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.