Strange Interlude (1932)

The Original Peep Show

Strange Interlude is a movie for the patient viewer. I had difficulty getting through it on first viewing but due to my amour of Clark Gable and a soft spot for old mental illness melodramas with stories of bad blood and insanity passed through genes (scientific validity?) plus that creaky charm you get from pre-code films, on rewatching I did find new appreciation for Strange Interlude. The original 1928 play by Eugene O’Neil was a staggering 6 hours long; the film condenses that to below two hours whether for better or worse. – I struggle myself to imagine watching a 6-hour version of this story.

The plot of Strange Interlude requires a bit of setting up but after Nina (Norma Shearer) marries the naive Sam (Alexander Kirkland) then the ball gets rolling and the tension escalates when she is told by Sam’s mother (May Robson) that mental illness runs in her family and father’s a child with Dr. Ned Darrell (Clark Gable) without her husband’s knowledge. Also thrown into what makes a love square plot is the nihilistic, miserable excuse for a human being in the form of Charlie (Ralph Morgan). It’s some quality melodrama full of classic hallmarks including a house by the sea with crashing waves, a pleasing New England aesthetic and some fine fashions by Adrian. One area where the production does go wrong is with the overdone aging makeup on the four main cast members, turning them geriatric in 10 years – At least Gable’s drawn on mustache looks legit.

Granted I am a Gable die hard but I will passionately argue why the man is underrated as an actor. The role of Dr. Ned Darrell is one of his finest acting achievements; in particular when he interacts with his biological, spoiled brat of a child who doesn’t know he is his real father. Norma Shearer likewise shows shades of a Garbo-esque drama queen, verging on over the top without crossing into laughable territory.

The unique selling point of Strange Interlude is the voice-overs in which the viewer can hear the character’s thoughts in an attempt to replicate the original play’s use of soliloquy – a technique in which characters speak their inner thoughts to the audience. This experiment is clearly a product of filmmakers trying to adapt to the early days of sound and the opening title explains the technique to the audience and even the first line delivered in this manner alludes to it (“Queer things, thoughts, our true selves, spoken words are just a mask, to disguise them”). It is necessary, however? – I can’t say is. The body language of the actors and the cinematic form allow for this sort of information to be conveyed to the audience which Strange Interlude does anyway any many cases. None the less it doesn’t ruin the film by means and is at least a commendable experiment.

A Free Soul (1931)

Rhett Vs Ashley

I find Clarence Brown is not a terribly remarkable director with many of his films being by the numbers but he does have has a few worthwhile movies under his belt. A Free Soul isn’t a great film as the plot is on the ordinary side but it does have enough to elevate the film above this – plus I am a sucker for the MGM product of the 1930’s. The common elements of a contemporary, pre-code melodrama are here; alcoholism, adultery, gangsters, corruption of authority etc.

Norma Shearer’s nude silhouette in the first shot sets the tone of A Free Soul; a movie full of lust and sexual desire. One of the biggest stars of the film itself is the slinky silk dress Shearer wears to Grandma’s party and Clark Gable’s apartment. The dress is sexually suggestive, to say the least, and shows off a lot of skin. The design of the dress is cut to slide over her body in all the right ways to make her appear naked without actually being so as well as show off her assets. It’s clear that costume design was taken very seriously in the days of old Hollywood as well as the art of how to wear clothes.

Outfits are one thing though, with Shearer and Gable’s scenes together steaming things up, in contrast to her fiancé played by Leslie Howard of whom she shares nowhere near the same level of sexual chemistry with. Gable played a number of gangsters in his career but none as such a player as Ace Wilfong (his gangster’s hideout and apartment are to be envied). Likewise, there is an unusually intimate relationship between Norma Shearer and her father played by Lionel Barrymore. Their interactions feel more like what you would expect between husband and wife as she refers to him as “darling”, ”dear” and ”sweetheart” while also being extremely affectionate with him such as the scene at the very beginning of the film in which she asks him to fetch her undies.

I’m astounded at Norma Shearer’s ability to burst off the screen with her sheer presence and I do wish I could call myself a bigger fan but her filmography is a bit lacklustre in my view. Regardless there is enough melodramatic theatrics to keep A Free Soul interesting including a character’s much-unexpected death by the last character you would expect and a courtroom finale in which Barrymore tears the scenery (I just have to ask though would questioning your own daughter not be a conflict of interest?). The only scene which really disrupts the tone of the film is the moment in which Barrymore pulls a Buster Keaton by grabbing onto a train as it goes past and disappears out of sight, very odd.

The Women (1939)

Estrogen: The Movie

The Women is surely one of the greatest celebrations in cinema of femininity and the female form; even the animals featured in the film are all female in this unabashed display of women being women. Unless you’re easily offended by a movie in which the majority of its female cast are vicious gossips then stay away; stereotypes are greatly exaggerated as part of the film’s humour. As Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) puts it, “You know how those creatures are, babble babble babble babble babble, never let up for a minute”. That’s probably the best way to describe The Women by using one of its own lines of dialogue. Like the other notable female ensemble Stage Door, the dialogue in The Women is delivered so furiously it’s impossible to keep up with it. Watch the movie with subtitles turned on, it’s worth it to find gems of dialogue which can easily be missed (“It’s marvelous to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika”). I can also give the movie a few bonus points being a heterosexual male and all.

The Women explores the tribulations and dilemmas of whether sleeping dogs should lie. After Mrs. Mary ‘Stephan’ Haines (Norma Shearer) discovers her husband is having an affair with Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) she receives advice from her mother (Lucille Watson) in one of the film’s most telling scenes. Her mother tries to justify Stephan’s infidelity under the guise of that’s what men will do (“A man has only one escape from his older self. To see a different self in the mirror of some woman’s eyes”) and ultimately that Stephan doesn’t actually love Crystal. Mary’s response to this? The classic “It’s current year” argument; “Back in your day mother when women were chattel and they did as men told them to. But this is today. Stephan and I are equals. We took each other at our own free will”. Mary ultimately agrees it’s not worth the destruction of the family to confront Stephan about his infidelity. The married women of The Women have a strong dedication to their husbands yet in this world adultery seems to be the norm rather than the exception, even Mary’s mother tells Mary that most wives do find out about this.

Norma Shearer really was made for the silver screen with a truly dominating movie-star aura. The character of Mary Haines is distinguished for being a bit of a tomboy in contrast to her more glamorous side. In her introductory scene as well as in her vacation reels she is dressed like a man (similar to how Shearer dressed in The Divorcee), poses with a pipe and can apparently fish better than her husband. Likewise, Joan Crawford is delightfully mean in the role of Crystal Allen, particularly with her scene in the bathtub which so ridiculously villainous she could be playing a mafia boss. Crawford’s first screen appearance was in 1925’s Lady of the Night in which she acted as a screen body double for Norma Shearer. Crawford and Shearer since became the two biggest rivals in MGM and The Women would be their second and final appearance on screen together in the closet thing at that point to a Baby Jane showdown, a battle of the egos. I believe you do have to give the Crawford the credit for her willingness to play such a nasty character especially considering she has the least amount of screen time of the three leads. This is a character after all who has no remorse for helping destroy a family and the impact that will have the Haines’ child Little Mary.

The stealer of the show, however, is the great greatness that is Rosalind Russell. She succeeds in being the center of attention in any scene no matter whom she is sharing the frame with thanks to her comedic timing (both verbally and physically) as well as her over the top outfits. Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo, on the other hand, were the only two major actresses at MGM who did not appear in the film. I can picture Myrna Loy in Norma Shear’s role although she would have been too big a star otherwise to play a supporting role. Garbo, on the other hand, is well, too much of an oddball to fit in with an ensemble like this.

The Great Depression? Ha, what depression?! There’s no sign of it here. It feels like there is no other time period than the 1930s in which it was easier to make a movie about rich people and their rich people problems without it coming off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. The Women is one of the most decadent movies of the depression era, maybe even the most. The majority of the cast is dressed like a million dollars, every actress is light like a goddess and inhabiting a world which largely consists of retail stores and beauty salons. There is even time for a Technicolor fashion show which has no relevance for the rest of the plot, but it looks pretty. Lose yourself in this world of wealthy rather than being aghast at how bourgeois they are (“Weren’t you going to Africa to shoot?”). This kind of being made today (which unfortunately it was in the form of a remake) with the likes of the Sex and the City films would come off as a ghastly exercise in consumerist pornography (a term borrowed from Mark Kermode). On a side note also keep an eye out of the postcode sex references they got in there  (“Whatever Stephan doesn’t like I take it off”) while also look out for the topless woman in the mud bath at the beginning of the film not to mention Paulette Goddard’s clear lack of a bra.

With two hours of some of the finest actresses of the 1930’s spewing nonstop machine gun fire dialogue, scenery chewing and competing for the camera’s attention amongst an art deco wonderland, then I’m in movie heaven.