A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Two Norma Shearer Silent Films

Norma Shearer meets Norma Shearer in Lady of the Night
Lady of the Night (Monta Bell, 1925)
Molly Helmer/Florence Banning: Norma Shearer
David Page: Malcolm McGregor
Miss Carr: Dale Fuller
"Chunky" Dunn: George K. Arthur
Judge Banning: Fred Esmelton
Chris Helmer: Lew Harvey

Director: Monta Bell
Screenplay: Alice D.G. Miller
Based on a story by Adela Rogers St. Johns
Cinematography: André Barlatier

Norma Shearer and Johnny Mack Brown in A Lady of Chance
A Lady of Chance (Robert Z. Leonard, 1928)
Dolly Morgan: Norma Shearer
Steve Crandall: Johnny Mack Brown
Bradley: Lowell Sherman
Gwen: Gwen Lee
Mrs. Crandall: Eugenie Besserer

Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay: Edmund Goulding, Andrew Percival Younger, Ralph Spence
Based on a story by Leroy Scott
Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley, William H. Daniels

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 A Lady of 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."