April 20, 2013
Tonight’s films are Strange Interlude and Me and My Gal. It was suggested to me by Allen. He saw the second film on TCM and thought the contemporary connection between the two would make for an interesting double bill. I really know nothing about the two except that they both fall into my favourite genre of film, pre-Code. This is also an early Clark Gable, pre-moustache and pre-big star. After doing the research for Strange Interlude, here are a number of things to share with you that you will also read in length later in the notes. The play, which was first mounted on Broadway in 1928 and was a great success, was over five hours in length and was pared down to 109 minutes for the film. Apparently the film we are about to see did not get good reviews and the ending has been changed from the original play, but I still think this is going to be a rather interesting experience. O’Neill’s play sounds rather deep both psychologically and intellectually with much reference to Freud’s influence and religion’s spirituality. Caren
Strange Interlude (1932) 109 minutes
Produced by Robert Z. Leonard and an uncredited Irving Thalberg for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by an uncredited Robert Z. Leonard. Play by Eugene O’Neill. Dialogue Continuity by Bess Meredyth and C. Gardner Sullivan. Cinematography by Lee Garmes. Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons. Gowns by Adrian. Film editor: Margaret Booth. Recording Director: You Guessed It—Douglas Shearer. Released: December 30, 1932.
Norma Shearer……………………………………………………….. Nina Leeds
Clark Gable……………………………………………………….. Dr. Ned Darrell
Alexander Kirkland…………………………………………………… Sam Evans
Ralph Morgan…………………………………………………… Charlie Marsden
Robert Young…………………………………. Gordon Evans as a Young Man
May Robson………………………………………………………….. Mrs. Evans
Maureen O’Sullivan……………………………………………. Madeline Arnold
Henry B. Walthall……………………………………………… Professor Leeds
Mary Alden…………………………………………………… Mary, Leeds’ Maid
Tad Alexander……………………………………………….. Gordon as a Child
In Strange Interlude, Gable was instantly divested of his raunchiness (in Red Dust) and given to Norma Shearer for stud. The picture was Eugene O’Neill’s play and strange it was. Thalberg supervised it himself, as part of his personal master plan to upgrade the level of MGM films, but the property was just too bizarre to be a digestible movie. The actors speak constantly; they have normal dialogue, plus they narrate their thoughts in voice-over. The net effect is of people standing around twitching their eyebrows; in a word, awful. Clark, however, was pleased to be playing in an O’Neill opus, even though his role was simply to make a baby with Norma Shearer which she could pass off as her husband’s. He and Shearer age during the film (there were eighteen tests made for make-up, costing $200 each), and the aging brings the first glimpse of Clark in a mustache. It soon became a permanent fixture, taking him once and for all out of the “pretty boy” class.
Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable by Lyn Tornabene (1976)
Red Dust broke box-office records and after several runs in regular theatres, it played in burlesque houses. This and the film’s character did not please Clark Gable. In real life, he was more difficult to win over than the man he portrayed. Recurrently, in an often repeated chord in his life and career, he was both pleased and ashamed by the success of Red Dust. He much preferred a contemporary film that gave him a taste of the prestige he desired so vehemently.
Norma Shearer, whom he had slapped in A Free Soul, got back at him with Eugene O`Neill`s Strange Interlude. The part of Nina gave her the perfect emasculating weapon. Nina is unquestionably the most efficient castrator the American theatre ever produced, and no mean contender for international honours against Hedda Gabler and the Strindberg women. As Ned Darrell, her constant lover, Gable played one of the prize fools in stage history with a sorrowful restraint that proved how good he could be in a part he deeply respected, however miscast he might have been in it.
In Strange Interlude he is literally put to stud by Nina-Shearer, who marries a wealthy man with a family streak of insanity and then decides to have a healthy child by Darrell-Gable. The son is passed off as her husband’s and grows up to hate his real father. Gable aged convincingly through all this, suffering silently as Shearer’s household pet, discreetly altered as soon as he had produced the desired offspring.
The screenplay preserved the O’Neill theatrical ploy of having the characters voice their inner thoughts as asides, and director Robert Z. Leonard availed himself of the chance to prove how effective films can be for soliloquy. Leonard was not a rigorous director and the players seem left on their own during these tricky scenes. Shearer and especially Ralph Morgan make faces, as if they were attempting to suit the gesture to the pre-recorded lines they were hearing on the set. It is a technique that gives Strange Interlude the odd air of a silent film with added and extraneous comments. Soon the mouth-twitching and eye-rolling become laughable.
Gable alone had the restraint to listen to his won words and regard them not as cues for grimaces but as thoughts to be hidden with an impassive countenance. His performance is light-years ahead of the others in technique, and can be credited to his own intuition since Leonard was letting everyone else emote into a paroxysm.
Shallow though it ultimately is, the film at least accomplished the job of compressing a five-hour play into 110 minutes of straight narrative. Robert Z. Leonard was hardly an imaginative director but his work in Strange Interlude was merely carpentry; he judiciously hacked away to reduce O’Neill’s baroque credenza of a play into a convenient lowboy of a movie.
Gable’s solid, painfully passive performance must have gratified his ego as an actor. It added an illusion of artistic stature to his career and it also added the mustache that was to be his trademark. The mustache did not yet quiver with anger or disdain, but it was there for the first time, bringing together the asymmetrical face.
Clark Gable by René Jordan (1974)
On stage, Strange Interlude was a long experimental play (four and a half hours with a dinner break) that won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for drama. While the film was cut down to a manageable 110 minutes or so, the experiment of stopping the action and allowing the actors to voice what they were really thinking was carried over to the movie.
It didn’t work then, and it works even less (to a modern audience) now. Using voiceovers while the action stops and the actors try to match facial expressions to what the audience is hearing takes a LOT of getting used to. In these awkward moments, only Clark Gable seems able to deliver his lines in a natural and unforced manner, and that may be in part because he has fewer of them than any of the others.
While certainly abbreviated from the stage version, and abundantly censored in the process, there still remains much in this movie that wouldn’t have passed the provisions of the Hollywood Code that came along a couple of years later. In order to maintain her husband’s sanity (Alexander Kirkland), a woman (Norma Shearer) has an affair (and a child) with another man (Clark Gable) while still in love with a man who died in combat. To complete this five-sided romantic quadrilateral, a fusty old friend of her father’s (Ralph Morgan) is also in love with her but due to his strong ties to his mother, he is unable to tell her.
Her husband assumes the child (later to become Robert Young) to be his, but the strain of keeping the secret from him over the years wears and tears at the relationship between all of them, including the child himself, who for reasons he himself cannot easily explain, hates his “Uncle Ned.”
Mildly fascinating, overall, and as entertaining as a slow motion disaster set in motion by characters who are too weak to prevent it, but at least I now know which play it was that Groucho Marx was parodying in Animal Crackers (1930).
- David Vineyard Says: August 16th, 2009 at 10:24 pm:
An odd film that doesn’t work, but it does show that Gable’s screen presence could be more important than acting skills. Always nice to see Ralph Morgan get to play something other than the villain in a serial, even in this pretentious mess. Gable and Shearer also did Idiot’s Delight, another offbeat play to movie that at least has the highlight of Gable doing a soft shoe with a chorus of girls while doing a damn good rendition of “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” Almost as good a Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein.
- Walker Martin Says: January 23rd, 2011 at 1:56 am:
I’m presently in the process of rereading the plays of Eugene O’Neill in the Library of America edition. Since I just finished STRANGE INTERLUDE I thought I’d view the two video tape version starring Glenda Jackson. I remember seeing the film starring Clark Gable a few years ago and it was not a success at all due to the extensive cuts and censorship. The play is almost 5 hours long and the movie is not even 2 hours.
Just about all of Eugene O’Neill’s plays are very autobiographical and you can see his characteristics in all 3 of the male leads. O’Neill tried to committ suicide at least once and if his marriage and relationships with women were anything like what is shown in this play, then it’s amazing the poor guy didn’t succeed at killing himself.
The play is an intense nightmare showing that Sartre was right: hell is other people and is like a cafeteria where you serve yourself. After taking a few days off I’ll try to watch the Glenda Jackson 3 hour version. It’s got to be better than this film and hopefully I can survive another dip into O’Neill’s nightmare world.
http://mysteryfile.com/blog by Steve; Sunday, August 16, 2009
It would be all too easy for the immature film goer to dismiss this fascinating film as soap opera, but Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth 1928 play (revived on Broadway in 1963 and 85) – his third after BEYOND THE HORIZON (see THE LONG VOYAGE HOME for a film of his “sea plays”) and ANNA Christie to win the Pulitzer Prize – sprang from a period when the great American author was experimenting with forms which would become standard in film. In this case it was the interior monologue that Hollywood would use as the voice-over.
For the discerning viewer, recognizing the importance of the play (that the Marx Brothers found it grist for their satirical mill in their contemporary Broadway and film musical ANIMAL CRACKERS is testimony to that importance) and the solid performances of the movie cast, O’Neill delivers. He is examining serious adult issues – not just the form he is experimenting with – as he dissects the obligations people have to those they love.
While O’Neill claimed his play was suggested by an ancient Greek play, this classic love triangle (quadrangle actually, even more when one factors in Nina’s chillingly named son) rings remarkably true even with the demands of 1930’s Hollywood censorship (Nina’s psychologically important abortion is merely hinted at) and the heavy editing (that O’Neill somewhat disingenuously railed at) demanded to bring the film down to an acceptable playing length for the average movie theatre which played more than the theatrically standard 8 performance week.
If Norma Shearer’s central Nina can occasionally be accused of overacting, the script demands it; hers is the central emotional roller-coaster. Second billed Clark Gable as Dr. Darrell, who does not arrive for nearly a quarter hour into the film, gives the most naturalistic performance (it was one of the ways he stood out in all his films – in style a generation ahead of his peers), but for the true film connoisseur, Alexander Kirkland’s Evans and Ralph Morgan’s Marsden are no less impressive, and Robert Young, seven films into a 40 year career is fine as Nina’s college age son.
In the 1930’s the causes of mental illness OTHER than “bad blood” (a plot driving device here, as in Katharine Hepburn’s debut vehicle from the same year – also from Broadway – A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT) were far less understood than today, and the Catholic Church’s ban on the rational use of contraception was far more pervasive – both of which may make the context of the film difficult for younger viewers to understand.
If they give the film their attention though, and recognize that the concerns of the characters go beyond these technicalities to the personal relationships that remain troublesome even today, the film – stylistic experiments and all – is ultimately not only important but deeply fulfilling.
IMDb by John Esche, April 19, 2005
The play opened on Broadway, New York City, New York, USA on 30 January 1928 at the John Golden Theatre and had 426 performances. The leads were played by Lynn Fontanne and Glenn Anders, and the supporting cast included Helen Westley and Tom Powers. Because there were 9 acts, the play began in the afternoon and concluded in the evening after an intermission to allow eating dinner. There were two Broadway revivals. The play won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1928.
NORMA TAKES A DARE
Norma Shearer, noted since The Divorcee as the most daring of screen sophisticates, has just completed the most daring role of her career. Not even the heroine of A Free Soul or Let Us Be Gay can compare in shocking power to Nina, the sex-tortured woman of Eugene O’Neil’s Strange Interlude.
“I admit that it is far more daring in conception than any of my previous roles,” says Miss Shearer, “but probably even Nina is not to be my most sophisticated.”
“It was during the filming of The Divorcee that I learned I was to become a mother. My contract was nearly fulfilled and I had decided to retire to be a mother to my baby and a wife to my husband, for at that time I did not believe that marriage, motherhood and a career could be combined. I have, as you see, learn that they can. Sophisticated parts have done it.”
If Nina is not to be the end of Norma Shearer’s daring, where will it stop? Those who know the tragic story of Strange Interlude, realize that no such character as Nina has ever been put on the screen–Nina with her frustrations, her search for sexual expression, her unrestrained giving of her body to the maimed and the final tragedy of her illegitimate son. It is doubtful if any other actress would attempt it. However, Miss Shearer is not dismayed.
“I think my previous roles will prove that sophistication does not need smutty lines, lewd scenes or display that is vulgar. The sophistication lies rather in that they deal with the real emotions which sway men and women and complicate their lives. We should not be afraid of sex on the screen, so long as it avoids vulgarity. I would be the first to decry vulgarity in pictures, but it is the more daring and more sophisticated side of life which forms the most interest.”
That Norma Shearer’s ability to portray such characters does not come from experience of her own, is shown by a study of her life and her career. In her first search for screen fame, she did not run away from home, as so many girls have. On the contrary, her mother accompanied her from their Canadian home to New York. When she came to Hollywood, her mother also lived with her, quietly and conservatively.
No breath of scandal has ever touched her. That she and Irving Thalberg are well mated and happy, cannot be gainsaid. Certainly, she has never had the opportunity to acquire personal experience to guide her in her daring roles.
“How do I account for it? Because it is silly to contend that an actress must have lived and actually acquired a past, before she is capable of portraying that type of woman on the screen or stage. Of course, there must be intelligent observation; most of all, it requires imagination.”
“If the contrary were true, then members of the demi-monde would make the best actresses, wouldn’t they?”
“Norma is the most perfect wife and mother I know,” said a friend recently. “She separates her two worlds sharply. When she leaves the studio, after completing a picture, she likewise leaves it mentally. Until the script of her next picture is ready for her to read, she seemingly doesn’t know that pictures exist.”
“But the influence of your pictures on impressionable girls?” I asked Miss Shearer. “Don’t you think many girls might be encouraged to emulate your tactics?”
“I wouldn’t advise them to,” she laughed merrily, “for it couldn’t be done. Not that I mean it would be impossible, but because in a picture things are made to work out. That has been attended to by the skill of the author before the picture begins. No matter how clever and attractive a woman might be, it could never be enough to bring things out her way in real life as we do on the screen.”
Miss Shearer feels no apprehension about the daring of her part in Strange Interlude. She faces it with the same serene confidence that she confronted each picture after The Divorcee, when it was said by many that no reputation of the screen could survive the increasing sophistication of her roles. She has a way of accomplishing things, has Norman Shearer.
Screen Book by J. Eugene Chrisman (circa 1932)
Early in 1932 Irving Thalberg came to a momentous decision–momentous, that is, in terms of Norma Shearer’s future screen persona. He decided that in order to solidify her position as the First Lady of the Screen (as the ads and the publicists continued to tab her), he would have to choose vehicles for her that had a distinct “prestige” feel–and that they would have to be mounted as carefully and lavishly as the story values permitted.
Shearer, too, felt that her years of hard work (she was by then thirty-two, and had been in films for twelve years) entitled her to “superstar” treatment, and many critics and film commentators across the country indicated that she was long overdue for the top drawer. On a visit to New York, Norma had consulted with her old friend, Jimmy Quirk, whose flattering covers on Photoplay, notably the April 1932 issue, and constant run of “build-up stories” had please both her and her husband mightily. “you’re a great star, Norma,” he told her, “and a fine actress; I am deeply proud of the way you have developed. Yes, you have your Academy Award (for The Divorcee, 1930) but for the long haul, on the topmost rung, you have to choose your vehicles with great care. And I have two in mind that I pass along to you for what they’re worth. One is a ‘prestige’ item, and the other is surefire romance ,but high-level romance. And if you follow one with the other, in short order, they out to do the trick.”
Shearer told me that the two pictures Jimmy quirk proposed were Strange Interlude, the smash Eugene O’Neill drama that had electrified Broadway in 1928, and a carefully mounted talkie remake of Smilin’ Through, which had been an enormous stage hit of 1919 and a 1922 silent with Norma Talmadge. Shearer remembered asking Jimmy if she was really up to following the brilliant Lynn Fontanne in a play so complex as Strange Interlude, and she never forgot his reply: “Just give it your best–not matter what they say, you’ve got a prestigious item under your belt, and it starts up the cycle you’re after.” She and Jimmy, she recalled, felt she was able to get across, for both critical and popular approval, the sentimental values implicit in Smilin’ Through, in which she would have a dual role set in different periods. “And if the one conks out, the other will take up the slack,” Jimmy added. Delighted, she went back to Hollywood sold on the two projects, and Thalberg agreed wit her. “As Jimmy suggests, we’ll do the O’Neill thing first, and Silin’ Through second,” he said.
Negotiations were opened immediately for the purchase of both projects, which were to be released almost back to back in late 1932. Some exhibitors criticized the closeness of the release dates, as the moviehouse people usually liked to see a star space out pictures by some months. The reason for the close release dates became obvious later; Strange Interlude had been too “adult” and “subtle” for the general audience, so Smilin’ Through was rushed in to cinch the earlier film’s “class” success–though even that impact was, the Thalbergs found, to be limited to discriminating, educated audiences.
Jimmy Quirk spent much of the summer of 1932 in Hollywood on his annual tour, and while he visited both sets at MGM, he died that August of pneumonia complicated by a heart attack without seeing the results of either on the screen. “That saddened me greatly,” Norma told me. “If only he had lived long enough to see the final product, and learn how things had worked out….”
Strange Interlude, when they got to it, presented a number of special problems, and Norma and Thalberg were depressed to find out that playwright Eugene O’Neill disapproved both the screen treatment and the stars, which included Clark Gable. “That Gable and Shearer are in over their heads–way over,” O’Neill is reported to have said, though later his advisors got him to make some ambiguous and conciliatory remarks about the filmic outcome that disguised, or at least ameliorated, his true feelings.
Strange Interlude had opened on Broadway in 1928. It was so long that a dinner break was inserted. Stream-of-consciousness techniques, rather novel for 1928, were employed, with the characters disguising their true feelings and reactions in their speeches, while voicing these inner reactions to the audience via what was known as “asides.” This played interestingly on the stage, thanks to the inventive art of Miss Fontanne and her colleagues, but Thalberg–and Shearer–were worried how this would play on a large screen, where all reactions were of necessity magnified even when underplayed. The story deals with the neurotic, complicated Nina Leeds, who has lost one lover to an early death and who marries a rather ineffectual man on the advice of her admirer, a doctor, who feels motherhood will cure her morbidity. But when her new husband’s mother reveals that there is inherited insanity in the family (this was sensational subject matter in 1932, as per A Bill of Divorcement) Nina, who is ot too stable or clear-minded to begin with, decides to have her child by someone not her husband–and the doctor is elected. The child’s birth is a tonic for her husband, who believes himself the father, but when the child grows to manhood he developes an inexplicable aversion for his true father; in the end, Nina loses her husband to death, her son goes off and marries someone she disapproves of, and the doctor withdraws from her, having had enough of the neurotic goings-on. In the denouement, a faithful admirer, Marsden, who has loved her consistently through the years but whom she takes for granted, wins her, even though he, too, is neurotic. One of the famous lines in the play is his–something to the effect that “I am Marsden, to whom all things come–in the end.”
Confronted with the monumental task of getting all this, plus asides, plus complex “subtexts,” plus the spirit of O’Neill’s “sublime perversity” across–and in a “mere” 110 minutes (“mere” for O’Neill, that is)–Shearer and Thalberg proceeded full-speed ahead.
O’Neill, barely disguising his contempt, curtly refused to get involved in the screenplay (“God help them–and God help me,” he told his wife) so the Thalbergs cast about for screenwriters who would not be daunted by the play’s complexity. No less than seven writers tried out and then withdrew, and Louis B. Mayer, who had never liked the project, predicted a fiasco. Eventually Bess Meredyth and C. Gardner Sullivan, two tough pros who were not easily intimidated, accepted the challenge. Thalberg himself dissected and pondered their screenplay at such length that MGM execs openly expressed doubts that it would ever reach the camera stage.
Thalberg was determined to keep a close eye on the picture (the “asides” particularly bothered him–he feared they would come out with awkward literalness, moving audiences to laughter), and he made a misguided decision. He put the commercially successful but far from creative Robert Z. Leonard in as director. “Bob is competent and reliable–and we can control him, which is the important thing,” he assured Norma. Though she had doubts about Leonard’s suitability, she acceded. Lee Garmes was called in and told he had the photography job–“and make her look like a million!” Thalberg implored him. “In fact, make the whole shebang look good–if we fail on the other counts, we’ll have some glamour to fall back on–hopefully.”
Adrian was told to create costumes that were subdued, in order to catch some of the O’Neill spirit, and did not distract, yet would be effective in establishing the overall mood. “I felt like I was being asked to go in two directions at once,” Adrian later said, but he did what he thought was required. Douglas Shearer was called down to the beach house for a whole weekend, in which the mechanics of the “asides” were debated over and over again. Later he recalled that Strange Interlude was one of his toughest assignments in all his years at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Gable was brought in “for box office,” as Thalberg told Schenck’s New York office, which kept sending him anxious memos after Schenck learned the basic story. “This one time forget the will-it-sell-in-Peoria attitude,” Thalberg told anxious executives. “This will add to the studio’s prestige, and we always have room for a few of those, no?” Even easygoing Robert Z. Leonard had doubts about Gable’s ability to get across the complexities of Ned Darrell.
Mayer, however, seemed to brighten at the idea of a plot in which Shearer has an illegitimate child by Gable–“so long as it is done with taste,” he added. Will Hays, the movie’s morals czar, became nervous when he heard of the plot, but Jimmy Quirk in New York and Mayer at Culver City assured him that taste would be the keynote and that in the end, Shearer would end up at least relatively unhappy because of her “misdeeds,” which seemed to satisfy him.
Gable felt he was in over his head and was nervous throughout the shooting. “All I do is get mad and look worried all through it,” he complained to Leonard. “Can’t I smile and be affable and romantic once in a while?” He even took his worries to Mayer, who replied: “Hell, you’re knocking up Norma in this one–you only knocked her in a chair your last time out. The fans will eat it up!” Still, Gable returned to the sets nursing serious doubts.
Norma worked harder on Strange Interlude than ever before. She went over lines again and again, sometimes alone and sometimes with coaches. Later she recalled that stage veteran May Robson had offered helpful advice, as did the fine character actor Henry B. Walthall. Ralph Morgan, who had performed in Strange Interlude on stage, cued her in on the nuances the gifted Lynn Fontanne had injected into her critically acclaimed rendition of Nina, but in the final analysis, and despite her best and most sincere efforts, Shearer failed to capture the neuroticism that Fontanne had so brilliantly delineated and that was one of the key elements in Nina.
After a lengthy shooting schedule, Thalberg began to supervise cutting and editing; this time, he decided, he would skip out-of-town sneak previews and would rely more than usual on his own judgment. Strange Interlude was released as MGM superspecial aimed at discriminating adult audiences in the big cities in the fall of 1932, with the distribution gradually fanning out on a more cautious basis. Meanwhile, with the role of Nina Leeds scarcely behind her, Norma was rushed into what Mayer and everyone else at MGM considered would be the “sure-fire” box-office item–Smilin’ Through.
“Maybe that damned Interlude will get the critics excited, but Smilin’ will get the audiences,” Mayer said. Ediie Mannix later recalled Mayer striding through a corridor muttering “damned O’Neill high-falutin’ la-de-da stuff–we’ll go broke with it!”
As it turned out, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer did not “go broke” with Strange Interlude. Mayer’s original hunch that Clark Gable knocking up Norma Shearer would bring the audiences in was accurate, but when word got around about he “asides”–which leonard failed to bring off smoothly and which kept the picture static, leaden, and often self-conscious–and the talk-talk-talk and the dearth of Shearer-Gable lovemaking, the picture began to die. Eddie Mannix recalled Thalberg’s exasperation when Mayer sent him a publicist-inspired proposed ad along the lines of GABLE LOVES SHEARER ALL THE WAY***AND THERE’S HELL TO PAY! “Let L.B. keep his vulgar ideas to himself!” Thalberg shouted to his aides.
Even critics didn’t seem to know what to make of Strange Interlude . Photoplay, mourning the loss of its editor-publisher, went out of its way to be kind, reporting: “Norma Shearer takes her place among the great artists of her day. Clark Gable does his finest technical screen work as he ages over a period of forty years. Ralph Morgan, Alexander Kirkland and Robert Young share honors.”
The New York Times‘s Mordaunt Hall tended to agree with Photoplay, writing: “Norma Shearer has given several noteworthy performances in recent motion pictures, particularly her portrayal in the film Private Lives, but in this present offering she easily excels anything she has done hitherto.” But Richard Watts, Jr., in The New York Herald-Tribune, was scathing: “Miss Norma Shearer, apparently filled with reverence at the thought of the classic lines she is reciting, but at the same time, understanding so little about them, makes Nina Leeds, theneurotic heroine, a good, healthy, normal young woman, who ages prettily and isn’t bothered much about her tragedies.”
But it was one Alexander Bashky in The Nation who really nailed it down:
For once Hollywood has dared to produce a picture that deals with life in terms of adult intelligence. But though the courage thus shown deserves every credit, the outgrowth of this courage, the film itself, is hardly a feather in the producer’s cap. It conforms faithfully to its Hollywood type of an uninspired cross-breed of the stage and screen, and it is badly miscast in its two principal parts. Neither the beautiful but cold Norma Shearer, nor the uncouth Clark Gable are the actors for the parts of Nina and Darrell.
I have seen Strange Interlude a number of times over the years. While I feel that Shearer gave an earnest and intelligent performance, I don’t think she was suited to the role. I fell Gable played Darrell in a dour one-note manner throughout. The asides seem awkward and forced and slow up the action and Leonard was not the man for this assignment, letting the narrative slacken on many occasions. But id did give Shearer what Jimmy Quirk had said she needed: a controversial, much-discussed “prestige superspecial.” In that respect, it was a gain for her.
Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence J. Quirk (1988)
O’Neill’s Strange Interlude was brought to the screen in 1932, produced by the legendary “boy wonder of Hollywood,” Irving B. Thalberg, and the results were nothing short of disastrous. Thalberg, the intellectual and literary-minded producer at MGM, thought he had the formula for good box office. When asked by a friend what good box office meant, he answered with assurance: “A combination of a star and the title that the public wants to see.” Strange Interlude had both of these qualities—it starred Norma Shearer and Clark Gable, and the “strangeness” of the play had attracted a great deal of attention since its premier in early 1928—and yet the film was still a failure both financially (it cost $654,000 to make and made only $90,000 during its first five years of commercial release) and, more importantly, artistically. As Samuel Marx puts it in his book Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints: “It was not even a success d’estime.”
Thalberg as a producer was extremely well intentioned and very favourably inclined to films based on literature and the theatre. He had earlier (1930) produced O’Neill’s Anna Christie with Garbo, and he later produced several adaptations of other works from literature—including The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) Romeo and Juliet (1936), and Garbo’s Camille (11936). Thalberg assigned the direction of Strange Interlude to Robert Z. Leonard, who would later become associated with such glamorous MGM star vehicles and musicals as Dancing Lady (1932), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and Ziegfeld Girls (1941), but his work with Strange Interlude remains uninspired. The scenarists, or those who cut O’Neill’s play from over five hours to an hour and fifty minutes, were Bess Meredith, C. Gardner Sullivan, and Leonard himself. The most important problems with the film seem to lie in its scenario. O’Neill’s vast “novelistic” play, with its own perhaps overworked intensity on stage, becomes merely a skeletal plot outline in the film version. Although O’Neill himself refused to see it, he knew enough about the adaptation for it to raise his sternest damnation of Hollywood and its “dreadful hash of attempted condensation and idiotic censorship.”
On stage Strange Interlude was a great success; Sheaffer summarizes the early history of the play as:
the greatest success of O’Neill’s career, the most talked about play of the decade…and one of the most profitable presentations in the Theatre Guild’s history. The O’Neill drama gave four hundred and forty-one performances on Broadway, played three seasons on the road (most of the time there were two touring companies), and brought the author the third Pulitzer Prize, and eventually netted him about two hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, a sum that included half his share of the seventy-five thousand dollar movie rights.
A great part of the success of the play was doubtless due to its novelty—the extraordinary length and the use of the asides. But there was certainly more to its success than mere novelty. The play, despite its flaws—redundancy, a certain pretentiousness, and overreaching—has great theatrical power, both in its patently melodramatic actions laced with philosophy and psychology, and its often moving and poetic language. The play met with almost unanimous critical praise. George Jean Nathan called it “the finest, profoundest drama of O’Neill’s career.” Joseph Wood Krutch, writing in The Nation, argued that the play managed to “give something—some depth, some solidity—which no play has ever had, and its strange method does make possible a kind of virtue new to dramatic art.” He went on to say even more eulogistically that O’Neill had:
taken a story which is not only longer than the ordinary story of a play, but one which invites, or rather demands, that brooding subtlety of treatment impossible in the ordinary dramatic form, and made out of it something which not only holds every one of our faculties employed but remains, like one of the greatest modern novels, to tease the mind with new discoveries to be made in its labyrinthine passages.
Such criticism may be unduly biased in O’Neill’s favour—Nathan and Krutch were highly sympathetic O’Neillophiles. The O’Neillophobe, Robert Benchley, called it “just another nine-act play.” But the kind of criticism that Nathan and Krutch could write about the play would be utterly impossible with the film version, which strips the play of most of its complexity, its reverberation of themes, and most of its poetry.
In a remarkably insightful article written by Robert Littell (one that Sheaffer in his biography quotes at length because of its obvious biographical significance), Littell makes an astute point about the play Strange Interlude in particular and O’Neill’s writing in general. He said that O’Neill was:
an exception among writers in that his strength and his weaknesses are inseparable and the several faults, while they remain faults, serve also as allies of his strength. What distinguishes all his plays here and there, and Strange Interlude most of the way through, is a groping, smouldering, passionate sincerity many times more intense, relentless and mysterious than that of any other American playwright—and nearly all foreign ones also. O’Neill seems to be burrowing in the depths of human nature, not so much because he finds interesting dramatic material in these psychological catacombs, but because the search profoundly concerns him personally. The endless burrowing is a mole’s progress toward salvation—his own salvation far more than that of his own characters.
If O’Neill could cease to identify his own search with that of the characters, if he could stand further away from them, they would be clearer, realer, but they would lose much of the mystery and the integrity which their author’s fumblings, quite as much as his passions, help to give them. And if O’Neill had three grains more of humour which causes an author to laugh mistrustfully at his own solemnities, he could not indulge himself so freely in just those inarticulate cries of cosmic pain which make his characters, a great deal of the time, singularly strange and moving creatures.
Littell’s words, written in 1929 remain among the most elucidating and important commentaries on O’Neill. It is indeed the “groping, smouldering, and passionate sincerity,” the descent into “psychological catacombs,” and the power and pathos of the “inarticulate cries” (this last phrase seeming to predict what Edmund says in Long Day’s Journey about his poetic “stammerings” as the “native-eloquence of…fog people”) that give O’Neill’s best plays, Strange Interlude among them, their energy and theatrical importance. Strange Interlude is a flawed but fascinating and powerful work; the film version strips it of its groping and passionate energy, its poetic language, and puts very little else into it to replace these qualities.
The film, like the play before it, was keenly anticipated because of O’Neill’s fame and, in the case of the film, the stars who acted in it. Stark Young said that the film was “regarded in advance as the highest attempt of the moving picture so far as serious art.” But he goes on to say that, after seeing only a scene or two, it was apparent that it was nothing more than “a photographed stage play.” Young’s review is almost entirely negative, attacking the absurd cutting of the play, the actors, and the scenes added to the film. Young’s account is fairly typical of most of the critical response to the film. Richard Dana Skinner placed most of the blame on censorship, which left the story hollow. Alexander Bakshy called it “an uninspiring cross-breed of the stage and screen,” and considered the two principal roles miscast. Mordaunt Hall took quite a different view in a puzzling review that called the film “engrossing and compact.” Hall oddly asserts that “the script has been arranged in an able fashion, so that one is not conscious of any deletions” (which would be impossible for anyone who is even casually acquainted with the script). She (sic—Mordaunt Hall is a “he”) goes on to make the even more problematic point that “the ending is different from the play, but it is done with a deft hand.” The ending is one of the few parts of the film which does not substantially alter the play.
While the main fault with the film lies in the bowdlerization of its screenplay, which takes only enough from the play to exaggerate its soap-opera quality, its casting is also a serious problem. Norma Shearer and Clark Gable were cast in the leading roles mainly because of their presumed box-office appeal (and in the case of Shearer, because she was the wife of the producer, Irving Thalberg). They were not particularly successful in terms of the box office or artistry. Each lacked the weight and power necessary to the characters of Nina and Ned Darrell. Shearer lacked the passion required for Nina who emotionally controls the lives of nearly all the men in the play. Richard Watts, Jr., put it nicely:
Miss Shearer, apparently filled with reverence at the thought of the classic lines she is reciting, but at the same time understanding little about them, makes Nina Leeds, the neurotic heroine, a good healthy normal young woman, who ages prettily and isn’t much bothered about her tragedies.
Watts also summed up the nature of Gable’s performance, saying succinctly: “Mr. Gable is always a dashing juvenile, particularly when he powders his hair and pretends to be an old man.” Shearer’s beauty is too cold for the role of Nina, and Gable’s winning manner has very little to do with the petulant, coldly scientific character of Ned Darrell. The role of Sam Evans, Nina’s weak and passive husband, whom she marries only for practical reasons, is adequately played by Alexander Kirkland. The role of Sam suffers less than the others because he is less important in the play to begin with. Ralph Morgan plays Charlie Marsden, the “Oedipus-wrecked” (to use Watts’s phrase), old, neurotic mother’s boy with fine style, even though his is one of the most severely cut roles in the film, becoming caricature rather than character. All of the characters in the film are, in fact, oversimplified or broadened into caricature, or as Richard Dana Skinner said of Norma Shearer: “She lacks all sense of greatness—as does the altered play itself.”
Even a cursory look at the extent and quality of the cutting in Strange Interlude makes clear the impossibility of “greatness” or completeness or thematic reverberation in the screenplay for Strange Interlude. Because of the length and complexity of the play, I will outline only the most important changes, chronologically, act by act. All page references in parentheses are from Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill (Random House, 1932). Most of the major specific changes made in the screenplay—ideas, suggestions, implications, or particular lines or images deleted in the film—are as follows:
Act 1: Marsden’s important and psychologically revealing speech on sexuality and his fear of it (487-88). Discussion between Marsden and Professor Leeds of Nina’s psychic condition since the death of Gordon (490-96). Professor Leed’s asides on loneliness and feelings of guilt over his intervention in Nina’s affair with Gordon (504-5).
Act 2: Marsden’s asides showing fear in the presence of Ned Darrell, who could scientifically analyze his problem (516-17). Nina’s speeches contrasting the image of God the Father to “God the Mother”; the idea of female-image deity central to Nina’s personality and self-concept (524-26). Details of Nina’s recent past—the prostituting of herself as the self-inflicted punishment for betrayal of Gordon Shaw (526-29).
Act 3: Nina’s asides on her pregnancy and her keeping it a secret from her husband in order to keep the child as her own (531-33). All references by Nina and Mrs. Evans to her pregnancy by her husband, Sam, which must lead to abortion because of congenital insanity in his family (531-37).
Act 4: All references to Nina’s abortion (549-57). Nina’s asides which reflect on the idea that the dead Gordon Shaw had been the “real father” of the child she has aborted (565). Most of Nina’s appeals to Ned Darrell for “scientific” and purely objective advice on her plan to have a child by another man (566-67).
Act 5: Nina’s cosmic imagery of birth, the womb, and maternity (573-74). Repeated references to “God the Mother” imagery (590-91).
Act 6: Nina’s asides of her affair with Darrell (593-94). Marsden’s asides on his fear and loathing of women (598). Nina and Darrell’s reminiscence about their affair of a year ago (610-11).
Act 7: Darrell’s jealousy of and bitterness toward Sam (620-22∕3). Nina’s imagery of “rotting” as reflecting her fear of menopause (619). Nina’s thoughts on the end of her roles of wife and mistress, replaced only by the role of mother (620).
Act 8: Nina’s attempts to get Darrell to tell the child that he is the true father. Darrell’s hostility to Nina; his realization that Gordon II is “really the son of Gordon Shaw” (654-55).
Act 9: Gordon and Madeline’s discussion of the death of Sam, and Gordon’s feelings of hostility toward his mother (666-67). All references to Nina’s “change of life.” Marsden’s asides on being able to possess Nina after “the long interlude of war with life” is concluded (669). Nina’s reference to her prime of life as “this tangled mass of love and hate and birth” (673). Nina’s spoken idea that “sons pass through their mother to become their father again.” Marsden’s view of the years of sexual potency as “interludes” of “trial and preparation.” Nina’s important line which supplies the title of the play: “Our lives are merely strange, dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father.”(681).
The summary of deletions, which does not pretend to be exhaustive, suggests the nature and extent of the changes in the film version of Strange Interlude. The play is essentially a sexual biography of the character Nina, and the psychologically connecting roles of daughter, wife, mistress, and mother. O’Neill, though he frequently denied it, shows a great deal of the influence of Freud here, as he does in many other works. The play is a parade of Freudian complexes—psychologically convoluted relationships between Daughter/Father (Nina and Professor Leeds), Son/Father (Gordon II and his nominal father, Sam, and his biological father, Ned Darrell). In the film the Freudian aspects of these relationships are greatly diminished, weakening the psychological core of the work.
Likewise, Nina’s psychology, central to which is her concept of deity imagined in both male and female form, is drastically reduced in the film. In the play she imagines “God the Father” as “the modern science God” who is cold and indifferent: “How could that God care about our trifling misery of death-born-of-birth?” She thinks of the male deity in association with pain, cruelty, and images of lightning, as in the important line amazingly cut from the film: “Our lives are merely strange, dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father.” To imagine deity in female form, for Nina, is to make greater sense of life, suffering, and death. She says:
We should have imagined life as created in the birth pain of God the Mother. Then we would understand why we, Her children, have inherited pain, for we would know that our life’s rhythms beat from Her great heart, torn with the agony of love an birth. And we would feel that death meant reunion with Her, a passing back into Her substance, blood of Her blood again, peace of Her peace. Now wouldn’t that be more logical and satisfying than having God a male whose chest thunders with egotism and is too hard for tired heads and thoroughly comfortless.
Nina’s concept of the Mother God is crucial to her characterization and to the structure and movement of the whole play, since all the other (male) characters in the play are important primarily in relation to her. These ideas on deity are, of course, weighty matters for a Hollywood film, and would also create problems of censorship because of their seeming irreverence; but completely to eliminate this important aspect of the play, as has been done in Leonard’s film, is essentially to alter the thematic content of the story and to devitalize the relationships that exist in it. The Motion Picture Production Code, penned in 1930 by Martin Quigley and the aptly named Reverend Lord, insisted upon the cinema’s upholding of the sanctity of marriage and the home, disallowed the depiction or explicit suggestion of illicit sex, and forbade the use of the word God except in a clearly reverential way. But the Production Code was not so rigidly enforced until after 1934 and many other films of the early 1930s were more mature in their treatment of adult themes.
The play also involves frank discussions of sexual frustration, abortion, extramarital affairs, and promiscuity as a kind of “martyrdom to a lost love.” These were subjects that simply could not be treated frankly in a Hollywood film of 1932. The film version retains very vague traces of all these subjects, except abortion, which is totally cut, making the most radical change in the play’s story; but the mere traces of sexual frankness that remain are devoid of all development, complexity, or thematic importance. The censoring of these subjects necessarily leads to a change in the relationships which form the core of the play. Alexander Bakshy made this point clearly in his review of the film:
Nina’s sexual make-up as it is seen by O’Neill is the core of the play, which alone gives it unity and meaning. In the screen version…this inner significance of Nina’s relationships with her four men is largely lost. The pentagon has been reduced to a triangle, with Nina’s husband and her doctor-lover contending for her favors, instead of Nina herself trying to hold all the strings in a balanced relationship that is completely satisfying to herself.
In other words, apart from the innovation of the asides, the film is a fairly conventionalized soap opera. Censorship accounts for other minor, and somewhat ludicrous, cuts in the play. Even though the film, in its sketchy resemblance to the play, is a story of love and passion, most of O’Neill’s words having to do with the subject of passion must be cut. Among the words excised from the play are promiscuity, kissing and petting, carnal, sex, sexual, slut, and the word passion itself.
Much is taken away in this film version, but very little else is done cinematically to replace the losses. There are some routine and fairly conventional attempts to open up the play for filmic treatment; for instance, there is an exterior scene at the beginning of the film showing Marsden coming to the Leeds’s apartment (he passes a crippled soldier on crutches, which serves as a visual analogue to the war death of Nina’s fiancé, Gordon); there is a brief shot of Nina arriving home in a car after the death of her father; there are also brief exterior scenes at the various locations of the film—Sam and Nina’s suburban cottage, the Evans’s home in upstate New York, and the Evans’s Long Island estate; there is also the location shooting for the yacht race (which is the setting for act 8 of the play). None of these exterior shots is treated with any particular filmic effectiveness. Most of the city exteriors are unconvincing studio sets, and the yacht race merely intercuts location shooting with studio shooting for the dialogue.
No only are the attempts to open up the play visually pedestrian, but they tend to be thematically irrelevant. There are three scenes in the film that were not part of the original play, and these suggest the conventionalizing nature of the adaptation. The first is a visualization of the wedding of Sam and Nina, which happens between acts 2 and 3 of the play. The wedding scene is traditionally romantic and is out of the keeping with the nature of the union of Nina and Sam. For Nina this is merely a marriage of convenience—a way to occupy her time and feel useful. Following the wedding scene another brief scene is added that shows Nina and Sam running through the picturesquely pretty woods; Nina carries flowers—the scene is again conventionally romantic. Nina says, “It was a divine honeymoon,” and continues with a brief speech, added to the screenplay, which is inappropriate to both O’Neill’s Nina and the Nina of most of the film version. In a line from the end of act 2 which is cut from the film, Nina says:
Sam is a nice boy. Yes, it would be a career for me to bring a career to his surface. I would be busy—surface life—no more depths, please God. But I don’t love him, Father.
The feeling of these lines is anything but romantic, and the fact that the film version romanticizes the marriage is typical of its overall bowdlerization of the play, and the changes in the ethos of the relationships of the characters. The film, moreover, retains enough of O’Neill’s dialogue to make such changes essentially inconsistent.
Another brief scene, generally incongruous with the style of the whole, is added to the film. It is roughly based on act 3 of the play, in which Mrs. Evans pleads with Nina to abort the child she is carrying, because of congenital insanity in the Evans family. She tells Nina about Sam’s aunt, who is insane and lives in the attic of the house. In the film, Mrs. Evans takes Nina up to the attic to show her the insane relative. The Gothic quality of the scene, reminiscent of Jane Eyre, seems strangely out of place in this film. There is also less logical need for Mrs. Evans to resort to this method of proof in the film, because Nina is not pregnant, whereas in the play Mrs. Evans is trying to convince Nina to have an abortion. The sequence in the film is handled in a traditional mystery-thriller way. Nina and Mrs. Evans, in the dark and dusty attic, approach a locked door. The sound of manic laughter is heard. Mrs. Evans unlocks the door and opens it. The film quickly cuts to within the room, and Nina’s face is seen in terror, hand covering her mouth, and a muffled scream is heard. The laughter of the madwoman grows louder. This sequence, like other added sequences, does little for the momentum of the story and contributes nothing to the meaning of the film. And, perhaps more importantly, it is out of keeping with the style of the rest of the film.
Not only is the visual treatment of the film uninspired, but also the treatment of the audio quality in the handling of the asides. O’Neill’s unprecedented and unorthodox—to the modern realistic theatre—use of asides was the single most important factor in the enormous interest centered on his play. The stream-of-consciousness device was well known to both the sophisticated and the nonsophisticated. (Curiously enough, Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers (1930) does a parody of O’Neill’s technique—he walks away from a group of people, talks to himself, and then turns to the camera and says, “I am having a strange interlude,” which suggests the popular renown of O’Neill’s technique.) While the asides are, owing to postsynchronization dubbing, technically more workable and graceful in the film version, they lose much of their impact because of the drastic nature of their cutting in the screenplay. (From the summary above the cuts made in the play, it is obvious that most cuts were in the asides.) The unusual length of the play and preponderance of asides makes it necessary to cut many of them entirely and many in part, for film adaptation. (Helen Hayes, according to Sheaffer’s biography of O’Neill, claims to have cut many of the asides during the original production of the play without O’Neil’s even realizing it.) There are indeed too many asides in the play and they tend to overburden it with ideology and philosophical speculation. But the film version can be faulted for the way in which it cuts to asides. It would be possible to do the play (and film) without any of the asides, but once the film adaptation has chosen to retain the device, it should work thematically and cinematically, but it does not. Nearly all of the interesting, poetic, and provocative asides were excised, and the ones retained lack both the self-examining and self-revealing qualities which is their only raison d’être in the work. The scenario for Strange Interlude does not really allow the characters enough depth for either self-revelation or self-examination, the qualities which elevate O’Neill’s play above the level of mere soap opera or melodrama, to which it is closely akin.
Since the film version of Strange Interlude was done only five years after the advent of the talkies, experimentation with sound would have been of great interest and importance. Mordaunt Hall, in the New York Times, and Regina Crewe, in the New York American, found the asides admirable and exciting both because of their novelty and because of their suitability to sound film. Hall makes the questionable assertion that “in view of the fact that the players do not have to move their lips…these utterances are all the more interesting.” Crewe waxed poetical about the asides: “Whispers that come from nowhere like thoughts. Thoughts that spring unbidden from the darkest depths of the consciousness. Thoughts that come unwanted to the mind. Lips are silent, still. Souls speak.” Crewe’s comments seem more rhapsodic than astute. Most of the other critics found the asides problematical; foremost among them was Richard Watts, whose evaluation of the asides is much more convincing:
the theory was shrewd enough, but in practice there are difficulties. The acting seemed to conceal the emotions expressed in the “asides,” instead of dramatizing them. The result is that the secret thoughts are sometimes strange and even comical, but seldom poignant.
Watts seems to be right in faulting the actors’ speaking of the asides and the director’s manner of presenting them (Leonard apparently experimented unsuccessfully with “double-takes” for the asides), rather than the device itself. The device of audible thought, while historically more at home in the theatre, is not necessarily alien to film. Rouben Mamoulian first used the voice-over to express inner thought in City Street (1931). The soliloquies in Olivier’s film of Hamlet, for example, are used to extraordinary filmic effect, because of the varied method of shooting them—using several different angles to shoot the face of the “speaker” and intercutting this with supporting visual imagery. Another example of filmically effective use of thought made audible would be in Fellini’s 8½; during much of the film we share the confused thought processes of the director within the film. Here again, because of a wide variety of camera angles and the tempo of the voice-overs, they advance rather than retard the action of the film. Robert Leonard’s direction of the asides in Strange Interlude remains as unimaginative as the handling of other elements in the film.
The film adaptation of Strange Interlude shares several common features with the films made of Mourning Becomes Electra and Desire under the Elms. All three are based on plays of O’Neill’s that delve deeply into psychological (or perhaps more accurately in the overused word Freudian) problems, relationships, and complexes. All three of the film versions share, with quantitative differences, obvious problems reflecting their hybrid film/theatre natures. And all three, although made in three different decades, had to undergo a certain amount of censorship before being made acceptable to the mass medium of film. Edward Murray, in his book The Cinematic Imagination, considered each of these plays “too theatrical” (again, an overworked term) for successful screen adaptation. But whereas Strange Interlude and Desire under the Elms are not successful either as motion pictures or as film records of important stage plays, Mourning Becomes Electra, despite its flaws as a film, has integrity in being a faithful and true-to-spirit adaptation, with some cinematic value as well. The film of Strange Interlude has neither its own integrity as film, nor the lesser integrity of a faithful film record of an important and interesting work of theatrical art. O’Neill never saw the film, but reports of it only confirmed his dislike for Hollywood. Shortly after the film was released, he wrote in a letter to Robert Sisk that he:
really didn’t give a damn what they’ve done to it…Outside the money the films simply don’t exist for me, and nothing they do or don’t do seems of the slightest importance to my work as a playwright.
O’Neill here, as elsewhere, was being perfectly honest in calling his relationship to Hollywood a purely financial one.
The film version of Strange Interlude begins with a title card explaining the nature of the work we are about to see: “In order to fully understand his characters, Eugene O’Neill allows them to express their thoughts aloud. As in life, these thoughts are quite different from the words that pass their lips.” This title expresses the tension between levels of psychological awareness, and different aspects of personality in the characters of O’Neill’s dramas. José Quintero, the foremost interpreter of O’Neill’s works on the contemporary stage, has made a similar point about O’Neill’s work which seems relevant to the failure of Strange Interlude:
Every time I have done any of his plays I have had a sense of existing in two entirely separate kinds of realities: the commonplace, photographic reality and the interior reality of fantasy. I think the struggle of these two realities—where the impossible can happen among the common place, where the figures become regal, monumental and totally equipped for tragedy—gives that unbelievable tension to his works.
It is just this kind of tension that is lacking in the film version of Strange Interlude. The drastic cutting of ideas, complexities of character, and thematic possibilities from the original work for the film version also strips the drama and its characters of this tension between interior and exterior life. While the opening title of the film invites the audience to perceive this tension, the nature of the film makes it impossible for us to do so. The thoughts that we hear in the film are not really so different from the words that the characters speak—since the asides revealing this psychic tension were largely cut from the film’s script. This adaptation lacks, perhaps understandably, the philosophic level of the play; but, less understandably, it lacks the passion in the play’s melodramatic events, certainly at home in the film medium.
O’Neill on Film by John Orlandelle (1982)
Me and My Gal (1932) 79 minutes
A Fox Film Corporation Production. Directed by Raoul Walsh Story by Philip Klein and Barry Conners. Settings by Cedric Gibbons. Cinematography by Arthur C. Miller. Film Editing by Jack Murray. Art Direction by Gordon Wilels. Costume Design by Rita Kaufman. Released: December 4, 1932.
Spencer Tracy……………………………………………………… Danny Dolan
Joan Bennett…………………………………………………………. Helen Riley
Marion Burnes………………………………………………………… Kate Riley
George Walsh………………………………………………… Duke Castenega
J. Farrell MacDonald…………………………………………………. Pop Riley
Noel Madison………………………………………….. Baby Face Castenega
Henry B. Walthall……………………………….. Sgt. John Collins aka Sarge
Bert Hanlon………………………………………………………………….. Jake
Adrian Morris……………………………………………………….. Allen aka Al
George Chandler…………………………………………………. Eddie Collins
Billy Bevan………………………………………………………………… Ashley
Me and My Gal, Tracy’s last film released in 1932, might have been an ordinary cops-and-robbers melodrama. What makes it different is the snappy, wise-cracking romance of a happy-go-lucky police detective and a slangy cashier in a waterfront restaurant, which counterpoints the action throughout the film. Raoul Walsh’s breezy direction and the zestful performances of Tracy and Joan Bennett (in a decided change of pace) contribute to the overall effect. This modest film retains much of its original sparkle and is still highly enjoyable.
The film is studded with the sort of brash, flavoursome quips typical of movies in the thirties, Dan (Tracy) meets Helen (Bennett) while on duty. He is immediately smitten and starts a flirtation. “Didn’t I meet you somewhere?” he asks. “I’ve been somewhere,” she answers. But Dan is not intimidated and wastes no time in wooing Helen. He tells her he’s tired of drinking twenty cups of coffee a day and asks for a date. “How would you like to go over to the park and help me tramp down the flowers?” Helen: “With feet like yours, you don’t need help.” Dan reflects upon his predicament as Helen resists his advances. “Some girls are like motors. You’ve got to choke them to get them started. She’s fresh, she’s saucy, she bosses me around, but I’m crazy about her.”
Halfway through the picture, Helen decides that she really loves Dan. She invites him over for an evening. This scene is a highlight, since it includes a funny and unexpected spoof of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, which had recently been filmed with many of the stage version’s interior monologues intact. They have both seen a movie called Strange Innertube, and are discussing it. The conversation is interspersed with their private thoughts, spoken on the soundtrack. Dan: “A guy don’t know what to do…if I don’t neck, I’m too slow. And if I do neck, you think I’m fresh.” Helen: “A girl don’t know what to do. If she lets a guy maul her, he thinks she’s no good. And if she doesn’t, he thinks she’s old-fashioned.”
While all this is going on, a melodramatic stew is boiling involving Helen’s married sister, Kate (Marion Burns). Before her marriage, Kate had an affair with Duke, a gangster (played by George Walsh, director Raoul Walsh’s brother). He breaks out of jail and forces Kate to hide him in her attic. There he plans a successful bank robbery with his gang. Kate’s husband is away on a freighter but her father-in-law Sarge (Henry B. Walthall), a paralyzed war veteran who cannot speak and can only move his eyes, is witness to the situation. When Dan and Helen come to tell Kate that they are engaged, Sarge is able to telegraph a Morse code message to Dan with his blinking eyes. Dan captures Duke, recovers the stolen money, collects a reward and takes Helen on a honeymoon trip to Bermuda.
A suspense thriller so generously sprinkled with amusing dialogue was a novelty in 1932, and Me and My Gal did surprisingly well at the box office. Tracy gave further evidence of his developing talents by turning a standard roughneck role into a unique characterization.
Spencer Tracy by Romano Tozzi (1973)
Contributing immeasurably to the ultimate result in the film are the performances of Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett as the cop and his girl. As a matter of fact, the two “make” the picture. Tracy with his slangy “wisecracking” vocabulary and his easy, happy-go-lucky role does a splendid job; which is matched, letter for letter, by that of Miss Bennett, who is a sheer delight.
Motion Picture Herald, Aaronson