, takes care of the car while the couple cool off with a couple of sodas. They soon take off and are never seen again. Other than some dated comical relief and the need to pad a film that barely runs a little over an hour they serve no purpose and could have easily been cut from the film.

The two sisters have been running the rest stop for a couple of years now and while Olga is happy with this quiet reclusive life where nothing much happens, Myra, younger, is restless and wants to go places and experience life. Like tonight she is looking to go out with Steve a local lothario who Olga, being the more experienced and over protective sister, disapproves of. “You put a man and a woman together and it gets complicated.” Olga tells her younger naïve sister.

Another car pulls in this time with two small time crooks, George (Preston Foster) and Jeff (Lyle Talbot). They’re on the run after recently robbing a bank where George shot and killed two of the banks employees. George soon recognizes Olga as an old girlfriend from some years ago back in Oklahoma. Suspicious of what he’s doing here she tells him she’s through with her previous life and is now making an honest living, something he would not know anything about.

Outside more customers arrive. This time its two rich women (Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly) driven by their Chauffeur (Frank McHugh). Their car has an over heated gasket that Olga can fix pretty quickly but the Chauffeur pleads to her to stall so they will have to spend the night. He’s too tired to keep going and the women are driving him crazy.

George, hearing these two women have just come from Reno and are loaded with jewelry, decides that he and Jeff should stick around, despite the fact that the police are after them. He’s got a plan that will relieve the two ladies of some of that jewelry. He tries to reconnect with Olga but she keeps him at arms length insisting her days of dance halls, gambling and guys like him are over. But Olga still has a soft spot for George and George knows it.

As the night heats up and the lightening strikes increase, the evening ushers in some spicy pre-code scenes that heat it up even more. Myra sneaks out to be with her bad boy Steve. Olga gets out of her overalls and into a dress to prove she still an attractive woman and sneaks into a room with George. Even the Chauffeur and the younger of the two rich women (Glenda Farrell) spend some cozy time together.

Late that night Myra’s date drops her off and as she sneaks back into her room she sees Olga coming out of another room suspecting she’s been with her former lover. Olga follows Myra to her room where they confront each other but it ends with Olga consoling Myra who confesses to being used and dumped by her cad of a date. Leaving Myra’s room Olga finds George and Jeff trying to break into the safe where the rich women’s jewelry is being kept for safety. While I won’t reveal the ending here, I will say that it should have been more dramatic and as a result is a bit of a let down. In the end though the two sisters and their rest stop are soon settled back into their quiet life in the desert where nothing much happens.

The star performance here is by Aline MacMahon who is excellent as Olga and it is worth watching just for her. Ann Dorvak is beautiful but has a smaller role and is not asked to do much as the young sister which is disappointing. Overall, the entire cast is good. I especially liked Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly and Frank McHugh as the two rich dames and their chauffeur. Heat Lightening is entertaining and at approximately 65 minutes moves at a nice pace.

By John Greco