SPOTLIGHT: Dashing Pre-Code Gable (V)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our series on the Pre-Code films of Clark Gable, the first male star to get a spotlight here on That’s Entertainment! Over this past year, we’ve actually covered a handful of Pre-Code Gable films during our examinations of the works of some of his frequent leading ladies. This blog has already featured: A Free Soul (1931) with Norma Shearer, Possessed (1931) with Joan Crawford, Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor, Hold Your Man (1933) with Jean Harlow, Night Flight (1933) with Myrna Loy and Helen Hayes, Dancing Lady (1933) with Joan Crawford, It Happened One Night (1934) with Claudette Colbert, and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) with Myrna Loy. We’ve also covered two of Gable’s Post-Code films with Joan Crawford: Forsaking All Others (1934) and Love On The Run (1936). In the Gable series, we’ve covered Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), The Secret Six (1931), Night Nurse (1931), and Susan Lenox (Her Fall And Rise) (1931). Today…

 

Strange Interlude (1932)

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After Nina Leeds finds out that insanity runs in her husband’s family, she has a love child with a handsome doctor and lets her husband believes the child is his. Starring Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Alexander Kirkland, Ralph Morgan, Robert Young, May Robson, and Maureen O’Sullivan. Based on the play by Eugene O’Neill. Dialogue continuity by Bess Meredyth and C. Gardner Sullivan. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.

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One of Norma Shearer’s few Pre-Code films not highlighted on Film Fridays during her spotlight last year, this strange adaptation of a strange Eugene O’Neill play is the second Pre-Code pairing of Gable and Shearer. Admittedly, Strange Interlude is also one of a handful of O’Neill plays that I have not read. The bizarre construction (characters speaking their thoughts aloud through soliloquies) and protracted length (over four hours) is, frankly, intimidating, and while I’ve always had the desire to sit down and read it, that’s yet to happen. (Have you read the play? Subscribe and comment below with your thoughts!)

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The story focuses on a young woman who, in grief over the loss of her beau in WWI, agrees to marry one of the many gentlemen interested in her for the sake of companionship. Unfortunately, she becomes pregnant with his child and soon learns from his mother that insanity runs in the family. Hoping to spare her offspring from mental illness, she aborts the child and seduces a biologist into procreating with her instead — all the while passing off the son as her husband’s. The woman and the biologist fall in love, but are forced to keep their feelings a secret until the death of her husband. It’s pure soap opera — with some juicy twists.

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Naturally, the motion picture adaptation tones some of this down, specifically the abortion beat, and the story, from my understanding, is stripped of a lot of its sexuality. The soliloquy device, an, in my opinion, unnecessary complication to an already engaging story, is handled in the film with voice overs. Perhaps its more effective in the play, because its usage in the film is gratuitous and not as revealing as it needs to be. (I imagine the play could and did reveal more, enhancing the drama.) Additionally, since the actors aren’t physically speaking the lines to the audience, they’re forced to remain silently in the action as the off-camera voice speaks. It’s unnatural, and only some of the actors — Shearer and Gable included — can pull it off.

Speaking of Shearer and Gable, they really are the brightest parts of the film. Gable, always in possession of a dynamic presence, shows some fully developed acting chops. I was impressed. Meanwhile, Shearer, for whom I have the utmost regard, is occasionally known for overacting in some of these weeper scripts. Rest assured that she’s superb here — believable, likable, talented. However, the pair don’t get the chance to exude the sexuality that they did in their previous teaming (1931’s A Free Soul), and it’s unfortunate, because — as evidenced in the aforementioned film — as a duo,  they were electric. The few moments that we are presented with that raw attraction are simply the best of the film. (See above.)

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The son is annoying — both incarnations — and the old-age make-up for the adults is, as has been noted elsewhere, not entirely believable. But that’s not something that concerned me. I was more bothered by the story, which was building and building and building, until it kind of slowed and lost steam as they aged. (The pot not only never boiled over, but it seemed to simmer for the last third of the film.) Again, I’m not sure exactly how this is handled in the O’Neill play, but I really missed the sexuality — the rawness — that the bones of the story seemed to promise. It gets more and more sentimental with each scene. But, it is a soapy melodrama; we know that going in. That’s part of its fun. And our King and Queen, well, they certainly deliver.

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Come back next Friday for one more Pre-Code Gable film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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2 thoughts on “SPOTLIGHT: Dashing Pre-Code Gable (V)

  1. I haven’t read “Strange Interlude”, although there’s a memorable 1988 British version that was broadcast here on American Playhouse on PBS with Glenda Jackson, David Dukes, Edward Petherbridge and Ken Howard that made a terrific (and lingering) impression on me. There IS something a little curious about the characters breaking into monologues constantly, but I think in performance you kind of get into the rhythm of it, and I do think it enhances this particular play. The only thing I’ve ever seen of the 1930’s movie is the bit you’ve posted, but the voice-overs seem much odder to me than the theatrical convention of directly addressing the audience, and even pre-code, I can’t help but think that the movie seems watered down compared to the play. Until the day comes that you get around to reading all 300 pages of the script, if you’re interested, Columbia records recorded a wonderful theatrical production with a stellar cast in the early 1960’s that can be heard on-line at the Eugene O’Neill Electionic Archives here: http://www.eoneill.com/audio.htm

    • Hi, Greg! Thanks for reading and commenting!

      And thank you for the link to the Columbia recording. The castration of the piece’s sexuality coupled with the unfortunate decision to turn the soliloquies into voice overs hurts this 1932 adaptation. Hopefully O’Neill’s play is much better.

      Thanks again!

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