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.


  1. I've always liked her. She's not my favorite old time actress (my heart belongs to Jean Arthur) but she was enjoyable enough.

  2. I love Jean Arthur. Norma was terrific, though. She has that movie star quality ... and was a fine actress as well.

  3. Very insightful article about Strange Interlude. I wsa first introduced to the play by reading it, and loved it. I think it is very hard to do those inner thought asides in a movie, particularly when it is the actor trying to use their face to show emotion with just a voice-over. As on stage, it might have been better to have them turn half-away and speak their thoughts. It's a very difficult play to stage. I absolutely love everything Norma Shearer ever did, and you are quite right - the chemistry between her and Gable was electric. I do think Ralph Morgan was not a good choice for Charlie. He made too many facial grimaces and expressions that looked almost comical, and although the character of Charlie was not supposed to be handsome and masculine, I think another actor with just a little more charisma would have been better suited. I've never read a review on this movie, and you did a great job!

  4. Shearer is an actress that I have mixed feelings about. Her performances sometimes frustrate me. In any given film there will be moments of brilliance and honesty, and then moments when she falls back on silent-acting techniques and the performance becomes artificial. However, she's better than not, and I think it's unfair when her career gets dismissed as it often does. She was a major star in the early years of Hollywood, and her accomplishments deserve some respect.

  5. I understand a lot of Norma Shearer's silent films are missing, and her image in those films was very different from her 1930s movies. I hope some of those films turn up someday.

  6. Wow ... lots of comments! Thanks so much. 1) ClassicBecky: Thank you for the compliment! I really appreciate it. I agree about Charlie -- at first it seemed like he belonged in a completely different film, because the tone of his performance was so different from the others. However, as the film progressed, I got used to his style of acting. 2) JL: Sometimes it's the material that frustrates me with her films. "Their Own Desire" isn't that good, but she manages to create some fine moments. I do think she has "tricks" that she relies on -- sometimes a fake-sounding laugh or the way she holds her hand on her hip. Still, if you watch her films in sequence, she improves dramatically during the 1930s, losing some of those annoying mannerisms while the material of her films got stronger, thanks to hubby Irving Thalberg. 3) Kevin: I would like to see more of her silent work. I've only seen "Student Prince," and she's lovely in it.