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The three things that made Kay Francis a movie star, film scholar Jeanine Basinger declares, were fashion, glamour, and the popularity of the "woman's film" genre, which provided her most memorable roles. "Her career is absolute proof of the importance of clothes, makeup, and jewelry," Basinger says in her book A Woman's View, "both on and off the screen." Like all generalizations, this one goes only so far, and it doesn't account for a movie like Dr. Monica (1934), in which the star's spiffy costumes and genteel manner are tied to a smart and strong-willed female character. It's a woman's picture, all right, preaching the traditional notion that while professional success is fine, motherhood is every woman's dream. Yet in the genre's best tradition, it carries a hint of feminism by suggesting that a woman can be as accomplished in her career as any man.
The story, which Basinger calls "a top contender in the crackpot-plot sweepstakes," comes from a Polish play that was adapted into English as Doctor Monica and had a very brief New York run in 1933. The heroine is Monica Braden, a prominent obstetrician whose husband, John Braden, is a well-known author and also the secret lover of Mary Hathaway, a member of their social set who's rich enough to spend her time lounging around and taking friends for rides in her private plane. One evening Mary faints at a party, and Monica's trained eye sees right away that she's pregnant. What her trained eye doesn't see is that her own husband is responsible, that he's blissfully unaware of the pregnancy, and that his current absence on a trip to Europe is designed to make Mary stop loving him. Monica's own desire for motherhood has been thwarted by infertility, so she looks at her friend's predicament as a chance for some vicarious parenting. Recruiting her architect friend Anna to help out, Monica promises to care for Mary and deliver the baby when the time arrives, so the world will never know this ever happened. Increasingly distraught as her due date draws near, Mary tries desperately to reach John by phone, and when Monica overhears this, her husband's duplicity is a secret no more. Her first reaction is to storm out of the delivery room in a rage, but Anna appeals to her professional conscience, whereupon Monica does her obstetrical duty. (This is one of the rare movies where someone actually loses her head, gets a slap in the face, regains her wits, and calmly says "Thanks" to the slapper.) Then she tells John she wants a divorce. The resolution of the story involves a flight in Mary's plane, a sadly self-sacrificing act, and simultaneous solutions to Monica's frustrated motherliness and the baby's lack of properly married parents.
Francis was a major Warner Bros. star in the mid-1930s, thanks to her popularity in the melodramatic One Way Passage (1932) and the wryly comic Trouble in Paradise (made when she was on load to Paramount the same year). Critics have disagreed about the quality of her acting, however, and about whether it's even acting. According to Variety in 1934, "For all audiences, it will require considerable guesswork to determine whether Kay Francis, as Dr. Monica, is a doctor, which the picture portrays her to be, or just a clothes model, which the picture also portrays her to be....Miss Francis in this film is mostly a well-dressed lady who is acting; always acting." According to Basinger in 1993, "Obviously, Kay Francis can't act. Acting is not what she is doing on-screen. Being there is what she is doing, and at that she is an Olympic champion. She is presence, not talent." This seems a bit fussy to me presence has been a bankable talent for innumerable stars but even New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall, who praised Dr. Monica for its "excellent" acting, found no word stronger than "believable" to describe Francis's performance. Other reviews used similar terms, such as "competent" and "okay within the limitations of the script." Verree Teasdale generated more enthusiasm as Anna, and Warren William earned some praise as John, a character we're meant to like even though he's clueless and irresponsible by turns. "William, minus the mustache, with the loss not marking an improvement...plays a second rate sap in first class style," the Variety critic opined. Jean Muir also got good notices, even though playing Mary called on her to cope with a long list of narrative clichs.
Dr. Monica was recognized as a woman's movie from the start. "Women, because of the picture's plot, are the potential audience," wrote the Motion Picture Herald shortly before its release, adding that it contains "little to interest men" and is "far too deep and heavy for even the more mature adolescents." Variety agreed, predicting that "women will make or break this picture and it's not definite that a majority of the girls are going to go for it." Ironically, though, Francis found it not feminine enough. "I want to get away from the `new woman' the Dr. Monicas if I can," she remarked later, saying that "something essentially feminine" was the kind of part she preferred. She was on to something when she sensed that Dr. Monica wasn't an ideal character for her. Like her role in Mandalay earlier in 1934, the part had been written for Ruth Chatterton, who turned it down; then Jack Warner wanted Barbara Stanwyck to play it. And reviews were generally lukewarm when the picture opened. Adding to Francis's discontent with Dr. Monica was her growing dissatisfaction with being a movie star. "I don't particularly like myself in anything any more," she said about her performance. "Seems to me I'm always doing the same things with my hands and eyes and face. It makes you wonder just how much there is and is not to this acting business." The people who wondered whether Francis was "acting" apparently included Francis herself.
Dr. Monica has merits apart from the quality of its performances. One is its generous number of dexterous female characters besides the title physician there's Anna the architect and Mary the aviator. And its attitude toward sex is relatively open-minded, since the picture was released just weeks before Production Code censorship kicked in at full strength. Even then the Code office recommended that it be pulled from theaters because of references to adultery and pregnancy, and Code official Joseph I. Breen objected to characters he saw as a lesbian, a nymphomaniac, and a prostitute. Few would nominate Dr. Monica as Hollywood's best medical melodrama, but Francis's glamour somehow fits right in with its crackpot plot. And in my opinion, she is definitely acting all the way.
Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon, based on Laura Walker Mayer's adaptation of Maria Morozowicz-Szczepkowska's play
Cinematographer: Sol Polito
Film Editing: William Clemens
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Cast: Kay Francis (Dr. Monica), Warren William (John), Jean Muir (Mary), Verree Teasdale (Anna), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Monahan), Phillip Reed ("Bunny" Burton), Herbert Bunston (Mr. Pettinghill), Ann Shoemaker (Mrs. Hazlitt), Virginia Hammond (Mrs. Chandor), Hale Hamilton (Dr. Brent), Virginia Pine (Louise)
by David Sterritt