Saturday, August 28, 2010

'Strange' But Intriguing

Last year, when I started this blog, I wrote about my fascination with actress Norma Shearer and promised to address it soon.

Does a year qualify as "soon"? I guess I got sidetracked. But when I recently watched "Strange Interlude," an MGM drama released in 1932, I was once again drawn to this woman -- wife of Irving Thalberg, who was pushing her as the first lady of MGM (and cinema). She was an actress and star, although it's that "actress" label that people have sometimes questioned. In fact, when doing a little research on this film, once source said that Thalberg's push for Shearer to be a great actress included surrounding her with the best directors, cinematographers, writers and co-stars, which hid her acting limitations.

I think that's harsh. And if you watch Shearer's career progress -- particularly in the sound era -- you clearly see her growth as an actress. She could handle the material just fine.

The rest of the above statement is true -- Thalberg wanted the best for his wife. And this is a film adaptation of a Eugene O'Neill play that won a Pulitzer Prize. In it are four characters, and what's unusual is that we hear the characters verbalize their thoughts for the audience. So it's a mix of dialogue and voiceovers that can be a bit jarring at first, although I give MGM credit during this early sound era for trying something novel, even if it doesn't always work. Still, MGM had successfully translated O'Neill's "Anna Christie" into a critical success as Greta Garbo's first talkie, so there was a precedence for the studio to return to his work.

Shearer plays Nina, a woman who has lost her husband during World War I. The action opens with her father (Henry Walthall) concerned for her mental state. Loving friend Charlie (Ralph Morgan) would gladly marry her and whisk her away to a new life; naive Sam (Alexander Kirkland) also wants to do the same; and Dr. Ned Darrell (Clark Gable) is strangely drawn to her.

Nina marries Sam, but she really doesn't love him as she should. When Sam's mother secretly reveals to Nina that mental illness runs in the family, Nina realizes she cannot have children with Sam. She contemplates a secret affair with Ned and perhaps have a child that she can pass off as Sam's in order to please him.

What's irritating about the film is its almost simplistic "I love her-she loves him-she married someone else" territory. And, as the drama unfolds over many years, it feels like we're watching the same scene play out over and over again: Sam happily (and cluelessly) married, Nina torn between duty to Sam and love for Ned, Ned wanting Nina, and Charlie secretly jealous of both Sam and Ned for having Nina's affections and angry at Nina. And then, psychologically, the ghost of Nina's first husband -- who is never seen -- hangs over this drama, although never really addressed. You also wonder if these people ever had a life outside of this basic romantic intrigue. After all, years pass and yet they seem to discuss the same thing over and over again.

Still, the one thing that this film has going for it is star power, provided by Shearer and Gable (above). She is radiant; he is ruggedly handsome. Both command every scene in which they appear -- frankly, their charisma (individual and combined) blows everything else off the screen. Watch this movie and you'll understand what star power is. They demonstrated their chemistry together in "A Free Soul" a few years earlier, and they make the material work here.

There's some lovely photography work on display here, as well as Robert Z. Leonard's expert direction. Particularly striking is a run by Sam and Nina through a grove of cherry trees (crab apples? I'm bad on tree identification) in blossom -- you don't need color to gasp at the breathtaking images, with light filtering through the branches. Another scene has Nina and Ned on a balcony at night, backlit from inside and by the intermittent beacon from a nearby lighthouse, in which the two stars just glow. The MGM sheen is clear here, and it helps the piece.

As for Shearer, she hold her own beautifully as the lone female star among her male counterparts. While this wasn't a commercial hit, it's no stinker. And years later, it's clear to see why she was a star -- forgotten by casual movie fans who know only of Garbo or Harlow or Crawford from this time period -- and a fine actress. Hopefully it won't be another year before I write about her again.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Audrey of the Month

Ahhhh. A fun shot for a warm August day.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Commoner for a Day

Last month, my Audrey Hepburn shot was from the film "Roman Holiday." I had no idea that it bore such similarities to "Princess O'Rourke," Warner Brothers' 1943 wartime comedy.

It's too bad "Princess O'Rourke" isn't nearly as good as the Hepburn film. "Princess" has a gentle, likable charm, but it really goes astray at the end -- which I'll talk about later in case someone doesn't want the finale spoiled.

In the film, Princess Maria (Olivia de Havilland) is in New York City. She's bored and tired of her family, particularly her uncle Holeman (Charles Coburn), who constantly worries about who her potential husband should be and how many sons they should bear.

She decides to get away and plans an airplane trip to California for her to visit friends. But when the trip is canceled due to fog, she's forced to spend the night with Eddie O'Rourke (Bob Cummings).

The set-up is similar to "Roman Holiday." Princess Maria is bored and wishes to get away from the overbearing responsibility of her duties. When she takes too many sleeping pills to survive the plane ride (like Hepburn's sleep-inducing shot), the princess unwittingly is taken home by Eddie, who has no choice (like Gregory Peck's reporter in "Roman Holiday").

The princess ends up spending a day with Eddie and his best pals, Dave and Jean (Jack Carson and Jane Wyman), although they don't know who she is. Eddie falls for the princess, but she knows she must return to her reali life.

The mixture of war, romance and comedy is nothing new during this time. Eddie and Dave have a serious talk about going off to war and who they will/won't return home to. Jean does her part by helping the Red Cross, sewing and conducting air raid drills. There's even a message about bringing the U.S. closer to an unknown European ally and the good that will do.

Still, I couldn't help feel that this had been done better elsewhere. In terms of a quick war-time romance, see "The Clock." In terms of a fairy tale romance of a princess on the lam, see "Roman Holiday."

Also, I found de Havilland (above with Cummings) a little too reserved and lady-like. Had she expressed more emotion or had more fun during her day incognito, it would have helped me develop a fondness for her. Instead, I always felt a distance between her and the audience. It didn't help that she wasn't thrilled about making the film. At this point in her career, she was so mad at Warner Brothers for not giving her better material that only a few months later she would file a lawsuit against the company that would keep her off-screen while it wound its way through the courts before a landmark decision was made.

Much better are the supporting players -- the likable Cummings, the always-dependable Carson, and the scene-stealing Coburn. Wyman is lively and warm by comparison to de Havilland, and apparently Billy Wilder decided to cast Wyman in "The Lost Weekend" based upon her performance here. It's too bad Gladys Cooper has a nothing role that wastes her talents.

And then there's that ending. Yes, I'm sure they were going for that happy audience-pleasing climax, but it makes no sense whatsoever -- it seems nothing was solved in terms of the difficulties facing Eddie. It's almost as if someone said, "Well, it has to end this way, so let's just get it over with." Boom. Cut and print. I rolled my eyes when "The End" came on screen. And, somehow, this film won an Oscar for its screenplay.

"Princess O'Rourke" isn't a bad film. Its gentle nature and winning performances from most of the cast go a long way toward masking the weak plot developments. Thankfully, de Havilland would finally get the roles she fought for and show her brilliance, and movie fans would get "Roman Holiday," a film that seems to have learned from "O'Rourke's" mistakes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mad Men and the Movies

Sorry about not posting more, but it's been a hectic few weeks. Plus, a TV show that's become one of my all-time favorites began its fourth season two Sundays ago.

"Mad Men" is simply terrific, and for movie fans there are movie references sprinkled throughout. While I'm trying to find time to review a movie, I thought you'd like to read what Nat over at The Film Experience has done with "Mad Men." He's broken down every episode with a movie reference for us film fans! I also added a "Mad Men"-inspired poll. Have fun or suggest your own title!

Read more on The Film Experience