Tag Archives: norma shearer

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Lady of the Night (1925)

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The next film in Treasures From the Warner Archive is one to which I’ve been looking forward for some time. Perhaps the most highly respected film of Norma Shearer’s silent career and featuring the screen debut of a future Hollywood legend (more on that later!), it is a hallmark of the early MGM period and a shining example of the beautiful and complex character-driven narratives that came out of the silent era. The film is Lady of the Night, and it’s a real crowd pleaser.

A father is sentenced to 20 years in prison by a judge who has a daughter around the same age. Leaving the courthouse, he sees the judge cuddling with his daughter. “Pretty soft for your kid, but what about mine?” he cries, as he is carted off to jail.

Eighteen years pass, and both daughters are graduating from school–Florence, the judge’s daughter (Norma Shearer) from a select school for young women, and the convict’s daughter Molly (also Norma Shearer) from a reform school. The stark contrast between the lives of the two girls is seen right away–Florence’s world is photographed in a red tint, and her school is surrounded by flowers and trees, her friends smiling and skipping down the path following their graduation. Molly’s world, on the other hand, is photographed in stark black and white, and her school is nothing but a block of cement. She is dressed in a drab black dress, with a simple hat and no makeup. Molly’s world is a grim one, and with nowhere to go and nothing to do, she turns to taxi dancing to earn a living. At the club where she works, Molly is assaulted by a stranger and resists with all her might–kicking, hitting, and biting him. A man by the name of David Page helps wrench the man off of Molly, and to thank him for his kindness, Molly accepts a dance with him much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, Chunky (George K. Arthur). Soon, Molly begins to fall in love with David but David doesn’t see her as a romantic partner, only a good friend. David, an inventor, has invented a device that can crack safes, and Molly advises him not to give his invention to crooks, despite the high price they might pay. “Don’t go crooked, it don’t pay,” she says, drawing on her own experience growing up fatherless. She tells him to sell his idea to a bank, who will use it to keep thieves out.

Molly.

The next day, David goes to the board of a bank to pitch his idea. The meeting was held at board member Judge Banning’s house, and on his way, he bumps into Florence. The two lock eyes, and Florence also begins to fall in love with Dave. This time, it is mutual and they begin dating. One day David takes Florence to his studio when Molly walks in, unaware that he wasn’t alone. She and Florence meet, and after Molly walks out, she says to David “She loves you, David, I can see it in her eyes.” She follows shortly after Molly and finds her sitting in Florence’s carriage. Molly implores Florence to marry David and make him happy. Florence expresses concern for Molly, and when Molly says she can be happy with her own boyfriend, Chunky, the two hug. All ends well with a tinge of bittersweetness at what could have been–with Florence marrying David and Molly marrying Chunky.

It is in the carriage scene that we see the very, very brief screen debut of an actress who would become an immortal Hollywood star. A young actress by the name of Lucille LeSueur had recently come to Hollywood and was being tested out in bit parts. In this role, she plays Norma Shearer’s double for the hugging shot. Within 2 years she would hit it big, and under the name of Joan Crawford, she would become perhaps one of the most important and influential stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Norma Shearer, on the left, with Joan Crawford acting as Molly’s double on the right.

The significance of Joan Crawford’s screen debut against Norma Shearer is lost on very few fans who are familiar with the backstory of classic Hollywood. Joan Crawford’s career skyrocketed very quickly, and by the early 1930s she was one of the reigning queens of the MGM lot. Norma Shearer, always a huge star in her own right, married MGM production chief Irving Thalberg in 1927, becoming not only one of MGM’s biggest assets financially but also gaining an influence and control within the studio that was hard to shake. Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer became bitter rivals at MGM in the 1930s, with both asserting their power to its full extent. Because of her political influence within the studio, however, Norma usually won out, prompting Joan to quip “How can I compete with Norma when she’s sleeping with the boss?” They later appeared in 1939’s The Women playing competitors for a man’s affections–not far from their real life situation.

At its core, the story of Lady of the Night has a complexity that is quite thought-provoking. Much of it, in my analysis, has to do with the fact that Norma Shearer plays the dual role of a judge’s daughter and a convict’s daughter. This prompts the audience to rethink any prejudices they may have had coming in regarding “the girl from the wrong side of the tracks,” and instead judge the characters by their internal qualities. In addition, this dual role shows us the remarkable range of Norma Shearer’s acting abilities. Shearer was one of the rare performers in Hollywood who successfully made the transition from silent film to sound, and 5 years before her Oscar-winning turn in the sound film The Divorcee, Shearer was proving that she had the versatility of the best in the business. As Molly, she is hardened and rough but with a heart of gold–and as Florence, she is soft and demure. The ability to be able to switch from character to character with such aplomb and so quickly is a gift rare indeed.

If you would like to watch Lady of the Night, click here. It is worth watching for the tremendous performance of Norma Shearer, and for the place it has in the silent film pantheon.

See you next time!

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BABY FACE (1933) and Pre-Code Hollywood Morality

In a scene cut from the original theatrical release, Barbara Stanwyck breaks a beer bottle over the head of a man trying to assault her.

When discussing classic film with those who may have little knowledge of its history, a common grievance I hear is that people take issue with the contrived storylines and docile women that they perceive to make up the cinematic landscape of classic Hollywood. “The stories are all the same,” they often state, “and the women are so wholesome and pure. It’s not real.” When I hear statements like these, I try to give as much historical context as is appropriate for the conversation, and then…I almost always recommend a pre-Code.

Before the strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Hollywood was the antithesis of what most people consider “old movies” to be. A far cry from the sweet, obedient women who always ended up married to the good guy at the end, women in this era of filmmaking were often driven, manhunting, sexual creatures who lived their own lives, their own way. They got divorces, slept their way to the top, and weren’t afraid of the power of men.

This was the world of pre-Code Hollywood.

Norma Shearer in THE DIVORCEE (1930), a story of a woman’s divorce and illicit affairs that won Norma Shearer an Oscar for Best Actress.

In 1922, following a series of Hollywood scandals that culminated in the accusation and ultimate acquittal of Fatty Arbuckle in 1921 in the famous Virginia Rappe rape trial, Hollywood realized that its morals were coming into serious question by certain political factions. The studios hired Will Hays, Presbyterian clergyman and former head of the Republican National Committee, to try to tame what they perceived to be an industry spiraling out of control. He drafted a series of “Do’s, Don’ts, and Be Carefuls” that ultimately morphed into the first Hollywood Production Code, put into effect in 1930. Jason Joy was employed as the chief enforcer of the new mandate, holding the post until 1932.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose 1921 trial and acquittal for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe called into question the morality of Hollywood.

Though the code existed as a technicality, Jason Joy was not too keen on its enforcement and the first film that was reviewed under the new system, The Blue Angel (1930), was passed through with very few changes. The story of an elderly professor who falls in love with a cabaret singer is one that has become a classic of German cinema, but in 1930 it was branded as indecent by a California state censor. As there was poor communication between Joy’s office and the studios, and poor infrastructure regarding who had the power over what, there was not much  that Joy could do had he wanted to.

While the studios and the Production Code office fumbled with the cumbersome new laws, box-office sales skyrocketed. Out of this era of lack of code enforcement came films that were sexy, steamy, brutal, and raw. Women were loose and manipulative, men killed and massacred. There were overt references to sex, and near-nudity.

In Night Nurse (1931) Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck dress and undress 3 times in the first half hour.

Despite the Code’s ban on sexual suggestion and nudity in silhouette, this scene from Golddiggers of 1933 appeared, a clear slap in the face to the Production Code office and one of the raciest scenes to come out of the 1930s.

There was an air of lawlessness in the movies, and the public loved it. The studios were making movies that people wanted in spite of the powers-that-be, and they were doing it right under their noses.

And then came Baby Face (1933).

Film scholars often cite Baby Face as the film that served as the tipping point for all the changes that would take place the following year. At the TCM Festival a few weeks ago Bruce Goldstein, president of the New York Film Forum, described Baby Face as the Citizen Kane of pre-Codes, a film so good, so racy, and so much in defiance of everything the Code stood for that it singlehandedly rallied the office to action.

Baby Face is the story of a young woman who, tired of her life as a prostitute in the saloon owned by her father, decides to use her powers over men to get a job and rise to the upper echelons of New York society. Literally sleeping her way to the top, she is the epitome of the power pre-Code women had over their men. All the men in the movie simply crumble to her will, she uses them as rungs on the ladder to get to where she wants to be.

Even by today’s standards, Baby Face in its original form is a monument to feminism, a story of how a woman uses her wiles to outsmart all the men in her life. But upon its completion in mid-1933 the Production Code office, now headed by Joseph Breen, panicked. The film broke so many rules of the Code, it was essentially unfit for release and was banned by censors across the country. Serious cuts were made to Baby Face to make it palatable to censors, and less than 6 months after the release of Baby Face in December of 1933, an amendment was added to the Code to require all films released after July 1, 1934, to obtain a certificate of approval before their release into theatres. An important shot of a muder/suicide scene in Baby Face was cut to comply with restrictions on murder. Scenes such as this one were cut to comply with the restriction on illicit sex being presented as attractive:

The original cut of Baby Face was tragically presumed lost, until 2004 when a print of the original negative was discovered at the Library of Congress. It premiered at the London Film Festival, and is now widely available via several DVD releases. The print is magnificent. The original theatrical release shows a movie that is nothing special, a run-of-the-mill production with few particularly memorable moments. But when one views the original, uncut version, it is magical. The movie comes to life, and it is a rich, complex story of a woman’s drive and motivation to better herself. Baby Face is the ultimate pre-Code, and the discovery of the uncut version in 2004 stands as one of the most important cinematic discoveries of the last 20 years.

As for the Code itself, it slowly chafed away until its replacement by the MPAA in 1968. It is a controversial subject among film scholars. In my personal view, though the Code severely restricted the freedom of artists to express themselves in Hollywood, its enforcement had its benefits to the progression of the movie industry. In order to make the films they wanted to make, filmmakers were forced to resort to subtlety and innuendo, clever and biting dialogue that went under the radar of the censors, and that audiences had to listen or watch for. Movies played to smarter audiences, because the Code forced them to.

The Women (1939)

But as the Code lasted for such a long span of film history, far too few people know about the rich history before its enforcement, when films were decidedly modern and extremely thrilling. For further reading on this subject, I would recommend Mick LaSalle’s 2000 book Complicated Women, all about the women of pre-Code Hollywood and the roles they played. A great read on an immensely fascinating subject.

See you next time!

Dueling Divas–THE ENTRIES

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By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

It’s Sunday, everyone, and the divas are out in full force! I will be updating this page throughout the day as the entries come in. Here is our list of duels so far:

Vanessa oversees legendary rivals Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford squaring off in several dueling rounds in a delightful post over at Stardusthttp://bwallover.blogspot.ca/2013/12/dueling-divas-blogathon-joan-crawford.html

Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth compete for the love of Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand at Critica Retro. Don’t forget to hit Le’s handy translate button if you don’t speak Portuguese! http://criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2013/12/quem-vai-ficar-com-ty.html

At Girls Do Film today, Vicki explores Dark Mirror, Olivia de Havilland’s tour-de-force playing a mysterious pair of twins. http://girlsdofilm.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/the-dark-mirror-olivia-de-havilland-as-terry-and-ruth-collins/

Java’s Journey referees the duel between Judy Holliday’s “Ella” and Valerie Allen’s “Olga” in Bells Are Ringing. http://javabeanrush.blogspot.com/2013/12/dueling-divas-ella-vsolga-in-bells-are.html

Movies, Silently gives Mary Pickford’s dual role in Stella Maris epic treatment in this exhaustive post about the film. http://moviessilently.com/2013/12/22/stella-maris-1918-a-silent-film-review/

Angela at The Hollywood Revue gives us a rundown of Dead Ringer and Bette Davis’ dual role in it. http://hollywoodrevue.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/dead-ringer-1964/

Silver Screenings sings the praises of not one Edward G. Robinson, but TWO, in The Whole Town’s Talking. http://silverscreenings.org/2013/12/21/the-dual-edward-fan-club/

Sepia Stories gives us a view into the lives of Mary Pickford, her mother, and their nemesis Olive Thomas, who wanted to marry Mary’s brother Jack. Fun read! http://sepiastories.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/thomas-vs-pickford-backlots-third-annual-dueling-divas-blogathon/

Christy over at Sue Sue Applegate gives us a rundown of June Allyson and Joan Collins in The Opposite Sex…and also gives us some insight into the rivalry between June Allyson and Joan Blondell over mutual hubby Dick Powell. http://suesueapplegate.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/that-darn-smack/

My own entry–Backlots takes a look at Margo Channing and Eve Harrington in All About Evehttps://backlots.net/2013/12/22/dueling-divas-blogathon-margo-channing-vs-eve-harrington/