Welcome to another Film Friday and the continuation of our coverage of films released in 1929! In the title, I refer to 1929 as a year of firsts and lasts. I’m primarily speaking of the transition to sound, which went into full swing by 1929, and had every major studio technologically converted to the process — most notably M-G-M. Stars we’ve covered here like Norma Shearer and Joan Craford made their sound debuts. But the year wasn’t completely all-talking just yet — 1929 also saw the slow burning off of the silent films, which essentially ceased production by the time the year was over. The few films I’ll be featuring here (both talkies and silents) show an industry on the cusp of the biggest turning point in cinema history. So how do the films of 1929 stack up? I’m just as curious as you are to find out! Last week we looked at Pandora’s Box. Today, Their Own Desire…
Their Own Desire (1929)
A young couple’s affair is complicated by her father’s relationship with his mother. Starring Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Lewis Stone, Belle Bennett, and Helene Millard. Screenplay by Frances Marion. Dialogue adaptation by James Forbes. From the novel by Sarita Fuller. Directed by E. Mason Hopper.
This short and soapy early talkie — running under 65 minutes — is the third all-taking drama to star Norma Shearer. Though the sound techniques are obviously still primitive, the film’s disappointment has little to do with technical flaws or Hopper’s direction. Rather, the faults lie in the script, which lacks both the humor and genuine feeling necessary for making a picture that smartly illuminates the human condition. These shortcomings prove detrimental, especially when the stars try to overcompensate in their performances.
When she discovers that her father is having a clandestine affair with another woman, Lally takes her mother, Harriet, to a resort, meets there a young man named Jack, and falls in love with him. After promising to marry him, she discovers that his mother is her father’s mistress; and they decide to part. On a farewell boat ride they are caught in a storm, and the following morning they are reported missing. In their frantic search for them, Marlett and Beth (Lally’s father and Jack’s mother) realize the serious consequences of their affair, and reunion with their children brings about a return to their respective spouses. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The very nature of the premise — a father running off with another woman who happens to be the mother of the man that his daughter will soon met and fall in love — seems to show potential. But first, one thing must be figured out: exactly from where does the drama come? Well, in Their Own Desire, Shearer’s character fights her urge to be with Montgomery because of her over-the-top and hysterical mother, who has apparently become suicidal following her husband’s desertion. The problem with making this guilt the dramatic pull that (temporarily) keeps Shearer from her lover is that it’s uninteresting. Simply, either Shearer agrees to give up Montgomery or the mom lets it go. How hard is that, right? Well, the writers, recognizing that the drama — despite the machinations of the hammy and obnoxiously melodramatic mother — needed some more weight, add in a cliched “life or death” situation that both reunites mom and dad, and also allows Shearer and Montgomery to finally be together. Predictable. Dull.
If I were to take a crack at beating out the story, I’d have wrested the conflict away from the Mom’s emotional pulls on Shearer and put it in the hands of Shearer and Montgomery themselves — as they are forced to deal with the still raw emotions from their parents’ mutual infidelity. This would have allowed for more of Lewis Stone and Helen Millard, two of the better actors in this film, who could have given the conflict a better mixture of humor, sophistication, and realism. Imagine the young couple attending dinner at the adulterous couple’s house. Right there — story potential. But the milk has already been spilled, and these “imagine ifs” are fruitless.
It’s understandable why the mom is given so much prominence — the film is committed to NOT making adultery look like something to be taken lightly. (It’s 1929, remember, and though we are technically Pre-Code, the real envelope pushing won’t begin until 1930.) However, I do want to point out the ONE scripting thing that works: the parallel between Stone’s desire to be with Millard and Shearer’s desire to be with Montgomery. Shearer plays that moment of discovery well and the scripting, though too obvious, remains one of the more clever elements of the picture. This is what the rest of the picture should have focused on: the idea of reconciling our individual desires/happiness with our obligations to ourselves and our loved ones.
As for the performers, Shearer has spunk, but she was not above overacting, especially in the early parts of her career. With a script as inferior as this one, it’s understandable why Shearer would push harder. Unfortunately, instead of helping the picture and its drama, her performance contributes to its hackneyed attempts to make the audience feel things that the picture isn’t strong enough to make us feel. Meanwhile, Montgomery is as usual — minus the humor, since the script doesn’t supply him with any. So while, as I’d usually say in the case of a picture with an inferior script, “watch this one only if you’re fans of the stars,” I think even the most diehard of Shearer and Montgomery supporters would be disappointed. The script is bad. And there’s nothing they can do to help it.
Come back next Friday for another 1929 film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!