Pre-Code Makeover

You know I’m a sucker for pre-Code movies (as are most if not all of my readers), so I’m delighted to announce the Blu-Ray remasters of two superb specimens from that era, LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT and MARY STEVENS, M.D. (both 1933, and now available from The Warner Archive Collection).

We pre-mies, of course, are more than familiar with each of these excellent titles. They often run on TCM, and have been in the Warner Archive Collection for years – the latter as DVDs. Now don’t get me wrong. These older transfers were quite good, but, damn, the new 1080p High Definition re-dos blew my mind. Truly, it’s as if I’m seeing these naughty nuggets for the first time. Mel Mantra #1: Never forget how well (if not brilliantly) these movies were lit and shot. Long story short, the difference between the DVDs and the Blu-Rays is the difference between “very nice” and “jaw-dropping gorgeous.”

A gender switch on convict redemption, as only pre-Code can deliver, LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT is a first-rate vehicle for rising star Barbara Stanwyck, who can do more with a smirk and a look than a script packed with risque one-liners (never mind, they’re here, too – courtesy of a scenario by Brown Holmes, William McGrath, and Sid Sutherland). Interestingly, LADIES is based upon Dorothy Mackaye’s and Carlton Miles’s play, Gangsteress, recounting Ms. Mackaye’s 1928 ten-month imprisonment in San Quentin. Stany plays Nan Taylor, the proverbial hottie from the wrong side of the tracks (jaded in girlhood by religious wingnuts), who ends up taking the fall for the heads of the bad crowd she’s hooked up with (the lead noggin and her squeeze being – who else? – but Lyle Talbot). Enter sanctimonious radio preacher Dave Slade (Preston Foster), who instantly becomes attracted to a suspicious Nan; much to her dismay, she starts gets the physical vibes herself. That all goes south when, hormones aside, Slade causes the now conflicted (but mostly pissed off) Nan to be sent up the river.

The prison sequences are primo pre-Code, with new fish Taylor taken under the tutelage of sassy Linda (Lillian Roth in her best movie role). They BFF like nobody’s business, and Nan’s intros to the penitentiary’s lesbian contingent, Aunt Maggie (the ex-Madam of a “beauty parlor,” where men were the clients), and Susie (a Dave Slade-obsessed nympho, out to destroy Ms. Taylor, once the revivalist’s lingering attraction becomes common knowledge) comprise cinematic snarkasm from Heaven. There are attempted crash-outs, double-crosses, and triple-crosses before Nan finally realizes that her love for Slade is genuinely mutual (but only after she pays him back by shooting him).

In stir, Roth and the other goils put the frustrated sexual heat on sizzle, particularly in one scene where horndog (or is it “kitten”?) Linda tells Nan that the only things on their collective minds are “freedom…and MEN!,” the last word delivered with such lip-biting frenzy that the poor lass nearly gnashes her puckerers to the teeth. They also moan to pinup photos of their favorite male movie stars (coincidentally, all Warners contractees).

The cast is terrific with Babs additionally backed up by Maude Eburne (Aunt Maggie), Dorothy Burgess (Susie), and Ruth Donnelly, Harold Huber, Grace Cunard, Mary Gordon, and Robert Warwick. Director William Keighley (who codirected with Howard Bretherton, and also appears in a bit) moves the action at a lightning paced 69-minutes. As underlined above, this Blu-Ray is gorgeous, with John Seitz’s cinematography looking like it hasn’t looked since 1933! The music score by Cliff Hess and Bernhard Kaun is okay, highlighted by riffs of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Woman” playing throughout – almost becoming Nan’s theme. I Like Mountain Music, a vintage Merrie Melodies, which may have originally supported the LADIES playdates, is also included.

MARY STEVENS, M.D., gives so-fun-to-watch-her-suffer Kay Francis one of her best Warners pre-Code turns. As the title character, she is the brunt of many cruel, sexist snubs despite the fact that the lady sawbones is aces in her profession. Opening a clinic with her fellow graduate student pal Don Andrews proves to be…dare I say…a pill. Even with a guy in tow, a woman doctor has difficulties payin’ the rent (fortunately, she has wise-cracking Glenda Farrell as her all-purpose gal Friday nurse to keep the doom out of gloom). But Don has other plans: marrying a rich, beauteous harpy (the always welcome Thelma Todd) and getting her daddy to fund his super-duper clinic. Ta-ta, Mary. Turns out that although Dr. Andrews is a competent medical practitioner, he’s an absolutely brilliant drunk; he’s also a class-conscious, ladder-climbing under-achiever, who – even with all the breaks – can’t cut it (in or out of surgery; “the less I do, the more I make,” he smirks). Self-loathing, selfish Don is played by – who else? – Lyle Talbot. Prior to going on the lam for embezzlement, Andrews sets Mary up with an office in his swanky practice, transforming her into an overnight success. As a result, Stevens and Andrews move from just friends to friends with benefits – the main one being her soon-to-arrive little tax deduction (an adulterous encounter while ducking the authorities). Back then, all women of means, when faced with this situation, booked passage on the Loretta Young Cabbage Patch Tour. Mary, sporting a Rachel Maddow “do,” and accompanied by Glenda (that’s Farrell’s character’s name, too), takes off for Europe, eventually returning with a little bundle of joy.

Before the story ends with a surprising outcome for Drs. Stevens and Andrews, Mary proves that many things haven’t changed for career women in nearly 90 years. Unwanted pregnancy aside, the femme physician also deals with a brief suicidal moment and, more topically, a mini pandemic aboard an ocean liner because…well, you know, some folks don’t take precautions…like maybe wearing a masks when your brood is infected. All of this unspools at a sprightly 72-minutes. Warners house talent Lloyd Bacon moves Rian James’s, and Robert Lord’s script (based on Viginia Kellogg’s play, with William Keighley acting as dialog consultant) at a more-than-brisk pace. Like LADIES, MARY STEVENS utilizes some smokin’ Orry-Kelly frocks (when not wearing scrubs or prison gear) – so much so, that, frankly, he should share responsibility for Stevens’s blessed event. D.P. Sid Hickox, another Warners’ workhorse, shows us how terrific slick, quickly-made movies could look. The crystal-clear, shimmering monochrome is double-take stunning in this new 1080p High Def remaster. The fact that none of the female trouble (in both these sensational titles) would be “acceptable” within a year makes us grateful that this and all those other great pre-Codes made it to the theaters before mid-June, 1934.




(both 1.37:1; 1080p High Definition); 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. SRP: $21.99 @.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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