Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
Men in White (MGM, 1934) – Director: Richard Boleslawski. Writers: Waldemar Young (s/p). Sidney Kingsley (play). Stars: Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, Elizabeth Allen, Otto Kruger, C. Henry Gordon, Russell Hardie, Wallace Ford, Henry B. Walthall, Russell Hopton, Samuel S. Hinds, Frank Puglia, Leo Chalzei, Berton Churchill, & Donald Douglas. B&W, 74 minutes.
Can you see Clark Gable as a brilliant, dedicated doctor so involved in his work that he doesn’t have time to chase fiancee Myrna Loy around? We admit it was a stretch, but he turned in a great performance that served as a springboard to bigger and better films in this adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Men in White opens with the fall of a worker at a building site. He is immediately rushed by ambulance to St. George’s Hospital, where we meet the staff, including Dr. Hochberg (Hersholt), the resident genius, Dr. Gordon (Hinds), Dr. Levine (Kruger), and intern Dr. George Ferguson (Gable). Ferguson is the hospital’s boy wonder, the protege of Dr. Hochberg, who Hochberg is prepping to take over for him when he retires.
We learn that Dr. Ferguson is soon going to Vienna on a year-long apprenticeship to further his studies. He is also engaged to the rich and pampered Laura Hudson (Loy). Laura has dropped by the hospital to see her father John (Churchill), who is a heart patient. This gives her time with her intended to discuss the future and sets up the crux of the movie, which is that Ferguson is caught between two headstrong people, each of whom has radically different plans. Laura wants a husband with his own private practice, while Hochberg wants a doctor dedicated to the saving of lives above all else.
During their brief get-together, Laura complains that she never sees George. George tells her how lucky he is to be working with a man like Hochberg. They talk about their marriage and honeymoon in Vienna. Hochberg has told Laura that Vienna will be a lot of work for George, who he is grooming as his successor. Laura wants a honeymoon to be a time of sightseeing, dining out and making whoopee.
As they prepare to part, Laura mentions to George that she is looking forward to their engagement tonight, but George informs her that he has to stay and handle a difficult transfusion case. This cheeses off Laura, who asks what is more important: studying with Hochberg or their future life together? She reiterates her desire that he leave the hospital and go into private practice.
After she leaves, George is making his rounds when he discovers that Dr. Cunningham (Gordon) has overdosed a young girl on insulin, causing her to go into shock. He manages to save the girl, but the nurse helping him, Barbara Denning (Allan) suddenly faints while tidying up. George revives her and asks what’s wrong. She answers this is her first case with a sick child. He tells her to get some rest, forget about things and kick back. She tells him that she can’t as she’s studying for exams.
George learns that his transfusion patient has died, so he is free and phones Laura. However, still peeved, she blows him off, telling him she can’t just wait around, and has made other plans. George returns to his hospital dormitory room. Soon after, Barbara comes to George's room and asks to borrow notes for an upcoming examination that he promised. As both are feeling down and exhausted, George and Barbara begin to share their fears and doubts about the medical profession. They then give in to their sexual attractions and share a kiss. As a nurse must never be seen exiting an intern’s private room, George peers out from his door to see if the coast is clear. He tells her it’s OK and leaves to make his rounds. But instead of leaving, she remains in his room and removes her headwear, leaving us to think something will be going on when he returns.
Later, at a hospital board meeting, the directors are informed that the hospital is running at a huge loss. The board president announces that he has found someone to help them out of the hole – none other than Laura’s father, John. In return, the board suggests that Ferguson be made an associate, complete with office. Dr. Hochberg replies that Ferguson will never accept the offer. But later at dinner, Hochberg is told Ferguson is on board with the recommendation. Hochberg, taken aback, still refuses to approve the appointment.
George later confesses to Hochberg that, because of pressure from Laura, he is having doubts about pursuing his hospital career. Hochberg is taken aback, but before he can persuade him otherwise, they learn that Barbara is seriously ill from a bungled abortion and requires emergency surgery. Hochberg tells George to dress for the operation. After George leaves for the dressing room Hochberg takes the time to dress down Laura, telling her she has no idea what she’s doing in taking George away from a brilliant career in medicine.
Hochberg tells George the operation is a hysterectomy. When George asks another nurse why Barbara didn’t come to him first, the nurse tells him she knows all about their affair and cautioned Barbara from ever seeing him again.
Hochberg invites Laura to dress and watch the operation so that she might get an idea of how important medicine is to George. Just before Barbara goes under to the ether, she tells George that she loves him. Laura, hearing this confession, faints and has to be carried out.
Now the proverbial cat is finally out of the bag. Laura, thoroughly steamed, refuses to see George. George, for his part, tells Hochberg that, although he still loves Laura, he feels a obligation to marry Barbara and start his own practice to support her. Hochberg advises Laura to forget about George and sends her to see Barbara. George is also in the room, clutching Barbara’s hand. She is near death. Barbara asks Laura to forgive both her and George, and then, while still clutching George’s hand, she dies.
Now, thoroughly disillusioned and finally understanding George’s true calling, she tells him she’s sailing for Europe without him, but leaves the door open by telling him she may visit him in Vienna if he’s willing. They leave it at that as the film ends, as George has to run off to assist Hochberg with another emergency.
Men in White is a melodrama and comes off somewhat corny at times with George split between his love for Laura and his devotion to his craft. Gable, sans mustache, gives a good performance, but this isn’t his metier. He’s far more relaxed as the lovable rogue in action/adventure films. In the film, his best scenes are with the sick children, coming across as genuinely concerned and caring.
Myrna Loy, in a role that doesn’t really give her much room to maneuver, gives her usual understated performance, refusing to ham it up in the “villainess” role and generating sympathy for her point of view. We especially have to sympathize with her on her refusal to have anything more to do with George after he cheated on her. Her attitude differs from other heroines of the time who gladly take their man back. But she still gives it a real spin by saying that he may drop in on her in Vienna; that perhaps with time the wounds can heal. Loy sells it well.
The best performance comes from Hersholt. As Dr. Hochberg, he dominates his scenes with his co-stars and comes across in the film as wanting the best for his protege, seeing Laura as an unnecessary diversion from George’s true goal. In the finale, he helps both George and Laura realize that, although they love each other, their relationship would never work – at least until George is through with his studies.
Art director Cedric Gibbons constructed impressive art deco sets for the hospital and George Folsey’s photography helps move the film along. Moreover, it took only 18 days to film, which is impressive, considering it was ticketed as a major attraction.
The film itself is the great-grandaddy of TV medical shows like Dr. Kildare, St. Elsewhere, ER, and especially, with its melodramatic spin, Grey’s Anatomy. The mildly surprising thing about it, especially in relation to other Pre-Code medical dramas, is its insistence on the ideals of medicine above all else. For instance, there’s a scene where a trio of interns are heard complaining about the difficulty of their studies. They are quickly set straight by an older doctor who reminds them that medicine has come a long way since he was born, and the fact that they are here studying modern medicine, which has taken centuries to refine and probably will take centuries more as additional knowledge comes to the fore.
We also see this struggle at the personal level with the talks between Ferguson and his mentor, Hochberg. They discuss such topics as what it means to be a doctor and the importance of furthering the knowledge of medicine as opposed to merely making money in private practice. Most of all, Hochberg never lets Ferguson forget how far he’s come and the great things he was destined for and could do if he could only stifle his ardor for the opposite sex.
And it’s this attraction to women that nearly does him in as a doctor. After his young patient dies before he can administer the transfusion, he calls Laura to regretfully tell her he is now free, but she cruelly tells him she has made other plans, that she’s not going to sit around waiting for him. Now at a very low point, George returns to his room, where he is visited by Barbara on the pretext of getting the notes he had earlier promised. As she thanks him he stares out the window, obviously thinking of the young patient he lost and Laura’s rather rude kiss off for the night. As he passes Barbara, he kisses her and she returns the kiss. As opposed to the play, where it’s an outright seduction, screenwriter Young handles it rather brilliantly, treating it as more inevitable, considering what both have recently been through, than intentional. It’s simply a case of her admiration meeting his neediness head-on. It’s after he leaves to check on his patients and we see her staying behind, taking off her head gear and waiting for him to return as the scene fades out and we are left to draw the obvious conclusions.
Where the movie becomes decidedly ambiguous is when it deals with Barbara’s illness and its cause. We have to really think hard to determine that she is suffering the aftereffects of a back alley abortion, a nasty infection, and we get our clue from a conversation between Hochberg and Ferguson. Some might be perplexed by this, thinking that Pre-Code movies let it all hang out. Remember, though, that back then abortion was an illegal act, and as lax as the Hays Office was back then, it would never approve this plot line. Even if it had slipped by them there was the inevitability of a state board of censors putting the kibosh on it. Kingsley’s play makes no bones about the fact that she underwent an abortion, but Hollywood wasn’t the same as Broadway.
There was a flurry of memos exchanged between the Hays Office, Joseph Breen and his Legion for Decency and the studio concerning the script for Men in White. The studio realized early on that aspects of the play would have to be radically changed to get by the censors.
In the play, Barbara survives the operation. She also refuses George’s offer of marriage, advising him to return to Laura. Also, head nurse Mary (portrayed in the film – uncredited – by Dorothy Peterson) tells Barbara that interns don’t marry nurses, they only sleep with them. Mary is also the one from whom George learns of Barbara’s medical emergency. He asks her, “Why didn’t she come to me?” In the film, George learns of the abortion by talking with Hochberg.
The movie also cuts down Barbara’s murmuring while slipping under the ether. In the film, she simply tells George she loves him, but in the play, she also mentions what a beautiful night it was and also murmurs “Hold me tight! Tight!”
When the operation is over and with Barbara well on the road to recovery, the play tells us that Barbara plans to marry the father of the little girl she cared for, the one who received the accidental dose of insulin and whom George had to save. In the play, the girl’s parents are divorced; in fact, the mother obtained a divorce without the knowledge of the husband.
For the Hays Office and Breen, however, nothing less than the death of Barbara will do. She violated the moral code and must pay for her sins. MGM acquiesced to this; after all, it adds to the melodrama and makes Ferguson’s vow to marry her and support her all the more poignant in light of her death.
Having Barbara die after her operation also gives MGM room for a final talk between Laura and Hochberg. Reeling from George’s infidelity, Laura confides in Hochberg, who tells her “I’ve never met a man or woman whom impulse couldn’t make a fool of.” The point is that Laura needs a relationship that is more solid, dedicated and, most importantly, sexually exclusive. Laura tells Hochberg: “He was too busy to see me. He didn’t have time for me. But he had time (for her). That’s what hurts. Hurts like the devil.” The meaning of this is also quite clear: Laura would have forgone her sense of decorum if she had known that it meant that much to George. She, too, is being punished for being stubborn and spoiled.
When she and George have a heart to heart in the finale, she tells him that she would have slept with him before their wedding: “You know I don’t care a hoop about ceremony.” But George’s reply is straight to the point: “I wanted you more than anything else in the world that night, Laura. But we’d quarreled. You wouldn’t even go out with me.” When she asks him if it was that night, we see she’s finally beginning to understand, though a little too late. She then goes on to talk about the “casual incidence,” suggesting that it needn't have influenced George to marry the girl.
It was this line that infuriated Breen. He asked that the term be deleted, but the studio ignored him. Breen also suggested Barbara’s medical emergency should be the result of a clear suicide attempt rather than an abortion. But that request also went by the wayside.
Will Hays, on the other hand, was satisfied with how the studio handled the abortion subplot. In his opinion it was no longer clear as to whether her problem was the result of an abortion or suicide attempt. What did bother Hays was a speech given by Hochberg in which he says that: “Some of our laws are hard to understand. At times they work cruel hardships.” To Hays, this was an inference to abortion.
Hays also had other worries. Universal wanted to remake its 1916 pro-abortion film Where Are My Children? and was looking at how the Hays Office handled the abortion issue in Men in White. Though Hays liked that MGM made cuts in Hochberg’s speech, there were other instances that rankled him, such as George’s line, “Why didn’t she come to us?” and George’s rationale to Hochberg for marrying Barbara by telling him that “The girl’s life is smashed.”
In particular, the line “Why didn’t she come to us?” seemed to open the door to all sorts of possibilities, including that one of the doctors might have performed the abortion instead of her going to a back alley abortionist.
I think what Hays overlooked in his panic was that Barbara chose not to inform her co-workers of her condition. Instead she went to someone she would not have to see again. Abortion was not only illegal, it was a source of shame that would have possibly cut short George’s career and her own for violating the rules of non-fraternization. In the play, we might have inferred that her co-workers would gladly have come to her aid, but abortion was still illegal and if word got out, administration heads would have rolled. There was no way her co-workers would have even contemplated such an action. But George’s question is just as ambiguous as Barbara’s condition. It’s what he doesn’t say that compels the audience to infer that her condition was due to an abortion.
Unfortunately for Hays, his request came too late. MGM had already cut prints of the movie and was shipping them to its theaters. But before prints were struck, the studio made further requested cuts to the negative, including the removal of the word “peritonitis,” which George mentions after deducing that Barbara’s blood count did not result from a ruptured appendix and from there deduced that she had an abortion. His next line was to question that her condition was not peritonitis.
On April 4, 1934, with the omission of the offering word, the Production Code Administration approved the picture and it was officially released two days later.
But while Will Hays could be mollified, Joseph Breen was another matter. After the film had been in re-release for over two weeks he wrote to the studio demanding cuts in Loy’s dialogue that, he thought, would demoralize the youth of America. He noted that his own daughter had reached the age where she could begin to go on dates and did not want her believing that such behavior was proper.
And there were the local censors who dictated further cuts. It was this nuisance, along with the fear that the federal government might intervene, that drove the studios to cave to Breen and his ilk.
Men in White, although it tilts towards the melodramatics, is well-scripted, well-acted and well-directed by Richard Boleslawski. Its success at the box office led to a plethora of imitations, including MGM’s own Dr. Kildare series. Hospital dramas were money in the bank for the studios.
The success of Men in White spawned more than imitations from other studios. It also spawned a parody from The Three Stooges in the form of their 1934 short Men in Black. The Stooges become doctors only because they were in medical school for more years than anyone can remember. But all through the short the Stooges shout “for duty and humanity,” a direct reference to the ending of Men In White.
One of the ironies of the abortion subplot in the film is that related by Myrna Loy in her autobiography, Being and Becoming. She had gotten pregnant by future husband Arthur Hornblow, but as he was married at the time she underwent an abortion. It left her sterile, unable to have children.
In Being and Becoming Loy also revealed that Gable, who was married at the time, had tried to plant a passionate kiss on her after bringing her home from a social event – with his wife in the car. She said her reaction was to knock him off the porch and into the bushes. The next thing she knew they were cast together in Men in White. “When we started the film, Clark developed a pretty serious thing with Elizabeth Allan, a lovely English girl in the cast, and greeted her with coffee and cakes every morning. The crew always put out sweet breads, so Clark would load up and, just to get my goat, walk right past me to Elizabeth. He was punishing me. We managed to be convincing lovers on camera, which wasn't easy while he virtually ignored me. That Dutchman just wasn't taking no for an answer.” Loy and Gable never did become lovers but they did end up as good friends and made several other films together at MGM.
As Loy noted, Gable and Allan had a “pretty serious thing” going. It began platonically, with long conversations between takes, but as in the movie, it grew into a full-blown affair that lasted for two years. The fact that both were married (Allan was a newlywed with a husband back in London when she began cavorting with Gable) was not a deterrent. After production on the film was over, Gable prodded MGM to sign her to a long-term contract.
Though they were careful not to be photographed together, they were still known as one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets. And she wasn’t the only woman Gable was seeing. He dated many others in those two years. The affair ended when Gable began seeing Carole Lombard in 1936 and Lombard told him she didn’t like competition.
After an attempted lawsuit against MGM for reneging on a promise to co-star her in the 1938 film The Citadel (Rosalind Russell was given the role) Allan returned to England. She didn’t see Gable for many years, but in 1943, while he was serving in the Army Air Force and stationed in London, they ran into each other and picked up where they left off, even though Allan was still married with two children. Such was the allure of Gable.
Allan enjoyed a successful career in England, starring in movies and on television until 1968. She died in 1990 at age 82.