I recently read Sidney Kingsley’s play, Men in White (1933), and last night I watched the 1934 film adaptation directed by Richard Boleslawski. (Interesting that Boleslawski directed the film version of a work that had been directed on Broadway by one of his students, Lee Strasberg.) As was the case with Street Scene, the film is notably shorter than the play on which was based but still is creditable.
What gives Men in White added currency is that one of the female leads dies when an operation can’t rescue her from the consequences of a botched abortion. The word “abortion” isn’t used in the film, of course, but there are enough clues and meaningful looks to know that she got into trouble because she got pregnant. (The play is much more explicit and uses the word.)
Men in White won the Pulitzer Prize and was the offering that finally gave the Group Theater the hit it desperately needed to establish itself. I doubt that it would have much of an impact today because its subject matter–the internal politics of a big city hospital–is now familiar from years of movies and TV shows about doctors. Some of the scenes Kingsley invented for Men in White have been played again and again in these later efforts. (Does the scene in which the idealistic young doctor saves a patient’s life by calling out an older doctor’s error ring a bell?) The suspense-filled sequence of the climactic operation–with hands passing scalpels and machinery going pocketa-pocketa-pocketa–was a novelty when Kingsley thought it up. Now, between E/R and Chicago Med, it’s a trope that invites parody.
But I think it’s worth noting that Kingsley was there first, and not for the first time. Men in White was the result of years of his observing behavior in hospitals. Some years later, he spent more than a year in police stations and came up with Detective Story, which in turn paved the way for Dragnet, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. (He also came up with a play about life in a slum called Dead End, which was made into a dynamite film with Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart.)
Some of Kingsley’s plotting is based on outrageous coincidences. For instance, in Men in White, a young woman is invited to watch her surgeon fiancé operate on the girl who had that abortion because of a one-night stand with, yup, her fiancé. (If I had a nickel for every time that happened …)
But Kingsley had a terrific sense of the ecology of institutions. It turned out that audiences were fascinated by how hospitals worked and Men in White was a hit film. That success led MGM to order a series of movies about an idealistic man of medicine named Dr. Kildare (which in turn was the basis of a hit TV series). Though there are leading characters in Men in White, Dead End and Detective Story, all of these are filled with vivid supporting characters – the doctors who tease each other about being horndogs as one of their patients dies, the street gang of teenagers that prey on the defenseless in the slums (they were called the Dead End Kids and were spun off into their own series of films), and the various thieves and killers cooling their heels as their papers are being processed. All of these people, Kingsley insisted in his work, played their parts in the larger machinery of the systems he examined. (A character identified only as the Shoplifter in Detective Story made such an impression that the actress playing her, Lee Grant, was nominated for an Oscar in the 1951 film version and won the acting prize at Cannes.)
Kingsley was once a brand-name playwright on Broadway. He was held in such high regard by fellow writers that they elected him president of the Dramatists Guild. Today, I’m surprised if any of my playwriting students recognize his name.
He deserves better.