Welcome to another Film Friday! As I have mentioned in previous weeks, I’m not much for modern cinema; I’ve only seen two new movies in the past year — THE GREAT GATSBY (a mediocre Luhrmann special) and OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (a film completely lacking in humanity). I suppose I am a bit of a film snob. But I have to be honest with you: my preferences have always been television and theatre. Movies are a definite third. Most of my love for film stems from an appreciation for the wonderful actors and personalities that have shaped American cinema, and on a larger scale, the American culture.
Today’s post is the second in a series that will highlight films from Norma Shearer’s Pre-Code talkie years (1929-1934).
Norma Shearer (1902-1983) was once known as the “Queen of MGM.” Arriving in L.A. in 1923, Shearer was among those cast in the newly formed MGM’s first official picture, He Who Gets Slapped (1924). From there she became a major box office draw and was one of the studio’s biggest stars. Of course, it didn’t hurt that in 1927, she married L.B. Mayer’s righthand man, producer Irving Thalberg. Then with the advent of talkies, Shearer’s success grew. In 1930, her career rocketed when she received an Oscar for her role as the sophisticated modern wife in The Divorcee (1930). With a new persona in place – sexy, modern, and fun-loving – Shearer became the “Queen of MGM.” Though her image cleaned up with the implementation of the Production Code in 1934, Shearer continued to thrive in big-budget costume drams. After Thalberg’s death in 1936, Shearer continued to make films until her retirement in 1942 at the age of 40. Remembered today as a “perpetual virgin” in the post-Code films of the late ’30s, her role as Queen has often been subject to harsh debate. Fortunately, with the recent release of many of her Pre-Code films, audiences can once again see why the daring Norma Shearer was indeed the “Queen of MGM.”
Last week we covered the revolutionary 1930 smash, The Divorcee, and the thrilling 1931 drama, A Free Soul. Today’s post will cover two more of her Pre-Code talkies: Let Us Be Gay (1930) and Strangers May Kiss (1931).
Let Us Be Gay (1930)
A dowager attempts to keep a playboy away from her soon-to-be-married granddaughter by inviting his ex-wife over for a weekend soiree.
Starring Norma Shearer, Rod La Rocque, Marie Dressler, Gilbert Emery, and Hedda Hopper. Based on the play by Rachel Crothers. Continuity and dialogue by Frances Marion. Additional dialogue by Lucille Newmark. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.
Let Us Be Gay, based on a popular play that originally starred Francine Larrimore (the first woman to play Roxie Hart in the original 1926 play, Chicago) on Broadway and Tallulah Bankhead in London, was immediately rushed into production after the completion of The Divorcee, when Shearer learned that she was pregnant with her first child. Both released in 1930, there are a lot of similarities between the two films. In both movies, Shearer plays a woman whose husband cheats on her, so she goes out and lives life to the fullest (code for whoring around). But in Let Us Be Gay, all the fullest-living is kept off-screen.
The film, like the play, opens with a scene in which Shearer, adorned in dowdy clothes and sans makeup, learns that her husband is having an affair when his mistress shows up at their house. The rest of the film takes place three years later at the home of Marie Dressler, an always-delightful character actress of the era, here playing an eccentric wealthy dowager. She met Shearer in Paris and has invited her over to keep Shearer’s sleazy ex from romancing her granddaughter, who soon to wed another man. Also at the house for the weekend are married Hedda Hopper, her henpecked lover, and the debonair Towney, played by Gilbert Emery. It isn’t long before all the men at the house are enchanted with Shearer, who has turned herself from frump into goddess.
Watching this film, the most comedic of all Shearer’s Pre-Code films, I was very impressed with how engaging the story was, how sharp the dialogue was, and how nuanced the performances were. Shearer, Dressler, and Hopper are particularly stellar. The only hinderance is La Roque as Norma’s ex-husband. He simply isn’t likable enough for us to root for a reunion between the two. That aside, this was an entertaining film and had me laughing more than once. Highly recommended.
Strangers May Kiss (1931)
Lisbeth, a modern woman, leaves one boyfriend so she can go to Mexico with another. But the new beau soon reveals he is married, leaving Lisbeth alone to pick up the pieces.
Starring Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, and Neil Hamilton. Based on the book by Ursula Parrott. Dialogue continuity by John Meehan. Directed by George Fitzmaurice.
Strangers May Kiss was the first Shearer film completed after the birth of her first child. While both of Shearer’s two previous films dealt with relations between a husband and wife, Strangers May Kiss concerned a woman who was dead set against marriage. She has two boyfriends, clean cut Robert Montgomery, who desperately wants to make her his wife, and daring Neil Hamilton, a daring foreign correspondent prone to long absences. When the one seemingly successful marriage in Norma’s life ends with her uncle’s infidelity and aunt’s suicide, Shearer leaves Montgomery behind and goes to Mexico with Hamilton. There he tells her that he’s married and going to Brazil without her. She begs him to take her along, but he refuses and calls their relationship a mistake.
Then the film gets more interesting. Shearer goes to Europe and lives life to the fullest (once again, code for whoring around.) This time, things are more fuller than ever for Shearer (if you know what I mean), and legends of her escapades reach Montgomery, who manages to track her down in Spain. But she gets a telegram from Hamilton, who is now divorced and anxious to reunite with Shearer. But by the time she reaches Hamilton in Paris, he has already become wise to her romp through Europe and rejects her dramatically.
I won’t spoil the ending except to say that I was disappointed. Out of all the Pre-Code Shearer films I’d watched, this one was the most shockingly sexual, but ultimately, the least dramatically satisfying. The dialogue was uniformly strong, as were the performances, but I suppose I just didn’t care enough about the characters to be totally on board with the proceedings. However, this film is well-produced and still an entertaining piece. Where else can you hear Norma Shearer talk about male arousal and her love of orgies? A fascinating film that is worthy of a viewing.
Thanks for sticking out another week with me! Tune in next Friday for a spotlight on two more Pre-Code Shearer films. And come back Monday for the best Gershwin show that you’ve never heard of!