Dec 29, 2021

On Blu-ray: 1933 Double Feature Mary Stevens, M.D. and Dinner at Eight

I was fascinated by the differences between a pair of films from 1933 I watched recently on new Blu-rays from Warner Archive. One is the efficient Warner Bros. melodrama Mary Stevens, M.D., starring Kay Francis and a cast full of the snappy, sharp-witted players who brought the studio success in the early thirties. The other, Dinner at Eight, is a lavish production filled with the biggest names at MGM Studios, though the young Jean Harlow stole the whole movie from her more experienced costars. 

Mary Stevens, M.D. features one of Francis’ best performances. She’s a young doctor who sets up shop with her former classmate and close friend Don (an adequate Lyle Talbot). He quickly gets tired of fighting to keep their pediatric practice afloat and marries politician’s daughter Lois (Thelma Todd, underused, but always welcome) so that he can secure the wealth and position he wants to enjoy without working to attain it. Predictably, that doesn’t go well for him. 

At first, it seems that the film is going to be all about Mary trying to find patients who aren’t horrified by the prospect of a lady doctor. It quickly dips into melodrama though, with illicit love, babies born out of wedlock, and deadly disease all complicating her life. It could be silly, but Francis is so sincere and as her nurse sidekick, Glenda Farrell keeps things zipping along when they could get maudlin. The film is particularly pre-code in the way the characters view Mary’s troubles with sympathy instead of scolding her for her sins, though it could be argued she is punished for her indiscretions.

My perspective of Dinner at Eight has changed dramatically over the years. Jean Harlow has been the one constant. As the fabulous-tacky nouveau riche Kitty Packard, she overshadows her illustrious cast mates, among them Billie Burke, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, and the beloved Marie Dressler. Her crackling comic performance makes me constantly forget that this film is as much a drama as a comedy. 

Over the years, I’ve overcome the disorientation that comes from the intense busyness the film evokes and honed in on other performances, like the charming resignation of Dressler as a former stage star with financial troubles and the mix of bravado and impotence in John Barrymore’s fading matinee idol (he has a moment of brave vulnerability where he actually whimpers like a child). Burke is also a shallow, oblivious delight, devastated by the increasing disaster her dinner party is becoming while life and death struggles unfold around the bubble of self-involvement in which she exists. Her transition to a more aware, mature perspective is remarkably believable; she keeps the high pitch of her social climbing persona, while just beneath the surface a new decency emerges. MGM stars Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Edmund Lowe, Madge Evans, and Karen Morley are also on-board with their best performances.

Reportedly Harlow and Dressler became close on set and had discussed starring together in a comedy. What a shame the older comedian died in 1934 and that never came to pass.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

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