Stereotypes run amuck in this Warner Brothers pre-code from 1933. Yet it is these categorizations that make this pre-code interesting to watch. It begins on the Lower East Side of New York, Orchard Street to be specific, an ethnic neighborhood which at various times was filled with Jewish, German, Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants among others. The script focuses on an Italian family. Tony has called for a doctor, his wife is giving birth, and he’s crying for help. An ambulance arrives with a doctor in tow, our heroine, Mary Stevens (Kay Francis). Tony is shocked. My God, the doctor is a woman! No, no, no, he wants a real doctor…a man! Having already lost one child, he threatens Mary with a machete if she fails to help his wife through to a successful birth. Mary locks herself in the bedroom with the expectant mother while Tony is being restrained by the police (called earlier by the frightened ambulance driver). As expected, the baby is successfully delivered and all is well. This short opening scene reveals how far we have come in our labeling of people and yet it also reveals how far we still have to go. I am sure there are still men out there who do not want to be treated by a female doctor just because she is a woman.
Yet in 1933, these biased traits were not the only shocking part of this film. Prejudicial feelings toward ethnic groups and females were common and considered even standard operating procedure at the time. The real shockers comes later in the film when Mary has an affair with a married man, her best friend and lover, and has a baby with him that she keeps without marrying.
Mary and Don Stevens (Lyle Stevens) graduated from medical school together and opened their respective offices right next to each other in the same building. Don goes on to marry Lois (Thelma Todd) a rich society girl. He lives the high life while his practice falls apart. Mary, on the other hand, works diligently, and despite the prejudices facing women doctors, builds up a successful practice. Don meanwhile becomes involved in some shady deals, and with the law on his tail, needs to flee the country. Mary’s career continues to blossom. She takes a vacation in Europe where she runs into none other than on the lam Don. They have an affair. He wants a divorce, but his father-in-law does not want a family scandal and promises to clear Don of his criminal activities as long as he stays married to Lois. Mary soon finds out she’s pregnant with Don’s baby and, to avoid a scandal, stays in Europe. She then decides to take a position as a passenger ship’s doctor. The melodrama gets deep after a children’s disease breaks out on the ship. She saves a family’s child but cannot save her own.
The cast also includes wisecracking Glenda Farrell as Mary’s best friend. Like her Warner Brothers cohort, Joan Blondell, Farrell was quick with the verbal comeback and sassy.
Mary Stevens, M.D. is what use to be termed a “women’s picture,” but as I mentioned earlier, today it is interesting as a snapshot of what was deemed acceptable and today is naiveté at best and prejudice at worst.