Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dr. Monica (Warners, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was actually one of the Kay Francis films I’d recorded earlier that night: Dr. Monica, a quirky 1934 soap opera that started life as a play by a writer with one of those incomprehensible jumbles of letters that constitute Polish names, Maria Morozowicz-Szczepkowska. Even the American Film Institute Catalog wasn’t able to determine the production history of the Polish original, but a writer named Laura Walker Mayer (who’s billed on screen merely as Laura Walker) did an English translation that opened in New York on November 6, 1933. The movie was made between February and March 1934 (that’s how quickly things moved back then!) and released on June 23, 1934, just in time to get caught up in the furor over the Legion of Decency’s demand for stricter movie censorship and Hollywood’s response by more strictly enforcing the 1930 Production Code; indeed, when the so-called “pre-Code” era came to a skidding halt this movie had to be withdrawn from theatres by order of chief censor Joe Breen, and the extant print shown on TCM is only 53 minutes long, 12 minutes shorter than the original.

It’s still a pretty nervy story for the time: Dr. Monica Braden (Kay Francis) and her husband, writer John Braden (Warren William), are married and reasonably happy on the few occasions when they can actually see each other — which isn’t often because Dr. Monica, whose specialty is maternity care, keeps getting called into the hospital to attend to her latest pregnant patient and the baby said patient is about to bring into the world. For the first couple of reels the movie’s frank acceptance of the idea of a two-career couple makes it see surprisingly modern — only the clothes and the black-and-white photography give it away as a 1930’s movie — as if Woody Allen had done a film of The Women. Then the plot rears its soapy little head and we find that all those nights Dr. Monica has left her husband alone have led him to have an affair with Dr. Monica’s friend Mary Hathaway (Jean Muir).

The plot thickens when Monica and Mary are at a cocktail party and Mary, about to play the piano, gets out the opening bars of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor ( misnamed the piece as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor) and then collapses at the piano, and in treating her Monica discovers that Mary is pregnant. She asks Mary, who tells her that the father is a married man whom she can’t tell, and when John Braden leaves for a solo vacation to Europe both women see him off. Monica offers to look after Mary and deliver her baby at a secluded country retreat (which makes this film sound like a precursor to The Great Lie), and it’s only at the very moment Mary is about to give birth that Monica overhears her making a frantic attempt to reach John (who’s returned from his trip early in the meantime) and realizes that her husband is the father of Mary’s child. She’s unwilling to go through with the delivery until the resident nurse, Mrs. Monahan (Emma Dunn), literally slaps some sense into her. The baby is born but nearly dies of neglect because Mary doesn’t want to take care of it, but eventually the plot issues get resolved when Mary takes her plane and flies it out to sea, an intriguing high-tech variation on the famous A Star Is Born suicide gimmick, and Monica adopts the child without telling her husband either that the kid is his biological daughter or that she knows about his affair.

Though it’s an out-and-out soap opera, it’s a quite remarkable movie in other ways; it’s possible it might have been a better film with the originally suggested cast, Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, but Francis acts the part of Dr. Monica with real subtlety and sensitivity (if not quite the heart-wrenching pathos Stanwyck could have given it) and the stuck-up William is probably a better fit for John than the more easy-going McCrea would have been. It’s nice to see a two-career couple accepted as a normal fact of life and even nicer to see a plot resolution that does not depend on the woman giving up her own work life to salvage her marriage; Charles Kenyon’s script avoids the Faith Baldwin gimmick of blaming the husband’s affair on the wife’s career and telling her she’s “unmanned” him and that’s why he was tricking around. AFI’s tantalizing description of Breen’s condemnation of the film for “identifying characters as a Lesbian, a nymphomaniac and a prostitute” makes me wish a copy of the longer version will turn up sometime in my lifetime, but even as it stands Dr. Monica — directed with unusual sensitivity by William Keighley (with, according to, uncredited assistance from a far better director, William Dieterle) — is a minor but quite moving film and a better one than some of Francis’s later and even soapier vehicles.