Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and another installment in our series of posts that compares the Pre-Code and Under-the-Code versions of several classic films. This week we’re covering The Last Of Mrs. Cheyney, originally produced in 1929 with Norma Shearer, and then remade in 1937 with Joan Crawford. (There’s also a slightly similar and differently titled ’51 adaptation, but that’s part of a different era and excluded from the discussion in today’s post.)
Based on the stage play by Frederick Lonsdale, here’s the premise of the first screen adaptation courtesy of TCM: “Shearer plays the key member of a group of jewel thieves, a woman who poses as a moneyed Australian widow in order to earn the confidence of a group of rich aristocrats. She and her gang — most notably, her accomplice Charles (George Barraud), who poses as her butler — have landed in Monte Carlo, where Mrs. Cheyney has charmed her way into the good graces of some very well-heeled folk. She plans to steal a lavish rope of pearls, valued at twenty thousand pounds, belonging to the elderly Mrs. Webley (Maude Turner Gordon). The complication in her little plan is the presence of the dashing womanizer Lord Arthur Dilling (Basil Rathbone), who boldly tries to talk his way into her bed. She resists, coquettishly, playing him against another suitor, the bumbling — but extremely rich — Lord Elton (Herbert Bunston). But secretly, or not-so-secretly, she’s attracted to him, and he causes her to second-guess her chosen vocation.”
This early talkie, Shearer’s second all talking motion picture (not including The Hollywood Revue of 1929), is hampered by all of the off-putting technical foibles that plagued films of the era, when synched sound was in its infancy. As you may have anticipated, the staging of the action and the blocking of the camera is stationary and unimaginative; this might as well be a filmed presentation of a theatrical production, for it lacks much of the closeness that cinema was deigned to promise. As a result, both the design and the performances feel more suited to the theatre, meaning that they don’t translate so well on the big screen; there’s scenery chewing, shrill vocalizations, and way, way too much telling (as opposed to showing). Now, there are occasional moments of supreme visuality, like the shadowy robbery scene and the one inward-moving shot of Shearer as she basically falls in love with Rathbone, but these instances are too few. Furthermore, the plotting is miserably slow, and difficult in which to maintain an interest, especially because the story feels like it could be played more efficiently in 2/3 of the time.
But audiences of today know what’s in store with a film of this ilk, so it’s not difficult to acknowledge and then ignore the obvious flaws in order to better focus on the picture’s strengths. The premise itself is an engaging one — a lady jewel thief plans a big heist, but has a change of heart when she loses it for a hot-to-trot Lord. It’s not as shocking or daring as a Pre-Code classic (and, actually, 1929 is kind of Pre-Pre-Code), but there’s delicious innuendo, most explicitly in the scenes between Shearer and Rathbone, like when he asks her whether or not she’s a “good” girl, and then later, when he catches her mid-theft and attempts to blackmail her into sex. Ah, moral complexity! These brief moments help make the film worthwhile, and justify us labeling it a Pre-Code picture.
So then, you could almost anticipate that the story would end up neutered in the Code adhering 1937 adaptation, in which Crawford (in a part intended for Myrna Loy) takes on the eponymous Mrs. Cheyney. Robert Montgomery takes Rathbone’s role, William Powell takes Barraud’s, and Frank Morgan takes Bunston’s. In addition to the much heavier star power, the exponentially advanced production methods make the ’37 film a much easier watch than its predecessor. But, as far as I’m concerned, this is not worth the price of the story’s decimation. Oh, sure, all the beats are basically the same, but glossier and less complex. For instance, we never doubt that the Fay Cheyney of this picture is a good woman with good intentions, because her “inner conflict” is made to drive the character’s edge, thus robbing her of the shading inherent in Lonsdale’s initial text, where there were larger stakes. Additionally, Montgomery lacks Rathbone’s sexuality, and as a result, he poses no threat — physically or emotionally. It’s all… bland.
But let’s cut to the chase: Shearer vs. Crawford. Well, Shearer is a better fit in the role of the lady jewel thief who has second thoughts; she clearly gets the juicier part, and is allowed to have more nuance. But she doesn’t always make the best choices; that is, there are some scenes where her performance is so heightened that it pulls us out of the narrative, threatening our suspension of disbelief. There are times when you can smell the melodrama. At the same time, there are long stretches where Shearer does everything beautifully — the “good girl” sequence is of particular note, especially as it pertains to the not overplayed inner life of her character.
Crawford, on the other hand, is all about bring the interior to the exterior — so much so that it loses its power and becomes melodramatic in its own right. Her portrayal remains more consistent and less distracting than Shearer’s, but Craword’s casting does feel like a stretch, especially at this transitional point in her own career. The nebulousness of the character combined with the own uncertainty of Crawford’s 1937 screen persona is destructive; if this were five years before and Crawford was still a shopgirl, she’d play the part with more determination, and it would work (and frankly, the script would let her). But in 1937, it’s not a great match — she and the script are both stuck in an odd limbo.
Furthermore, while Crawford has easy chemistry with the milquetoast Montgomery, she has none with William Powell. And actually, all three headliners act as if they’re in different pictures. By the nature of the ’29 film’s production, all of the primary cast (including a young Hedda Hopper — looking like Bebe Neuwirth) plays on the same field — for better or worse. For Shearer and Rathbone, the script’s undercurrent of sexuality engenders a more interesting rhythm than Crawford and Montgomery’s, and ultimately, that’s what makes the 1929 film a more pointed work. So, while I’m recommend the ’37 version for audiences who want to see a better looking and more star-studded work of cinema, I think the ’29 version has much richer characters and a tastier subtext, so if you go in with adjusted expectations (and this must be stressed), the original is ultimately the more worthwhile.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post and check again next month for a new Pre-Code and Under-the-Code comparison! Tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!