In Men in White, nurse Barbara Dennin comes to the room of intern George Ferguson (Clark Gable) rather than to the orderly to whom the intern had promised he would deposit the notes that the intern agreed to load to Barbara. She mustn’t be seen exiting the intern’s private room (that would be against hospital rules), so she remains in his room while a head nurse is in the corridor outside the room. This gives the two an opportunity to share confidences, then a kiss. When the intern leaves his room to return to his medical duties, he reports that “the coast is clear” for her to depart, but instead of leaving she remains in his room and removes her headwear. Fade out. There’s a sense in her demeanor that she may be remaining in his room, partly because she was sickened by the death of a patient, partly because she seems smitten with the intern.
We understand a few months have passed when the film fades in to a later scene. (Other hospital staff discuss events which previously were months away.) The hospital’s prestigious surgeon Dr. Hochberg (Jean Hersholt) tells Ferguson that they must attend to a serious case, one of the hospital’s own, the nurse Barbara Denin. Hochberg says of her condition, “Blood count way up.” George is stunned, asking, “Ruptured appendix?” Hochberg answers, “More serious than that.” George understands a great deal from this answer. He asks simply, “Why didn’t she come to us?”
What does a question such as “Why didn’t she come to us?” tell us? It says that Barbara had a condition that might have been treated by the hospital staff but that she elected not to do so. George’s manner of delivering this line stresses that she had gone elsewhere for medical service. What now might be inferred? She opted not to have her co-workers know about her condition, and went to a provider who would not see her again. A woman would do this if there was shame attached to the service being obtained.
Her being left in George’s room, the admiration she has for him, her staying in that room, their joint mood of disappointment, and his troubles (his patient was the one to die that day, and he had a fight with his fiancé earlier that day) suggest he might have gratified himself sexually with her upon his return to his room. A fade-out under just some of these circumstances in early-1930s movies was movies shorthand for sex, and would be interpreted by sophisticated audiences in this way. (The same year’s drama We Live Again, directed by Rouben Mamoulian from a screenplay by Maxwell Anderson, Preston Sturges and Leonard Praskins, had Fredric March and Anna Sten trapped by a rainstorm in a greenhouse. Fade-out occurs just as they seem aware of each other being of the opposite sex. A later story development establishes that the woman became pregnant that night.)
Were Barbara to have had a back-alley abortion or even a self-induced one, this would account for the medical problems she experiences now. Abortion was illegal at the time, so Barbara didn’t have the option of rejecting the competent care that could have been had from her fellow practitioners in favor of equally-skillful services available from another hospital. A back-alley would be the alternative to receiving an abortion from her friends. Given the comradery exhibited among the hospital staff, particularly as it relates to dating, it seems they would have breached the law for each other. Comradery could be another layer of meaning in George’s underscored question of “Why didn’t she come to us?” George’s question doesn’t give us a conclusive answer. What he doesn’t say (more movies shorthand) and the sheer number of details that indicate possible abortion is what adds up in a inductive viewer’s mind to the conclusion of abortion.
Now the film concentrates on a few repercussions of this development. Barbara is scheduled for immediate surgery. Dr. Hochberg becomes the confident of his prodigal intern George Ferguson, learning about George’s straying from his fiancé Laura when he impregnated Barbara and George’s determination to establish a proper marital relationship with Barbara should she survive. Laura (Myrna Loy) also confides in Dr. Hochberg, dealing with the humiliation of having put her affections upon a faithless man. (Laura had agreed to go into the operating room to find out what her future husband’s occupation entailed. Barbara’s half-conscious remarks to George about being on the operating table as a result of her love for him, tells Laura about the liaison.)
“I’ve never met a man or woman whom impulse couldn’t make a fool of,” Dr. Hochberg tells Laura. In this way, the film expresses a relativism that says to Laura that she should seek a more solid, dedicated and sexually exclusive relationship. No opposing point of view is offered by the film. Only when George pledges that he will marry Barbara should she survive, does the film approach an ethical absolute, and there it is a response to what is interpreted by him as a great wrong he’s done her.
Laura sheds steady tears recalling what occurred: “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 here seems uncontroversial: she would have subordinated her sense of propriety to his sexual desires had she known they were so strong he would seek satisfaction elsewhere. Laura is wealthy, somewhat stubborn and spoiled. She’s not someone who would “put out” to snare a husband and his income. If she were to offer her body, it would be for personal accolade.
When Laura and George speak, each learns something vital. Laura tells George of her willingness to be wife to him before the marriage ceremony: “You know I don’t care a hoop about ceremony.” George doesn’t mince words: “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.” This was known to the audience, this was weighing on George’s mind that night, and that was all unknown to Laura even as she became offended by the infidelity. When Laura asks him, “It was that night?,” we sense a breakthrough: she evaluates the situation as if she had no claim on him for that time period.
Laura goes on to talk about the “casual incidence” and suggests that it shouldn’t influence Gable to marry the girl he impregnated.
The term “casual incident” did not please Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration. In a letter of December 23, 1933, he cited two uses of this term on page 105 of then most-recent script and asked that they be deleted. It didn’t happen.
Breen, writing to Eddie Mannix of MGM, suggested the same day that a suicide attempt rather than abortion be the cause of Barbara’s illness.
Will H. Hays, the name most associated with the Production Code Administration and the source of its reputation as “the Hays Office,” took on some of his administration’s efforts to shape how the original play would reach movie screens. After some negotiation on what medical condition would necessitate Barbara’s admission as a patient and how much would be explicated about it, on January 4, 1934, Hays wrote to Robert Rubin of MGM’s New York office stating that as rewritten (in what turned out to be how the abortion was treated in the finished film), 95% of the audience would have to guess what causes the tragedy. There was no longer enough indication as to whether it was an abortion or suicide attempt, in Hays’s opinion.
There was reason for concern within the Production Code Administration. On January 24, 1934, interoffice memos related that Universal wanted to remake its 1916 abortion drama Where Are My Children. James S. Joy of the Administration had said no, relating that MGM with its Men in White would handle its story without the abortion so unambiguously a part of the stage play. Universal, it would seem, was trying to use Men in White as a precedent and was learning it would not be permitted to do so.
Will Hays did not cease efforts to shape Men in White, even after he had conceded enough of the dialogue to enable audiences to deduce that there had been an abortion. On March 20, 1934, Hays objected in a letter that a speech occurring in the dialogue of Dr. Hochberg—“Some of our laws are hard to understand. At times they work cruel hardships,…”—indicated abortion.
Two days later, Hays noted that cuts had been made on the “laws” speech but that the remaining script “still raised questions,” listing these items:
1) Dr. Hochberg’s line “worse than that”—the line Hochberg says to George about Barbara’s condition;
2) George’s line “Why didn’t she come to us?”; and
3) “The girl’s life is smashed,” which George says to Hochberg during the lunch at which he pledges to marry Barbara should she survive.
Around this time, prints were made of the movie. When Hays asked for more cuts, MGM had to make cuts in prints of the film because the prints that audiences would see had already been copied from the negative. It was too late for it to be enough effort to make cuts in only the film negative. Prints had been or were being shipped to distribution branches throughout the United States.
On April 2, 1934, MGM wrote to all branches and asked that cuts be made of “laws…cruel” speech. Also not spared was a humorous bit where an intern had described his joys through the expression “Eat, drink and make merry,” after which the film had cut to a girl at a phone answering, “This is Mary speaking.” The censors had finally realized that the word “make” had been used in the sexual sense to refer to a specific “Mary” rather than a generic “merry.”
One day later, Hays asked in a telegram that the “laws…cruel” speech be deleted (MGM had already ordered this) and also the removal of the word “peritonitis.” This entailed the removal of at least a full line and resulted in a jump forward to George’s question “Why didn’t she come to us?” In the released movie (as described above), George deduces that Barbara had an abortion after learning that her blood count did not result from a ruptured appendix. As scripted, he was also to eliminate by questioning that her condition was not peritonitis.
On April 4, 1934, the word “peritonitis” was removed; the Production Code Administration wrote that now the picture could be approved. The release date of the picture was April 6, 1934. The parties had worked fast to achieve the approval.
Efforts by the Production Code Administration to alter what audiences would see, did not end. On April 24, 1934—eighteen days after Men in White was released—Joseph Breen wrote to MGM’s Eddie Mannix stating that the dialogue of Loy’s where she says she would waive all “rites and conventions,” is “demoralizing our youth.” Breen specifically noted that his own daughter was at the age where she could begin to “‘date’” (Breen had the word in quotes) and that he did not want youth to believe that such behavior and thinking was proper and accepted.
Local censors and the censors of other countries hacked away at this movie that had already been approved and certified as clean. Typical among them was Australia, which on September 22, 1934 made a list of cuts sought in prints to be shown in that country. Apparently they had a print where the “peritonitis” reference. They also had the “laws…cruel” dialogue and asked for cuts “down to and including ‘reputable doctors and hospitals obey them [laws].’”
Breen had asked for little cuts nearly a year earlier. On December 23, 1933, he had asked for deletions of such extraneous details as an intern advising about dating: “no struggle — no fun.” This had turned out to be merely the middle of a road stretching from a Broadway play through story adaptations to the myriad of detail that makes up a screenplay conveying story, theme, character and mood.
What MGM submitted to the Production Code Administration in its earliest screenplays was already altered from the play by Sidney Kingsley. Kingsley had written material that would not have passed the blue pencils of Hays and Breen. MGM apparently knew this and did not make the attempts.
A September 18, 1931 report by an MGM script reader (C.I. Freed) noted that the character Patricia (who would become Laura, played by Myrna Loy) “is an over-gay debutante… but likes to make [George] jealous until he comes to think she doesn’t really care for him and looks upon the marriage only as one of convenience.” He also noted that George “induces” Barbara to stay in his room. An early report by the censorship office, based upon the play, would refer to this as his seduction of her. In the completed movie, Barbara seems entirely the agent of her decision to remain in George’s room.
The lengthy story summary made by the script reader has no mention of Barbara dying, but does indicate that she refuses George’s offer of marriage as a “sacrifice and advises him to go to Patricia.” A very different morality emerges from the play than from the nonetheless-scandalous screenplay: that a woman who has become pregnant by one man she admires might find it best to move on to another man.
The head nurse Mary had some additional scenes in the play; she tells Barbara, “interns don’t like to marry nurses, ducky! They just like to sleep with them!” What’s more, it is from this mature woman Mary that George learns of Barbara’s medical emergency and to her that George says “Why didn’t she come to me?” In speaking to Dr. Hochberg in the movie, the learning of the abortion had occurred in the two men each speaking to another man; had Mary delivered the shocking development to George, the movie would made the news more uncomfortable by the man having to reflect upon his sexual indulgence while in the company of a disapproving woman.
Barbara’s murmuring under anesthesia on the operating table (when she mentions enough about her liaison with George for Laura to learn about her fiancé’s infidelity) had a more sexual nature in the story summary than in the finished movie: “Beautiful night. Hold me tight! Tight! Round and round.”
Towards the end of the story in the play, Barbara plans to marry the father of the little girl she has cared for. The parents of the little girl are now divorced, they having had a cold relationship before the mother obtained a divorce without the knowledge of her husband (which occur during the course of the story in the summary of the play).
At times, the movie differs so much from the play that one can understand why MGM toyed with changing the title from Men in White to “Crisis” or “Man and Wife.”
The movie, though no one on the Production Code Administration admits this in any correspondence, catered to the Administration’s moral precepts by having Barbara die following the operation, a death that may be interpreted as divine retribution for her sexual transgressions. Where the movie presents the fate of sex outside marriage leading to death, the play had presented the same character of Barbara moving on to a good life as wife of a man who would appreciate her concern for him and whose daughter she had already come to love. If such a message had validity, there was a great deal of misleading morals promulgated by the Production Code Administration.