Men in White is a complicated film to review. It is hard to view the film as it is, without thinking of what it could have been. This film was one of the surefire victims of the Legion of Decency.
Gable, mustache-less, baby-faced and wearing far too much pancake makeup, is George Ferguson, a young doctor working hard to prove himself at a New York hospital. He puts medicine and his patients before all else, much to the chagrin of his heiress fiancé, Laura (Myrna Loy). He soon learns that all work and no play lead him open to temptation and he falls for Barbara (Elizabeth Allan), a nurse. Soon after their one night encounter, Barbara learns she is pregnant and submits to a back alley abortion. She develops a horrible infection from this and requires emergency surgery.
The last few sentences of the synopsis are what I learned happened in the film AFTER I watched it for the first time. My first viewing of this film was when I was just getting into classic films. It was on late one night in TCM and I just happened upon it. It was my introduction to Myrna Loy, who before this I had never even heard of. I actually remember going straight to the computer afterwards to look her up and after seeing her impressive filmography and her gorgeous pictures, I marveled at how I never had heard of her before. It’s not much of a part for her, as she doesn’t do much but flounce around and put on her best rich-girl pout, but something about her struck me from first sight.
After I looked up Myrna Loy, my next stop was to look up what the heck just happened in this film. As I learned later after viewing many an early 1930’s film, that MUCH unlike the films of today, things had to implied very carefully onscreen so that they did not offend and the studio didn’t get slammed by Joseph Breen and his Legion of Decency for indecent content.
This film could have been a much better film if it had been allowed to explain its own plot. But thanks to some horrible editing and omitting, the film taken at face value will leave one quite confused.
Let’s start with George and Barbara’s one night stand. I’ve seen many a sly pre-marital sex insinuation in early ’30’s films. Just the year before, in Hold Your Man with Jean Harlow, this was done quite well. Clark is pictured chasing her into the bedroom and shutting the door behind him with his foot. The next scene they are having breakfast together. Subtle, but you got the point. In Men in White, George and Barbara have a brief conversation that is not very romantic in nature and the scene ends with her sitting on his bed and removing her nurse’s hat while he shuts the door. From that we are to deduce that they ahem, knocked boots. A bit far fetched, but okay.
Well after that things get more confusing as of course the words “pregnant”, “baby”, or “abortion” are not mentioned. It is through strained looks and powers of deduction that you are supposed to realize what has happened to Barbara. It’s all rather confusing and especially considering it is the major climax of the film, one wonders why they even bothered making the film at all if they had to eliminate all communication of the main plot?
The end result is quite unsatisfying. At least you can give Laura some props for not taking her cheatin’ man back, as many of them did in the films of that era.
Clark is quite handsome in this, despite his wardrobe consisting mostly of unflattering all-white scrubs. Chiseled and un-mustached, he looks so young and carefree, despite his penciled-in eyebrows and thick makeup. His most touching scenes are with a sick little girl he cures. What is it about his scenes with children–they always seem so natural! The scenes have a slight echo to Rhett and Bonnie Blue, some five years down the road.
I also quite love the fantastic Art Deco hospital set. A hospital with a huge winding staircase? Only at MGM!
This movie was filmed in only eighteen days–impressive even for MGM standards. And apparently that wasn’t too short a time for Clark to fall for his co-star. No, not Myrna Loy, but the young newlywed Elizabeth Allan. They started an affair on set that lasted on and off for two years. You can read more about her relationship with Clark here.