Beyond the Classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she explores the real talent of Kay Francis and her progressive role in Mary Stevens, M.D.
Despite being one of the highest-paid and most popular movie stars of the Pre-Code era, Kay Francis is not remembered as a very talented actress by many historians today. Her glamor and softness paled in comparison to the intensity of her peers who were also coming into popularity at the same time, such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. Yet, Francis starred in an incredible variety of films, from comedic roles alongside Ernest Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers to dramatic roles as sex workers, society women, and most notably, working women in male-dominated fields.
Francis may not have had the fiery acting style of other stars, but her malleability and unthreatening nature made her the perfect star to take on the 1920s and 1930s women’s issues for audiences who were afraid of evolving gender roles. One example of this is her performance in 1933’s Mary Stevens, M.D., in which Francis plays a female doctor fighting for respect from her patients and fellow doctors all while trying to find love. Francis as Mary Stevens navigates society’s effort to force women to believe they needed to sacrifice a career as part of the limits of the traditional definition of femininity. For that, Francis was not simply a mannequin for fashion trends on-screen, but an actress in her own right, and we should remember her as such.
Before starring in Mary Stevens, M.D., Kay Francis had just begun the height of her career, thanks to the success of her latest film Trouble in Paradise, thought to be the best film of her career. She had migrated from New York City, where she was a theater sensation, to Hollywood just a few years earlier. One thing was clear very early on in her career: Kay Francis had serious style. Many of the roles her studio Warner Bros. assigned to her required gorgeous wardrobes that would be associated with her allure forever. Even off-screen, Francis’s style landed her numerous magazine covers, solidifying her as the epitome of 1930s fashion.
Her role in Mary Stevens, M.D. was made out to be the opposite of feminine fashion. Mary is a female doctor who just recently graduated from medical school with her friend Don (Lyle Talbot). Male and female patients alike refuse to see her because of her gender, but Mary is not deterred and builds a reliable clientele for herself. Meanwhile, Don abandons his duties as a doctor in pursuit of what he considers to be a real feminine woman, socialite Lois Cavanaugh (Thelma Todd). They marry while Don and Mary drift apart as she makes a name for herself as a doctor and Don as a member of the influential rich.
Years go by as Mary continues her practice with her nurse Glenda (Glenda Farrell), and while on vacation, Mary runs into Don. She confesses she has loved him all along and they have a short affair. Don promises to divorce so that they can be together, but his current wife and powerful father-in-law make it impossible for him to divorce and be with Mary. When she returns home, Mary finds she is pregnant with Don’s child and whisks away to France to give birth in secret, her nurse Glenda the only one to know she will be a single mother. Mary seems content with raising her baby alone, with the help of Glenda of course, and it seems like she may be able to do what many consider utterly impossible, having a career and a baby all by herself.
However, tragedy strikes on their way back to the U.S. when babies on board with Mary and Glenda contract polio, including her own baby. She is unable to save her child and goes into an absolute spiral, giving up on her career and her life. Just as she is about to jump from the window to her death, a desperate parent comes calling for her help. His baby has swallowed a pin and needs saving immediately. Glenda convinces Mary she is the only one who can save the baby. In an extremely stressful climax, Mary uses an object of her womanhood, a hairpin, to save the baby and her sense of self is restored.
Mary Stevens, M.D. is full of melodrama, which mostly stems from something we have covered several times over in this column. Pre-Code sensationalism both liberated women by depicting realities of their lives that had been conventionally taboo to talk about, such as pregnancy out of wedlock, and often punished them for it in the end. While Mary proves to be as competent of a doctor, and even more so than her male counterpart, the movie refuses to allow her to be feminine at the same time. Just as she becomes a mother and falls in love, she loses both, with only her career left at the end. It makes for a frustrating watch if you’re a person looking for an absolute perfect depiction of all that women are capable of, which is impossible especially for 1930s Hollywood. However, this suffering can be seen today as a depiction of how taking on the role of a modern woman was not easy, as many women watching this film when it was released could relate to.
While Mary Stevens, M.D. continues to describe Mary as un-feminine, Francis still holds the same grace, poise, and style that her other feminine characters have. She has her very short bob, which is reminiscent of her early glamorous roles of the late 20s. She spends most of the movie in her scrubs, but they are far more stylish than the male doctors’ scrubs, with high turtleneck collars and glorious button-up capes.
When not on duty, Mary wears the same fur coats and cute little hats that Francis’s other social characters may wear. The other characters in the film may continue to look at the unemployed heiress Lois as the truly desirable woman, like Glenda who tells Mary, “You’ll never get [Don],” and proceeds to tell her that she “has no sex appeal, and neither does any woman in this man’s business.” However, audiences, especially the women watching, realize that even depicting a strong career woman with traits normally reserved for masculinity, Francis exudes beauty and grandeur. Perhaps those regular women could too.
While so much of what Kay Francis is remembered for is her fashion sense, her emotional performance in this film is an example that she should be remembered as a viable actress as well. As Mick LaSalle notes in his book Complicated Women, “She was also a real live actress… competent, and emotionally honest — and she brought a natural authority to her roles as a professional woman.” While on the ledge of her apartment building, after she has lost her baby and believes she’ll never have the love she so longed for, Francis gives a powerful performance as a woman on the brink. Especially when throughout the film, she remains poised and level-headed when facing discrimination, loneliness, and frustration. She’s human in this moment.
Along the same lines, Kay Francis has a somewhat tame screen presence, but one that is nonetheless unforgettable. She does not come off as harsh when delivering witty and snarky replies to sexism or what a disappointment Don is as a man. Before they go their separate ways as Don becomes a drunkard, Mary tells him, “Nothing’s guaranteed to break up a friendship like giving advice. I’ll never bother you with it again.” With a line like that, she need not the intensity and aggressiveness some of Francis’s peers had.
While Stanwyck and Crawford depicted women with no hesitation to cut men down a peg by whatever means necessary, Francis did so in a way that was a lot more palatable to conservative audiences. Francis, despite actively challenging society’s preconceived notions about what women are capable of, did so in a way that felt non-threatening and approachable. Her presence on screen is comforting, no matter what role she is in, progressive or not. Our instinctive reaction is to write that kind of approach to these roles as not as revolutionary as some of the more radical women on screen at the time, but Francis and her characters still had a huge effect on the women who went to theaters to see her play these professional women.
After the movie was released, Francis began receiving more and more fan mail containing stories of women caught in the same circumstances as Mary Stevens. Francis held those dear to her, as she did when she brought one letter with her to an interview. This letter begged for Francis to give advice because the author was afraid of losing her husband. “I wish there was some way I could help. If there was something I could do about it,” she confessed to writer Virginia T. Lane. What she didn’t realize that she was helping those women in some small way, by representing them on screen as they were, which was not always as dominating and reckless as some other modern women were during the Pre-Code era.
Perhaps it is Francis’s lack of intensity that led to her decline in Hollywood once the Production Code took over and her sexual characters could no longer outwardly express desire. At the end of the 1930s, Francis was losing her allure compared to stars like Bette Davis, who had risen to surpass Francis as the ruling woman of Warner Bros. Francis became tired of being a star, especially one that was not given the respect of Davis and other women in Hollywood.
She longed to go far away from movie making and couldn’t “wait to be forgotten.” She slipped into obscurity, only leaving her most fashionable roles and tons of media coverage from her reign as movie star of the 30s. Yet, as Mary Stevens, M.D. shows, Francis gave much more in her short career and should be remembered for her powerful performances as well, no matter how melodramatic or regressive the stories may have been.