Saturday, 13 February 2010

Pre-code Norma Shearer: Let Us Be Gay (1930) and Strangers May Kiss (1931)

Immediately after the success of "The Divorcee" in April 1930, MGM kept Norma Shearer very busy, releasing four more films before the end of 1931: "Let us be Gay"and "Strangers May Kiss", which I will be talking about, "A Free Soul" (which I briefly discussed here) and "Private Lives". Uniting them is Shearer as a modern woman trying her best to enjoy life and sexual freedom. And she is convincing, refusing to be the little woman waiting for her husband to come home. I like that very much. I think is the reason why I have got so much into Pre-codes over the last few years.

First a disclaimer. I watched "Let us be Gay" a few weeks ago, so if I do get any detail wrong please feel free to correct me. Shearer plays a homely housewife who thinks she is happily married until the day her husband mistress comes and pays her a visit. After that she kicks him out, liberates herself, puts on some sexy gowns and is a hit with men. So much that an old friend (played by Marie Dressler) asks her to come and seduce her granddaughter's latest conquest, an unsuitable match who happens to be Shearer's ex.

The film falls flat. It is clearly an attempt to replicate "The Divorcee", with several similarities in the story department but much less interesting. In addition to which, the film is badly shot. There are sequences which aren't properly framed and I remember at least an instance where the camera focus on an empty room for a few seconds before anyone bothers to come in. It is a bit amateurish for any major Hollywood studio by 1930, but especially MGM. The ending is also a cop-out (again, like "The Divorcee"). There are two interesting things in the film that should be noted, sadly none enough to sustain interest. The first is Norma's look during the first act of the film. She really is an ugly duckling, with no make-up, the sort of thing Bette Davis became famous for a few years later. For a star of her size at that stage it was an interesting and perhaps brave and calculated choice. The second thing worth noting is Marie Dressler as the old lady, slightly deaf, stubborn and very, very funny. It's really a pity that the script doesn't make more of her. She was a wonderful actress and the more films of hers I watch, the more I want to watch.

A bit better but still drawing too much from "The Divorcee" is "Strangers May Kiss". I was particularly keen on this one because of a couple of clips that appeared in Pre-code documentaries. The problem with that is that, out of context anything can sound much better or much worst that what it actually is. Here Shearer is a young successful woman of 21 (if they say so...) who's having a romance with a foreign correspondent with itchy feet. When he is posted in Mexico, she goes with him, but when he gets a new assignment, he decides likes his freedom too much for her to come with him. Heartbroken she turns loose. I was quite disappointed on how it all turned out in the end, but I am not sure if it's not just me.

The film was a bit of a let down from what I expected, but is never less than enjoyable. Shearer provides exactly the same part, same speeches and same poses than before but in a brand new wardrobe. The script is a bit better, which is probably why it works better. Adding to the film's interest is Robert Montgomery's character- He is the loyal, devout, slightly drunk friend who keeps wanting to marry Shearer and keeps being refused. Witty, charming but invisible in the leading lady's eyes, would I be reading too much into assuming that he really is a closeted character? Possibly, but the thought occurred to me several times. There are also a few good lines, one of which compares women to drinks (and which I loved) but that would reveal too much if I quoted it here.

All in all, I really like Norma Shearer's screen persona in the early 1930s, even if I don't always like the films. I think "The Divorcee" and "Private Lives" are gems, but I probably won't rush to see any of the other three again. I would like to see her remaining Pre-codes though.

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