Men In White (1934)

Medical Melodrama

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Initially I was skeptical at weather Clark Gable would make a convincing doctor but not only does he pull it off (even if he is the most gorgeous doctor ever *swoons) Men In White has to be my favourite performance I’ve seen him deliver portraying the idealistic and dignified young Dr. George Ferguson; 60 years before George Clooney in ER. Men In White is a perfect showcase of what Gable is cable off while Myrna Loy, although not dominating the film as much still shares a mature romance with Gable who must make difficult decisions between his profession and his love life. Rest assured I got the satisfactory amount of swooning I would expect from a pairing of these two.

I cannot stress enough just how astounding this movie looks. This is without a doubt most stunning black and white film I’ve seen from the 1930’s. Every scene is light so immaculately with multi-layered and angled shots plus the widespread use of shadows giving the film shades of noir. Even the classic noir shot of the shadows created by blind shutters on one’s face to show they have become imprisoned in life is present. Likewise, the art deco design of the hospital itself would likely not be practical in real life but it sure as hell looks good; needless to say the removal of eyes from the screen is easier said than done. The film’s set designer was Cedric Gibbons, a regular at MGM who helped create the distinctive look of their films in the 1930’s and surely Men In White is one of his greatest achievements.

Movies like this where common in the 1930’s, glorifying those who held jobs central to society (Tiger Shark, Night Flight, Slim). Call them propaganda but they were effective and informative. Although I don’t have any real interest in medicine or healthcare (despite both my parents being nurses) Men In White gives a real sense of awe and wonder to medical world such as when Dr. McCabe (Henry B. Walthall) the elder doctor who gives a rousing speech at the beginning of the film on all the medical advances in his lifetime (anesthesia, sterilization, surgery, x-ray) and the figures behind them. We’ve come much further since 1934, certainly when it comes to the etiquette of the doctors on display. In one scene a doctor hits on a nurse in the open for everyone else to hear while other doctors have no problem openly talking about their sex lives (“Being in love kills your sex life”). There is even one scene in which a doctor is running through the public area of the hospital wearing only a towel! If that happened today it would be all over the tabloids.

Men In White paints a picture of just how demanding a job as a doctor is, working round the clock; Dr. Ferguson works 16-18 hours a day for $20 a week (in 1934 or course). His finance Laura (Myrna Loy) has a selfish streak to her, getting frustrated with Ferguson when he’s only doing his job and one which is detrimental to saving the lives of others. Additionally Jean Hersholt (Hollywood’s great Dane and an actor who has that look of great intellect) as Ferguson’s mentor pressure’s George to put greater priority to his career than his love life. The film’s ending isn’t so predictable having me question whether or not George and Laura will end up together in the end.

Men In White also showcases corruption which can exist within hospitals when a superior doctor knowingly gives a child too much insulin, only for Dr. Ferguson to interfere even if it puts his job on the line. Once the child recovers from the insulin overdose, the superior doctor takes the credit; douche. The child, however, thanks and hugs Dr. Ferguson at the end of the film in what I feel is the movie’s most inspiring moment. Gable isn’t playing a brute here like he often does but rather someone who can project a level of warmth especially with his interaction with his child patient.

The scene in which Dr. Ferguson and the English nurse Barbara Den (Elizabeth Allen) are bonding over their loneliness and then start kissing is a breathtaking sequence. This leads to the most daring aspect of Men In White is the inclusion of abortion in the film’s plot. When I first watched the film I didn’t catch on that the big surgery scene itself was the result of a failed back alley abortion as the film’s hints are very subtle; it’s all in the undertones of the movie. That’s one reason why Men In White is re-watching; distinguishing what’s being said and shown versus what is really going on. If anything this is much more fun and satisfying having the movie simply spell everything out to the viewer.

When it is discovered Nurse Den attempted to get an abortion it is simply alluded to that she has a condition worse than a ruptured appendix and before the surgery itself Dr. Ferguson is questioned, “who is the man?”. It’s not made clear if the child being terminated is the result of the affair between Ferguson and Den, however, before their fling she is seen feeling unwell. Although I can’t comment of how accurate a depiction Men In White is of the medical profession I was still amazed at the level of detail in the movie from the terminology to the wide range of instruments used. One particular moment which stood out to me was the rigorously high level of sanitization the staff must go through prior to surgery. The film has an economic length of only 73 minutes but packs so much content. I’d happily become ill just to go to this hospital.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Wrath of Genghis Kahn

Talk about a trashy film, just how trashy? Boris Karloff plays a sort of Asian Hitler hell-bent on exterminating the white race, or how about the scene which involves Myrna Loy having a sexual fetish from seeing a man being whipped. Man, pre-code Hollywood was not right in the head. The film’s plot is like an Indiana Jones film which never got made (or more importantly could never be made), like Indiana Jones getting an artifact before the Nazis to avoid them harnessing its power to take over the world except here its Asian Nazis. This is the kind of film which is so off the wall that its fun describing it in one of the purest pieces of pulp escapism to come out of the 1930’s.

In today’s politically correct world where everything offends everyone and people are obsessed with racism (like seriously, what well-known movie doesn’t have a “This movie is racist” topic on IMDB) I find there’s a certain joy that comes from watching something as shocking and politically incorrect as The Mask of Fu Manchu; like a kid watching R rated movies behind their parent’s back. Even as late as the 90’s scenes from The Mask of Fu Manchu had to be cut for a VHS release (thankfully now in it’s fully restored original version on DVD) – notice for example how picture quality degrades for the line “A China man beat me? He couldn’t do it”.

Old Hollywood had an odd fascination with East Asia and Eastern Asian mysticism as Lewis Stone’s characters states, “Will we ever understand these eastern races, will he ever learn anything?”. Is it right to simply dismiss The Mask of Fu Manchu as a “racist” film? Is there a malicious intent with the film to demonize a race and culture with Dr. Fu Manchu being the anthesis to Judeo Christian values, or is it merely the representation of the perversion of a foreign culture and race.

No expense is spared on Fu Manchu’s layer. This is the bad guy layer that would make James Bond villains jealous. Complete with torture devices, crocodile pits, an assortment of mad scientist gizmos of topped with all-round luscious deco making The Mask of Fu Manchu one of the most visually sumptuous films of the pre-code era. Like any Bond villain Fu Manchu could kill his opponents with a simple gunshot but instead puts them on devices which will kill them at a slow pace, and yes, they’re able to escape and halt the bad guy’s evil plans.

Boris Karloff prevents the character of Fu Manchu coming off a total caricature, showing he is a man of taste and culture and one who puts the genius in evil genius, boasting that he is a doctor three times over having graduating from three different universities. Likewise, it amazes me how Myrna Loy transformed her image from an exotic to something as far from that as possible within such a short period of time; thankfully she didn’t do these kinds of roles for too long a period of time. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and her ever menacing presence.

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Ah, the 1930’s. No decade in cinema has since captured such an aurora of class and sophistication from the clothes worn to the way people talk; a world so removed from our own. It feels like there is no other time period in which it was as easy to make a movie about rich people and their rich people problems without it coming off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. There are few better representations of this than Dinner at Eight. With the heavenly, dream-like music from the film’s opening titles; the viewer is transported to a world long, long gone. All of the stories in Dinner at Eight have tragic, to say the least, but Billie Burke as the socialite holding the impending dinner helps bring comic relief to the proceedings with her histrionics as well simply the sound of her voice. Aside from the largely carefree Burke, the rest of the characters don’t have much to look forward to with their impending affairs, bankruptcy, failing careers and illnesses.

John Barrymore’s story is my favourite; the quietly tragic demise of washed-up film star Larry Renault. His tender love scenes with Madge Evans are largely the opposite of the grandiose interaction with Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel; this is far more down to Earth. It’s not apparent when Renault first appears just what a bad state his career is in. As his segment progresses he becomes more and more pathetic as he becomes increasingly drunk and we learn more about his current state that he is only being offered a bit part in a play, he only has seven cents on him and the ultimate blow when his manager tells him he’s been a joke for years and never taken seriously as an actor; he had his good looks but he doesn’t even have that anymore. The subplot is prophetic of Barrymore’s own future as he spent his last few years as a washed-up actor and succumb to alcohol. There are hints in his performance to the egomaniac he would play the following year in Twentieth Century with his hotel room being littered with photographs of his own profile. With its haunting cinematography, Renault’s final outcome had me holding my breath with part of me wishing this could be its own film; a sort of predecessor to the story of Norman Maine in A Star Is Born.

The other storyline which particularly strikes me is Edmund Lowe’s. Once his wife confronts him about his ongoing affair with Jean Harlow, the two have a long serious chat in which she is completely understanding and forgives him. A stark contrast to any modern romantic comedy in which two characters would break up after a lengthy argument of one has betrayed the other, then get back together 20 minutes later. Are modern romantic comedies just so contrived and unreflective of real life, was adultery less frowned on back then or is it just a pre-code thing?

The early 30’s seems to be the one brief period in cinema history in which there was a number of older aged movie stars who box office draws; Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore. There has never been another decade like it.