Saturday, November 21, 2015
A Free Soul, Norma Shearer made this rather thin talkie, which shows clearly her evolution from silence into sound. She hasn't yet found her voice level: It was only her third talking picture and she still sounds a bit thin, and her laugh is a little shrill. It probably helped that her brother, Douglas Shearer, was the head of MGM's sound department, and could help her get the right pitch, because her next film, The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930), won her the best actress Oscar. (In fact, the Oscar ballot listed her nomination as for both The Divorcee and Their Own Desire, but the official citation showed her as a winner for only the former. Academy record-keeping was primitive at the time, so no one today knows if the voters indicated a preference for the one film over the other -- as they should have, since her performance in The Divorcee is indeed the better one.) In Their Own Desire, Shearer is playing a post-flapper "new woman," lively and athletic: She plays polo, taking a spill from a horse with no ill effects, and gets the attention of men by doing high dives into the country club pool. The man she attracts is played by Robert Montgomery, who was two years younger than 27-year-old Shearer, and both are convincingly coltish in their infatuation. The plot, from a novel by Sarita Fuller adapted by Frances Marion, is pleasantly nonsensical: Shearer and Montgomery fall in love, not knowing that he is the son of the woman (Helene Millard) whom her father (Lewis Stone) has divorced her mother (Belle Bennett) to live with. (The movie was made, obviously, before the institution of the Prohibition Code's proscription on such goings-on.) It's complicated, as they say. MGM made the most of its entry into sound, including two musical numbers: the songs "Blue Is the Night," played during a dance at the country club, and "The Boyfriend Blues," sung to Shearer by a harmonizing quartet. Director Hopper had been making movies since 1911, but he retired from the business in 1935, leaving an oeuvre of no particular distinction though he lived on till 1967.