Thursday 25 September 2008

Dr Monica (1934)

Finally I find myself over halfway through Warren William's films. Only a few years ago I'd never even heard of him but as almost as I discovered precodes I discovered Warren William and I haven't looked back since. This one comes right at the end of the precode era, about as close as it gets. The code had been all around for years but it began to be enforced on 1 Jul 1934, through an amendment that required every film released to seek and acquire a certificate of approval from the new Production Code Administration. Dr Monica was released only a week earlier on 23 Jun 1934 and given the content, I'm sure that was deliberate.

The title character is a New York obstetrician called Dr Monica Braden, though I'm surprised they didn't change the surname given that she's played by Wavishing Kay Fwancis. She's a busy doctor, so busy that she doesn't get to see her husband too often, a busy writer by the name of John. We first see them together at a party, which is the first time they've connected in two days. We quickly discover that John has been taking advantage of such lack of contact with his wife by cheating on her with a mutual acquaintance called Mary Hathaway, so it's hardly surprising they picked Warren William for the part.

He heads quickly and conveniently out of the picture on a six month trip to Europe, leaving Mary knocked up and trying to miscarry. The real bitch is that Monica is a baby doctor who can't have a baby of her own, something that she seriously yearns for. And naturally Monica takes care of Mary all the way through her pregnancy, only to accidentally discover who the father is about five minutes before the baby is born. Cue all sorts of romantic twist and turmoil, that would turn this into a soap opera if only it wasn't handled so well, at least by 1934 standards.

Given that it runs a scant 53 minutes in length (the original version may have included an extra eight minutes) that's not a lot of room to do much except define the framework and let the actors do their best to flesh out their characters. Kay Francis was a dab hand at this sort of tearjerker and she does a fine job here. Jean Muir is passable as Mary Hathaway, but best of all is Verree Teasdale as Anna Littlefield. She's there to provide not just the link between everyone else in the story but the backbone and the comic relief to the film. She has a very dry wit and she gets a couple of scenes to shine.

I was watching mostly for Warren William though and he precisely the right actor for a part like John Braden. It still stuns me how much he could go totally off the deep end as a cad and a bounder yet still retain some sort of sympathy on behalf of the viewer. I haven't found another actor from any era who could carry the sort of role he turned into a trademark during the precodes, but unfortunately he must have been well aware the ending of that era was going to mean that his brief dominance was about to end with it and so this is a highly restrained performance.

A week after the release of this film, there would be no more films like Skyscraper Souls, Beauty and the Boss or Employees' Entrance, all of which (and many more) gave William outrageous roles to relish. He was about to enter his next phase of roles, as detective heroes, following this one up with portrayals of Philo Vance in The Dragon Murder Case and as Perry Mason in The Case of the Howling Dog, setting him on the path to the Lone Wolf. This was definitely the end of an era, ushered out by the Production Code Administration trying to pull this film from theatres because it dared address issues like adultery, childbirth out of wedlock, forced miscarriages and suicide. All in 53 minutes. There's nothing like a precode, even one with a copout of an ending.

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