Monday, March 3, 2008

Shearer? I just met her!

Tonight on TCM, a couple of pre-Code gems featuring my favorite movie star, the luminous Norma Shearer. She was MGM's most eminent lady in her day, but nowadays she's seldom mentioned, even by those with a fondness for old films. I think this is mainly because she retired, from films and from public life, shortly after turning 40, while contemporaries like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis stayed in front of the cameras for as long as they possibly could (albeit at an ever-greater cost to their dignity). Shearer's looks and style weren't as distinctive as Davis's, and her life story was far less colorful than Crawford's. Norma's studio-head husband, Irving Thalberg, is a more familiar personality than she to a lot of old-Hollywood buffs, and the fact that they were married is often (and rather unfairly) cited as the main reason for Norma's success as an actress. Joan Crawford famously grumbled that Norma got all the good roles because she was sleeping with the boss. It's a sharp line, motivated by resentment much more than reality, but these days it gets repeated as a casual statement of fact.

I myself only discovered Norma because of my interest in Joan. When I was studying in London, the National Film Theatre put on a lengthy Joan Crawford film festival, and I attended two screenings of movies I'd been meaning to see: Harriet Craig, the story of an obsessive housewife with some eerie foreshadowing of Joan's Mommie Dearest legacy; and The Women, a 1939 comedy based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce and featuring an all-female cast. That screening was on Easter Sunday, and I got the very last ticket -- I was providentially unable to find anyone to join me. I could go on and on about The Women (which I've seen many times since then) -- it happens to feature my very favorite Joan Crawford performance, hands down -- but the most wonderful thing about it was that it introduced me to Norma Shearer.

I can't quite put into words what I find so captivating about Norma onscreen -- her performances have an emotional depth that feels so novel for that time. I'm confounded by those who dismiss her as a silent-film starlet who never quite adjusted to the talkies. I've sought out some of her silent performances and am always deeply impressed by her ability to convey complex emotions without words. What makes her work in the talkies stand out, for me, is the way she employs that same ability, that striking physical presence, with ever-increasing subtlety. Directors who really knew how to use Norma Shearer (George Cukor chief among them) took advantage of her silent-film chops in wordless sequences that end up telling us more about her character than any wisecracking dialogue. I'm thinking of a particular scene in The Women where Mary Haines is on the phone with her (philandering) husband, who has just told her he won't be able to get away for a romantic weekend after all. She hangs up the phone, heartbroken, and returns to the luncheon she's hosting for her catty group of girlfriends in the next room. Cukor has the camera follow her all the way from the phone back to the table, and we watch her compose herself along the way, until she greets her friends with the same lighthearted gaiety she knows they expect. I always find it breathtaking. The film's many phone conversations are themselves revelations -- we never see Mary's husband, remember, and we never hear his voice. We deduce what he's saying from her responses, but even more from her expression as she listens. I also remember a scene in Private Lives where Norma stands on a hotel balcony looking out, and her face registers everything she feels about the man she's just married (in the room behind her) and the man she divorced long ago (coincidentally in the room next door). Private Lives is based on a Noel Coward play, so the emotional content is complicated and brittle, but Norma makes everything utterly plain without saying a word. I don't know whether she'd have done well onstage, in this or any play -- I would have enjoyed seeing her try! -- but I do know that, while Coward's dialogue is as witty as you expect, that long, silent stretch is my favorite part.

The reason I bring all this up is that tonight those of you with TCM have the opportunity to see the film for which Norma Shearer won her only Academy Award. From the schedule:
    8:00 PM The Divorcee (1930)

    The double standard destroys a liberal couple's marriage. Cast: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery. Dir: Robert Z. Leonard. BW-82 mins, TV-G, CC
Immediately following, a new documentary I can't wait to watch:
    9:30 PM Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood (2008)

    This documentary looks at how the social, financial and moral forces all helped shape one of the most intriguing periods in Hollywood history. BW-68 mins, TV-MA, CC
I find pre-Code movies fascinating from a social-history point of view, and The Divorcee showcases many of the era's most tantalizing features: heedless young people, defiantly gay (but not like that) in the face of Prohibition and Depression! Melodrama! Hilariously slangy dialogue! Cloche hats! Women with androgynous names and -- gasp -- slacks! Most of all, it has a healthy helping of moral ambiguity, the sort of thing the Hays Code was enacted to proscribe. In the end, The Divorcee is surprisingly conservative regarding marriage and infidelity and women's liberation, but it does engage progressive attitudes along the way, and the results are often bracing. Compare this to The Women -- produced six years later, under the watchful eye of the Hays censors -- to see what the Code was all about. The films end up in roughly the same place, but their journeys are very different. Also, as I said, Norma Shearer won an Oscar for her starring role in The Divorcee, and it is indeed a wonderful performance. A bit stagy, for sure, but that was the order of the day in 1930. Her voice is still a bit shrill -- over the years she learned to control her pitch to sound more attractive on film. But nobody had a wounded look to match Norma's, and that's the part of The Divorcee that has stayed with me.

There's more pre-Code Norma goodness on the schedule tonight/tomorrow morning, for those of you with a DVR (or lousy sleep habits):
    3:45 AM A Free Soul (1931)

    A hard-drinking lawyer's daughter falls for one of his underworld clients. Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable. Dir: Clarence Brown. BW-94 mins, TV-G, CC
In my memory, A Free Soul feels much longer than its 94 minutes. Talkies had not yet learned to be light on their feet. But there are many delights to behold: Norma as a girlish, wisecracking flapper, flirting with dad (that's Barrymore, playing the alcoholic lawyer in a Prohibition-era film where "alcoholism" isn't named) and seducing a young (and mustacheless) Clark Gable with a scandalously revealing satin gown. This film also marks the first time that the wan Leslie Howard and the much more dashing Gable squared off as rivals for the heart of a spirited girl.

I'll probably watch The Divorcee, even though the ending always makes me angry, because I get a thrill from Norma's wild declaration of freedom. "From now on, you're the only man in the world my door will be closed to!" And I will certainly watch the documentary that follows. If you do the same, come back here tomorrow and we'll discuss our findings!


Amy said...

2 random thoughts:

Norma Shearer looks WAY too much like Marya Grandy.

And your title reminds me of a joke I fought to the death to keep in Live on Tape, at the end of my "Bad Accents" sketch. It's out of context but, still, is the best joke I have ever written:

"Tiramisu? I barely know you!"

Mollie said...

The resemblance is striking indeed (see here). Marya is my choice to play Norma in the biopic that no one will ever make. (Proposed title: Slopes of Passion: The Marti and Norma Story.)