Monday, August 10, 2015

Dr. Monica (1934)

Director: William Keighley                                 Writer: Charles Kenyon
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                            Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Kay Francis, Warren William, Jean Muir and Verree Teasdale

On the surface, Dr. Monica is little more than a potboiler, with a contrived plot that emphasizes sensationalism. On the other hand, however, it is Kay Francis and Warren William, and there’s little more that Warners could have done to make the film better and a whole lot more that could have made it worse. The story comes from a Polish stage play by Maria Morozowicz-Szczepkowska and its English translation done by Laura Walker Mayer, and this makes sense, at it seems like nothing from that era in the United States. Kay Francis plays a renowned obstetrician who seems to be in complete control of her life. She doesn’t feel the need herself for motherhood, except as a way of pleasing her husband and bringing them closer together. The other major characters are Verree Teasdale, an incredibly empowered woman who offers some seemingly weak advice to Francis that is actually a healthy dose of realism in that day and age. What’s fascinating is that the only male characters in the film are the effeminate Herbert Bunston and the ineffectual Warren William. But where William is a tremendous actor, he is given a part that even his considerable skills can’t bring to life. Being as this is such a staunchly feminist film, it’s difficult to understand how Jack Warner could have given the green light to it, even in spite of the happy ending that adhered to the production code.

The film begins at a cocktail party thrown by Verree Teasdale. Doctor Kay Francis is late, and Teasdale wonders out loud if she’s been held up at the hospital delivering another baby. But Francis’s husband, Warren William, is in attendance and he assures the host that Francis will be along any minute. Then, when she does arrive, William has to attend a meeting with his publisher and so he and Francis only meet in passing. The two are set to go off on a trip to Europe, but she hasn’t told him that she won’t be able to go because she wants to get treatment for infertility so that they can have a baby. Meanwhile, Jean Muir is miserable at the party. She’s been having an affair with William and his impending six-month absence is almost more than she can take. But where William was going to break things off after a renewed commitment to Francis, Muir is unable to cope with his loss. Francis tries to befriend her, and it isn’t long before she figures out Muir is pregnant. Then Francis she learns that William will be returning early from Europe, and at the same time that her own case is too severe and she will never be able to have a baby of her own. The conflict comes nine months later, the night Muir is going to give birth, when Francis hears her frantically putting in a call to William, and is devastated to realize he’s the father. The irony is, while Muir doesn’t want the baby because she wants to forget about William, Francis is desperate to have one.

It’s almost difficult to believe that this film was made during the pre-code era, as the ending seems as if it were scripted by the production code office itself. Not only that, but when Muir suggest that Francis help her get an abortion, Francis is outraged and tells her not to even think about it. Nevertheless, the mere appearance on the screen of adultery and a child born out of wedlock was enough to make the censors threaten to pull the picture. Kay Francis puts in a solid performance, as usual, but it’s just that standard level of professionalism from her that fails to push the film into anything more than a melodrama. She didn’t much care for the part, either, preferring to play women who were more distinctly feminine. Warren William, on the other hand, didn’t stand a chance in this film. In fact, in the stage play there were no male characters at all. William’s part was created by screenwriter Charles Kenyon and he gives him little to do except be the man in the lives of the two women. At this point in his career, however, the actor had little enthusiasm for challenging roles and was content to appear in whatever the studio threw his way. While Dr. Monica may not be a great film, there’s still something about the star quality of the two leads that makes it watchable. And that’s a recommendation in itself.

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