Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Shearer (Post Three)

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 third and final in a series that highlights films from Norma Shearer’s Pre-Code talkie years (1929-1934).

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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.”

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So far we’ve covered the revolutionary smash, The Divorcee (1930), the thrilling drama, A Free Soul (1931), the frivolous and fun Let Us Be Gay (1930), and the shockingly risqué Strangers May Kiss (1931). Today’s post will cover two more of her Pre-Code talkies: Private Lives (1931) and Riptide (1934).

 

Private Lives (1931)

A divorced couple rekindles the spark after landing in adjoining honeymoon suites with new mates. But bliss is never easy with these two.

Starring Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Reginald Denny, Una Merkel, and Jean Hersholt. Based on the play by Noel Coward. Scenario by Hans Kraly and Richard Schayer. Continuity by Claudine West. Directed by Sidney Franklin.

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I have a personal history with Private Lives, having directed a scene from the play during my senior year of high school. The incredible wit, the unbridled hilarity, the moments of real honesty — it will always be one of my favorites. I just watched the MGM film adaptation first the first time this past week and was pleased to see that most of the play was kept in tact. Not surprisingly, the things that DON’T work are the things that were added for the picture — a scene in which Amanda (Shearer) and Elyot (Montgomery) go rock-climbing is especially inessential — but everything that is true blue Coward seems to hit the mark.

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This is due in large part to the wonderful performances. Norma Shearer is truly the star of the picture, but also gives the most believable performance. Her best stuff comes in the first act when she realizes that her ex-husband is standing next to her on the adjoining balcony. Conveying a range of silent emotion in under a minute, this might be the best and the HOTTEST that I’ve ever seen her. (Okay, maybe she was hotter in A Free Soul when she was seducing Gable, but other than that, she’s extra WOW here.) More importantly, she manages to hit all of the comedic notes. She’s particularly brilliant in the second act fight with Elyot. Shearer’s line deliveries are unexpected, unique, and the perfect mix of fun and sophistication.

Montgomery also does well in his role, but isn’t as memorable as Shearer. No doubt Elyot is the harder part; it was written by Coward FOR Coward. Montgomery only half-succeeds in making the character likable, and he doesn’t get nearly all the laughs that Shearer does. But he’s perhaps one of the few MGM A-listers who could even pull the role off. Besides, he and Shearer do have an establish rapport that works in the film’s favor. Meanwhile, Denny and Merkel aren’t nearly as interesting or likable as Montgomery is — with poor Merkel spending most of her screen time hysterically crying. But those roles are fairly thankless anyway.

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The strength of the film lies primarily in the script and the interesting perspectives that both stars bring to their roles. As with most great stage works, there exists so many different ways to play each scene — and deliver each line, even. So, it’s a treat to see Montgomery and, in particular, Shearer take on Coward and bring their natural talents to the table. If you’re familiar with the play, this film is not a disappointment. If you’ve never seen the play, I’d recommend watching the movie and then reading the play. You’ll probably like the play better than the film, but reading it will give you more appreciation for the movie and the performers.

 

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Riptide (1934)

A chorus girl weds a British lord then meets an old flame while her husband is away. Though their tryst was fairly innocent, her husband refuses to believe her, driving her back into the old flame’s arms.

Starring Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Herbert Marshall, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Written and Directed by Edmund Goulding.

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This was Shearer’s last Pre-Code film and the first film she made after a year hiatus. Riptide was one of the films specifically targeted by the Hays Code, making it a natural bookend to The Divorcee of 1930, which launched Shearer’s Pre-Code image and also met with the Code and Joseph Breen’s disapproval. Unfortunately, out of all six Pre-Code Shearer films that I have watched these past three weeks, I liked this one the least.

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Shearer is a former bad girl who meets a rich British lord on their way to a costume party. They ditch the party and have a whirlwind romance. A few years later they are married and have a kid.  He goes off on a business trip, leaving her for the first time. She accompanies his aunt to Cannes for a vacation. There Norma meets a former acquaintance, Robert Montgomery. They flirt and have a few laughs, when Montgomery confesses his love for her, and she rebuffs him. Drunk, he tries to leap from his balcony to hers, but slips and ends up in the hospital. All the papers pick up the story and learn that he was trying to reach Shearer. A scandal brews and Shearer’s hubby, Marshall, refuses to believe that the affair was innocent. Marshall wants a divorce and Shearer goes back to Montgomery. But then Marshall learns from a detective that his wife WAS telling the truth, and he wants her back. But now that Shearer really HAS cheated, does she confess?

The plot is pretty adult, and the script is mature. But it is probably the most lifeless of the six Shearer films that I’ve covered here. The script seemed to do a poor job of making the audience care and root for its characters. Nobody comes across as particularly interesting, and Shearer never seems to develop a special connection with either man. The dialogue isn’t as shocking as The Divorcee, nor does it seem to be as deliberately sexual as A Free Soul and Strangers May Kiss. Instead, the Pre-Codeness seems to exude from the OPEN way that adultery is handled — it’s the driving story of the entire film. That’s what the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned, and since that had been Norma’s image for four years — classy adulteress, it’s no surprise that the enforcement of the Code would mark the end of her stint as the bad girl. From now on, she would only be good girls. Yawn.

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As for Riptide, I would recommend this movie only to fans of Shearer, Montgomery, or Marshall. And, hey, if the plot indeed sounds intriguing, and you have 90 minutes to kill, go for it. But with fewer laughs, and characters that are less likable and not as dynamic, this film is no more than average. Interesting story, fine actors, but just not a winner. A disappointing, but nevertheless fascinating, end to Norma Shearer’s Pre-Code career.

 

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That wraps up our three weeks on Norma Shearer’s Pre-Code films! There were five more Pre-Code films  Shearer made that I didn’t cover here; less naughty than these six, I might save them for a later date. But next Friday I’ll start with a new star, so be sure to tune in as we begin another three week series! And come back after the weekend for a new Musical Theatre Monday post!

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