Norma Shearer meets Norma Shearer in Lady of the Night
Lady of the Night (Monta Bell, 1925) A Lady of Chance (Robert Z. Leonard, 1928)
I confessed in an earlier post that I really like the young Norma Shearer, especially in her silent films. But I can see from these two movies what led her astray in her later films: She loves the camera too much -- more than she does her leading men. Granted that neither Malcolm McGregor (Lady of the Night) nor Johnny Mack Brown (A Lady of Chance) is much more than a handsome presence on the screen, not quite enough to act with when you've got Shearer's talent, she still seems to hog these pictures, especially when she's playing tough girl. In Night she has a double role: the hard-bitten Molly Helmer and the sweet rich girl Florence Banning. She's surprisingly good as Molly -- and totally unbelievable as Florence, who decides to sacrifice her chance at marriage with inventor David Page (McGregor) because Molly had him first. But the incredible part is built into the story by Adela Rogers St. Johns, who churned out this sort of stuff for movies on a regular basis. In Chance, Shearer has a role that would later be perfected by Barbara Stanwyck: the tough grifter with a soft heart. The story is nonsense again: She falls for her mark, a Southerner she thinks is a rich man, even after he takes her home to Alabama and she learns that she has jumped to the wrong conclusion. Stanwyck does it better in Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941) and The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941), but Stanwyck also had better directors than the prolific but undistinguished Robert Z. Leonard. He allows, or perhaps encourages, Shearer to mug and pose endlessly; at first she's delightful, but a little of that sort of thing goes a long way. A Lady of Chance also contains an embarrassing heap of period racism, when Shearer and Brown are being wheeled along the Atlantic City boardwalk by a singing black man, and Brown remarks that it reminds him of "the darkies singing on the plantation back home."