Lady of the Night (1925) and Let Us Be Gay (1930)

Lady of the Night (1925)     Let Us Be Gay (1930)

Lady of the Night (1925) and Let Us Be Gay (1930)

In the first film this evening, Lady of the Night, there is something rather modern about the look of the film.  I think it has to do with the makeup that Norma Shearer’s character Molly Helmer wears as well as the lighting of the scenes.  And Norma’s reactions are easy to relate to as well.  Not that this film reminds me in any way of Pandora’s Box but the feeling that I’m watching a contemporary actress in the role made me think of Louise Brooks.

An interesting scene to take note of is when both of Norma Shearer’s characters meet.  Of course double exposure is used, but at one point Joan Crawford plays her double.  Keep your eyes peeled!  Caren

Lady of the Night (1925)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Directed by Monta Bell.  Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns.  Scenario by Alice D.G. Miller.  Cinematography by André Barlatier.  Set Decoration by Cedric Gibbons.  Film editing by Ralph Dawson.  Music by Jon Mirsalis in 2006 alternate version.  Released:  February 23, 1925.  70 minutes.

Norma Shearer……………………………….. Molly Helmer/Florence Banning
Malcolm McGregor………………………………………………….. David Page
Dale Fuller………………………………………… Miss Carr – Florence’s Aunt
George K. Arthur………………………………………………… ‘Chunky’ Dunn
Fred Esmelton………………………………………………….. Judge Banning
Lew Harvey…………………………………….. Chris Helmer – Molly’s Father
Gwen Lee…………………………………………………………. Molly’s Friend
Betty Morrissey………………………………….. Gerti – Molly’s Other Friend
Joan Crawford…………………………………….. Double for Norma Shearer

Lady of the Night (1925)Before coming to Hollywood, Monta Bell worked for a newspaper in his native Washington, D.C.  Some of the newspaperman’s sensibility can be found in the cold honesty of Bell’s vision, his shrewd sense of humour, and his cynical regard for the privileged.  But by far the special talent of this gifted artist was his way of depicting people in unguarded moments of longing.  In After Midnight (1927), a decrepit scrub woman picks up a discarded corsage from the floor of an empty nightclub and pins it on.  In Upstage (1926), a pretty nun watches a young woman played by Shearer buy a Vogue magazine and wonders at the life she might have chosen.

The most elegant example of a Bell moment comes in Lady of the Night (1925).  A beam of light shines through a hole in a shade onto a table.  A man thinks about the woman he is about to lose and idly tries to trap the light in his palm.  The image is a commentary on the nature of longing, and also on the medium of motion pictures.  Splendour and life are contained in a ray of light that is there but not there–that can’t be touched, only seen.

Bell was thirty-three when he made Broadway After Dark (1924), his first film as a director and his first with Shearer.  She played a maid who turns out to be an ex-convict.  In The Snob, also for Bell, she played a schoolteacher who hides the fact that she is wealthy.  A pattern was set: Shearer was the woman who was always more, not less, than she appeared to be.

Lady of the Night (1925)

These first Bell-Shearer efforts are lost.  Four remain.  One is Pretty Ladies (1925), a charming backstage drama in which Shearer had only a cameo.  The other three–Lady of the Night (1925), Upstage (1926) and After Midnight (1927)–are treasures, delicate, poem-like films with a bite to  them.  These films explore a woman’s nature and revel in her complexity.  Together they reveal an actress-director collaboration as important in its way as those of Marlene Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg, or Louise Brooks and G.W. Pabst.

Shearer’s innate gravity and whimsicality were perfect for putting over Bell’s vision.  He returned the favour by never tiring of investigating her nature.  For Bell, Shearer was as much the Eternal Feminine as Dietrich was for Von Sternberg, and Bell explored Shearer’s soul with the same fascination with which Von Sternberg explored the planes of Dietrich’s face.  When Shearer appears in a Bell close-up, there isn’t the sense of a director on the outside trying to impose a meaning on the image (as when Griffith photographs Gish).  Rather, he is just looking and looking, trying to discover this woman in all her shadings.

Lady of the Night (1925)     Lady of the Night (1925)

Lady of the Night gave Shearer her breakthrough.  After the film’s release, MGM stopped lending her to other studios.  She was too valuable.  The picture, a kind of rhapsody on a theme of longing, told the story of two women who want the same man, a young inventor, desperately.  The scenario was typical, but the casting was unique: Shearer played both women.

Lady of the Night (1925)She was Molly, a gangster’s moll, and Florence, a rich debutante.  Casting the same actress in both roles made the social commentary implicit.  The people in the movie see both women without ever noticing the resemblance.  They see rich or poor, that’s all.  But the viewer notices, and the effect is like looking into the characters’ souls and realizing that only their circumstances are different–very different: Florence graduates from finishing school on the day Molly is released from reform school.  Waiting on the curb to cross the street, Molly checks her reflection in the window of a carriage.  When the carriage rolls away, we see that it’s a hearse.

The landscape is dreamy and elliptical.  Everyone pursues a vision that can’t be realized.  Everyone wishes he or she were something more.  In a film about longing, Molly’s is the most heartrending.  She wants to learn to cook.  She wants to dress better.  She practices elegance by assuming a magazine model’s pose.  When she goes to the inventor’s workshop and finds him with Florence, her face is raw pain.  Shearer’s performance in the role of Florence is hardly a throwaway.  She doesn’t play a complacent rich girl, but a woman who suspects that comfort has insulated her from life’s deepest lessons.  Yet Molly remains our focus.  As Molly, Shearer is, for the first time, not just an appealing young lady, but a figure of romantic fantasy.  The fantasy is tied up with the idea of a complicated woman’s depth and dignity.  Lady of the Night is the keystone of Shearer’s screen identity.

Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle (2000)

Lady of the Night (1925)

Shearer and Crawford worked together twice, and these joint appearances appropriately and indeed ironically bookend their two decades at MGM.  They first appeared together when Crawford, a new hire, doubled as the back of Shearer’s head when Shearer, one of the just-formed studio’s crop of fledgling stars, essayed a dual role in Lady of the Night (1925).  Already a pattern appeared, with Shearer given a flashy showcase and an ever-ambitious Crawford struggling to emerge from the shadows of being second fiddle.  Fifteen years later they also shared the frame, this time face to face, equals in magnitude, as their onscreen characters fought over the same man in the catty comedy The Women (1939).  Significantly, both also sought some of the same roles at MGM, and they played roles that paralleled each other (Crawford as Peg Eaton, friend to Andrew and Rachel Jackson, in her  lone period epic The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), Shearer as another controversial historical figure in Marie Antoinette (1938), for example).  Once they even played the same part, the eponymous high-society jewel thief of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Shearer in 1929 and Crawford in the identically named 1937 remake.  Not surprisingly, Shearer’s early talkie had a stagy but amusingly coy lightness to it, while Crawford’s film was more glossy, naturalistic, and emphatically dramatic.

Glamour in A Golden Age: Movie Stars of the 1930s edited by Adrienne L. McLean (2011)

Lady of the Night (1925)Although “Lady of the Night.” the current film attraction at the Capitol, is interesting, it is not to be classed with many artistic efforts and certainly not to be compared with Charles Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris.” or Seastrom’s “He Who Gets Slapped.” Throughout this production Monta Bell, the director, has manifested a penchant for exaggeration, and he also causes some of his characters to be hopelessly ignorant of elementary social amenities.

Norma Shearer plays a dual rôle. She is seen as Florence, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful financier, and also as Molly, a frequenter of crooks’ resorts, who lives in a hovel. The outstanding note in this picture is in having the two girls fall in love with the same man—David, a young inventor, whose workshop is adjacent to Molly’s flat. The dénouement of the story is not particularly original. One might almost say that it is obvious.

Miss Shearer does the best acting she has ever done. She is splendid as Molly, who wears weird clothes and has a flair for imitation aigrette feathers. She is comely, sympathetic and attractively gowned as Florence.

Lady of the Night (1925)George K. Arthur, who played the rôle of the Boy in “The Salvation Hunters,” also gives an efficient performance, but his portrayal of stupidity and ignorance is hardly in keeping with other inclinations of the character. Some men have strange ideas when it comes to dressing, but the suit worn by Oscar (Mr. Arthur) would be laughed at even in remote corners of the Bowery. The coat is an exaggerated model of the slash in the back with the long skirts and six small buttons as close together as they can be stitched. Oscar has a hankering to look like the Prince of Wales, and in the last scene he appears in a loose golf suit, with a black twoquart cowboy’s hat with an expression of intense self-satisfaction.

Malcolm McGregor impersonates David, Molly becomes infatuated with him despite the fact that her young man is supposed to be Oscar. When David has a meal with Molly. Oscar is left out in the cold, sitting on a chair with the dog, an exaggerated mongrel.

Lady of the Night (1925)One of the ludicrous scenes is where Florence drives down in her expensive limousine to call on David. She is dressed as if to go to a smart dance, which one might gather is an unusual affectation when one is calling on an inventor in a squalid section of the city. David chats with her, tells her how good Molly has been, and then Florence rises to leave. We consider that even a young inventor would escort his sweetheart to her automobile. Apparently it isn’t done, as David, the beau-ideal of manhood, so gallant when it comes to kissing, permits his sweetheart to leave unescorted.

One would almost imagine that Mr. Arthur had offered some hints in the making of this picture, as there is an occasional suggestion in it of “The Salvation Hunters.” Not that it is as gloomy as that pointless production, but that some of the characters are unduly slow in their movements.

Undoubtedly there are certain good ideas in this pictorial effort and some of the subtitles are witty. It is entertaining most of the time, but now and again annoying.

The New York Times by Mordaunt Hall, March 2, 1925

Thalberg, always sensitive to the moods of his performers, and aware, along with Mayer, that a deeper chord than usual had been sounded in Norma by her unrequited feeling for John Boles, began casting around for a picture that would showcase the pretty actress’s evident capacity for feeling and sentiment.  Adela Rogers St. Johns was drafted to supply the requisite emotional depth, and her original story, Lady of the Night, was purchased for Norma, with special instructions given to adaptor Alice D.G. Miller to retain all the emotional stops that Adela had pulled out in her original.

Lady of the Night was no comedy but rather a poignant study of unrequited love, with Norma in a dual role.  As Molly, she is a reform school alumnus who makes up and dresses garishly and cheaply.  As Florence, she is a refined, high-toned society girl.  Molly is cheap and rough-edged.  Florence is the soul of ladylike gentility and breeding.  Malcolm McGregor is the young inventor they both love.  Molly gets him first; he is her neighbor and offers her gang a safe-opening device he has.  She feels he is cut out for better things and suggests he take it to a legitimate manufacturer.  He meets the tycoon’s daughter, Florence, and falls in love with her.  Molly, who has rescued her hero from a peripheral involvement with crime circles, realizes he loves Florence and sadly withdraws from his life.

Lady of the Night gave Norma her best acting opportunity to date.  Her depictions of two women from radically disparate backgrounds who have in common only their love for one young man whose welfare is paramount to them show great contrast.  When in the same frame, the two Normas are wonderfully striking.  Since the public had associated her primarily with genteel lasses who reacted to events rather than caused them, it was pleasantly surprised by the versatility and range Norma displayed here; she was as convincing as the criminal-with-the-golden-heart as she was in her more accustomed guise, the sweet-Miss-with-heart-on-her-sleeve who loves purely and honestly.

Monta Bell, whose feelings for Shearer were not one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets, recalled later that he found her peculiarly touching while making this film.   “She seemed to be in a sort of trance most of the time,” he remembered.  The trance, as Helen Ferguson related, was occasioned by handsome Malcolm McGregor, and Helen felt that Norma had waltzed out of the Boles frying pan into the fire when she got up against Malcolm.  “I believe she was really in love with him,” she said.  “But again she ran into bad luck; his primary emotions were engaged elsewhere–it was another John Boles-style disaster for her, but worse this time,” Helen said.

Malcolm, who was one of the handsomest leading men in 1920s Hollywood, seemed fated throughout his career to be the focal point of unreciprocated feminine passions.  He lacked the polish and breeding of John Boles, but he made up for it in forthright all-American-boy masculine appeal.  “He was like Ralph Graves in that,” Helen remembered.  “Ralph was another wholesome all-American type who became the girls’ collective dream prince in Griffith’s Dream Street in n1921, and as late as 1930 with Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure.  After that he got burnout as an actor and turned to writing.  Malcolm burned out, too.  But oh, what a lovely masculine light he gave while he lasted!”

Malcolm seems to have lacked John Boles’s gentle tact when he realized Norma had fallen for him hook, line, and sinker.  “John was a let-them-down-lightly-and-gently boy.” Anita Loos, Norma’s screenwriter pal, said, “while Malcolm was blunt and direct, and if he wasn’t interested he’d make it plain.  Maybe he thought he was being cruel only to be kind, who knows?”  (Also, McGregor was married and a father, which may have given him pause, though it didn’t stop Norma.)

Helen Ferguson remembered Norma, after a frustrating day of love scenes that she felt and Malcolm didn’t, saying: “Why does it have to be like that so often–the ones who want us we don’t want and the ones we want don’t want us.”

“C’est la vie, honey,” Helen remembered replying.  “It was scant consolation, but what else could I say?  I was a friend of hers and certainly wasn’t going to build up her hopes about Malcolm.”

Since McGregor was an actor and a good one, he made sure that his love scenes with both of Norma’s contrasting characters were thoroughly convincing.  George K. Arthur, the light comedian who played Norma’s companion in crime, said years later that he felt Norma took a terrible beating playing those complicated love scenes with a man she knew was not turned on by her.  “I think she ended that picture with a big sigh of relief,” he said.

Monta Bell remembered being deeply impressed with what came off the screen.  “Whatever it was, it worked!” was his verdict.  Mayer and Thalberg saw the picture together in a screening room and were impressed with Norma’s new depth, subtlety, and virtuosity.

The critics, too, were impressed with the depth and range of Norma’s performance in Lady of the Night.  Since Hollywood scuttlebutt had spread the underground word of Norma’s torch for McGregor, critics like Edwin Schallert in The Los Angeles Times couldn’t help picking up on it.  Shearer “has imbued this character [of the dance hall girl and criminal] with a great deal of sympathy,” he wrote, “and particularly unforgettable is that scene where she visits the man she loves the same evening that he is escorting the other girl to a dance and offering her proof of his devotion.”  Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times said Shearer did “the best acting she has ever done,” while Motion Picture commented on her “really inspired acting,” adding. “It is an intelligent performance, one marked by real understanding and authority.”

Norma suffered from a brief spell of depression after Lady of the Night was finished.  Reportedly she was loaned out at this tine to get her away from her surroundings and the memory of McGregor.  Also there were rumors that she was making unrealistic salary demands–and hence had to be disciplined.

Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence J. Quirk (1988)

Let Us Be Gay (1930)

Robert Z. Leonard’s, who dropped out of law school in favour of the theatre, directing career began in 1913 and ended in 1957.  It is interesting to note that eleven of Robert Z. Leonard’s direction of early talkies were all uncredited, from the famous 1930’s The Divorcee to 1933’s retakes of When Ladies Meet as well as two Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy films where the directorial credits went to W.S. Van Dyke.  He was also the fill-in director for the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities, director’s credit going to Jack Conway.  And most intriguing is why?  I couldn’t find an answer in any of the articles I read written about the director.

Rod La Rocque started in silent films in 1914. He was married to Vilma Bánky  from 1927 to his death in 1969.  In the book More Than a Dream: Rediscovering the Life and Films of Vilma Banky by Rachel A. Schidgen (2010) which I perused online, it seems that their marriage was a happy one and a “life-long love affair.”  Maybe that’s because they had no children!?  He retired from making films in 1941 (finishing off in Capra’s Meet John Doe playing Ted Sheldon) and became a successful real estate broker.  As an aside, in this film La Rocque’s talking voice reminds me of Vincent Price’s.

As you will soon see, the film starts out with a dowdy Norma.  She doesn’t stay that way of course but I kind of wondered if someone like her character would really have become glamorous AND apparently more witty.  Is that really possible for most people–to change their personalities to such a degree?  And if they could, why not start, if not artificially glamorous, at least witty!  Who wouldn’t want to be.

When I was listening to Marie Dressler’s dialogue, I felt that she was insinuating that the reason she “chose” Kitty to seduce the man her granddaughter was infatuated with was because she believed she was a “loose” woman.  Even though Dressler’s character says she had some wild times in her past, I always felt she was judging Kitty in a somewhat negative light.  Any minute I expected Kitty to say something rude back to her, but she always managed to answer her with some light-hearted comeback.  I found this constant repetition of Dressler’s matron’s thoughts rather annoying.  See what you think.

Interesting to note that Norma Shearer was pregnant while making this film.  They would have had to do some fancy positioning in order to hide her baby bump.  Her brother Douglas Shearer was the sound director on this film.

In the very last scene, at the very last line, Allison, one of my guests, bolted up straight in her seat and was shocked by the ending.  I felt the same way when I watched the film the first time.  It’s a bit of a disappointment only because you are sure that Kitty is happy with her new life (and it is a pre-Code).  But if Kitty wasn’t happy all along, then there should have been some real discussions and understandings that could have slowly but steadily been built between the two characters to give you the same result.   See what you think.  Caren

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Directed by Robert Z. Leonard (uncredited).  From the play by Rachel Crothers.  Continuity and dialogue by Frances Marion.  Additional dialogue by Lucille Newmark.  Cinematography by Norbert Brodine.  Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons.  Film editing by Basil Wrangell.  Gowns by Adrian.  Released:  August 9, 1930.  79 minutes.

Norma Shearer……………………………………………………….. Kitty Brown
Rod La Rocque……………………………………………………….. Bob Brown
Marie Dressler…………………………………………………. Mrs. Couccicault
Gilbert Emery…………………………………………………………….. Townley
Hedda Hopper………………………………………………… Madge Livingston
Raymond Hackett…………………………………………………………… Bruce
Sally Eilers…………………………………………………………………… Diane
Tyrell Davis………………………………………………………………… Wallace
Wilfred Noy……………………………………………………………….. Whitman
William H. O’Brien………………………………………………………. Struthers
Sybil Grove…………………………………………………………………. Perkins
Dickie Moore………………………………………………………… Young Bobby

Frances actually had fun with her next Norma Shearer film because both Hedda Hopper and Marie Dressler were in the cast.  Let Us Be Gay was a light but clever tale of a young woman whose husband leaves her because she is so plain and dull. She goes to Paris to see what she’s been missing and turns herself into a sophisticated beauty, inevitably recapturing her husband’s heart.

Let Us Be Gay (1930)Hedda and Marie had both been trained on stage and had no problems moving into speaking parts, but privately they each came to Frances to complain about the other’s stealing scenes.  Adoring them both, Frances knew “they enjoyed the supreme pleasure of listening to themselves doling it out” and was only concerned that Norma Shearer might fade into the background working with those two old pros.  Frances counted on Robert Leonard’s direction to tone down “the battles of larynx, the uptilted chins, the swishing of trains and the dexterous uses of lorgnettes.”  Yet when the reviews came out, it was all Marie Dressler.  The New York Telegram headlined “Old Favorite Gives Portrayal Worthy of Her Fame,” the Evening World proclaimed, “Dressler is still stealing pictures,” and Norma was called “the advertised star.”

Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp (1997)

Let Us Be Gay (1930)

Hedda Hopper, Rod La Rocque, Norma Shearer, Sally Eilers, Raymond Hackett, Tyrell Davis, Gilbert Emery and Marie Dressler

Possibly designed as a corporate pat on the back for the somewhat unexpected Caught Short hit, MGM then announced a project for Dressler that it believed would have considerable clout: a Thalberg production of Rachel Crothers’ 1929 stage comedy, Let Us Be Gay, that would costar Dressler with Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer.  The script was by Frances Marion and the movie would be directed by Robert Z. Leonard.  Dressler played a society matron (a role that was dangerously close to becoming a Dressler cliché) who wanted to save her granddaughter (played by Sally Eilers) from the clutches of Norma’s former husband (Rod La Rocque).  The story revolves around how Dressler persuades Shearer to lure La Rocque back into the marriage….Let Us Be Gay was shot in a respectably modest twenty-three days, cost the studio $257,000 and made a nice profit of $527,000.  The critics agreed that MGM had produced an expensively entertaining, though overly talkative movie and that Dressler and Shearer (both Canadian-born, the feature-writers duly noted), lived up to expectations.  Dressler, in fact, was again singled out as a performer who could not only draw gasps of delighted recognition from audiences but loud applause as well.  Decided Variety: “This tells louder than fan mail or anything else how the character comedienne rates in New York and probably all over.”

Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star by Betty Lee (1997)

Let Us Be Gay (1930)Marie Dressler, of course, was no machine-made product….In early 1930, she had two smash hits: Let Us Be Gay and Anna Christie.  In Let Us Be Gay, Dressler proved she didn’t always have to play a blowsy old waterfront woman.  She cleaned up real good, playing a delightful society hostess called “Boocie” (short for Mrs. Coucicault), whose philosophy of behaviour is well stated:  “When I was a girl and went to a man’s room, I had the decency not to do it before the servants.”  Dressler could play low comedy, high comedy of manners, and tragedy with equal skill.  She had trod the professional boards.

 The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger (2007)

Norma created an even bigger sensation in her next film, Let Us Be Gay, when she became the first non-sex symbol to wear a clinging bias-cut dress without undergarments.  Realizing the excitement this dress generated, she instructed Adrian to include a white satin bias-cut dress in every one of her pictures; he described those dresses as “Norma’s night-gowns.”  The backless gowns she wore so suggestively in her next string of movies became her signature.  Adrian handled her flaws with his usual brilliance.  To make her hips look narrower and her short legs appear longer, he gave her a raised waistline and lowered the hemline.  To slim her hips, he elongated the line of the shoulder, which in turn highlighted her superb neck and shoulders.

Let Us Be Gay (1930)Norma now understood that costume was the key ingredient.  In a great dress she could convince the public she was a flawless beauty, as well as sexy.  Costumes became her obsession, and Margaret Booth, one of the industry’s top film editors, remembers “the reels and reels of wardrobe tests” that were done when she was preparing for a role.

That she could create an illusion of svelteness in Let Us Be Gay is all the more incredible, considering that she was pregnant at the time.  Irving  Thalberg  Jr. Was born in August 1930 two weeks after the release of the film.

The Power of Glamour by Annette Tapert (1998)

Greta Garbo had weathered her own talkie debut, playing a rundown prostitute in Anna Christie.  Yet even in her most lowdown moments on screen, Garbo remained a goddess in the eyes of her audience.  While Garbo’s isolation from the typical and the mundane gave her great romantic power, there was something refreshing about
Shearer’s accessibility.  As an embodiment of American womanhood, Shearer automatically provided her films with a context.  They carried lessons and held special promises for both men and women.

Her confidence at this point is evidenced by the first ten minutes of Let Us Be Gay, in which she allowed herself to be photographed without makeup.  She has rollers in her hair, and we can see her freckles.  Later, the downtrodden housewife goes to Paris, starts a fashion business, and comes back looking–voilà–like Shearer.  Once again, Shearer was suggesting that women weren’t limited in their options.  The picture promised the possibility of beauty and adventure for all women.  As if to prove it, Shearer was willing to hint that her own beauty was manufactured.

Let Us Be Gay (1930)Let Us Be Gay was rushed into production when Shearer, during the making of The Divorcee, realized she was pregnant.  (Perhaps her re-vamped image had affected Thalberg, too)  She told Hedda Hopper that pregnancy bored her and that she was afraid her fans might forget her if she was away from the screen too long.  The picture, a comedy about a wife who becomes a chic woman of the world after her husband dumps her, wasn’t as bold a statement as The Divorcee.  But the comic atmosphere allowed the wife to be more explicit about her past.  “Like you,” she says, lording it over her ex-husband, “I’ve been amusing myself with anything and everything that came my way.  I know how a man feels about those things now.”

Shearer had become the biggest film star in the world.  That August, Let Us Be Gay gave Shearer her second smash in a row, in the same month she gave birth to Irving Thalberg, Jr.  Later that year, Shearer won the Best Actress Oscar for The Divorcee, and Vanity Fair hailed her as “the sleekest lady of the films.”  Meanwhile, the New York Telegraph was reporting that, thanks to The Divorcee, “every picture concern is trying for something sensational and startling.”

Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle (2000)

THE LIMITS OF THIRTIES FEMINISM

The vast majority of women in the 1930s who were active in social affairs did not set out to repudiate the roles of wife and mother.  Eleanor Roosevelt remarked, “When all is said and done, women are different from men.  They are equals in many ways, but they cannot refuse to acknowledge the differences.”  She envisioned a social order built not only “by the ability and brains of our men,” but also with “the understanding heart of the women.”  Her distinction illustrates an unwillingness to entirely abandon traditional gender roles.  The majority of women who held significant roles in national affairs during the Depression, called the “net work” by Susan Ware, did not support an equal rights amendment.  And most either shied away from or repudiated the term “feminism.”  The unwillingness of women’s networks of the 1930s to go all the way in their treatment of women’s liberation is embedded in the plot resolutions of several films.  The logical foundation for many films that broach the subject of gender power relations is identical.  Some man has committed a moral wrong towards a woman, with the result that the woman in the film responds by asserting herself and breaking with accepted social gender practices.

Let Us Be Gay, based on a play written by a woman, Rachel Crothers, opens by piling one mawkish domestic action upon another.  Kitty (Norma Shearer), married to Bob and mother of two children, brings Bob his breakfast in bed.  Her clothing is frumpy, and we learn she dresses this way to save on the household budget.  As she carries out one household task after another, she sings, “I love you.”  Her domestic bliss is shattered by the appearance of a woman whose looks sum up the era’s notions of a sexy and dangerous woman: she is a dolled-up platinum blonde.  Kitty sees that Bob has been cheating and the marriage collapses.  The film then cuts to a few years later.  Next seen Kitty is smartly dressed and verbally dexterous at flirting.  At the home of Bootsie (Marie Dressler), a rich dowager who has opened her country house for guests, Kitty has dropped Bob’s last name and taken her maiden name.  The plot suggests Bob won’t know she is present until he runs into her.  Bob’s first meeting with Kitty shakes him, while she remains nonplussed, reversing their earlier positions emotionally.  When Bob approaches her, Kitty stops him with the film’s title, “Let us be gay,” meaning adult, but also meaning moving beyond traditional patriarchal values.  She says she knows what it’s “like to be a man,” a remark that suggests she has been active sexually, a concept Bob finds shocking.

Let Us Be Gay (1930)Though Kitty talks as though she’s been playing the field sexually, the film takes pains to preserve acceptable morality by showing its audience how, when one of the male guests comes to Kitty’s room at night, she fends him off.  Her verbal worldliness has been all talk, all anger and sarcasm over Bob’s infidelities.  Dressed for the final scene of the film in a man’s tie and coat, Kitty delivers speeches on her new-found freedom.  She announces she’s not ready to sit by the domestic fire.  At the moment when it appears that she really means it, she breaks down in tears and takes Bob back, sobbing, “I’m so lonely.”  The effect of the breakdown is to convey that film’s sense of the unnaturalness of divorce, an unnaturalness given visual expression by her male clothing.  This film winds up arguing that woman may stretch the boundaries of traditional gender definitions, but given the chance she will flee back into traditional domesticity.

In spite of its worldly espousals and feminist elements, Let Us Be Gay reverts to reinforcing the domestic dynamics of its early scenes.  Consistent with the leading women activists of the period, its intent is not to reject romance, motherhood, or marriage.  Rather, it cloaks a conventional message about the costs of adultery and the male double standard in feminist trappings.  The sentimental core of the film is the parent-child relationship, given visual expression near the film’s end when Bob is surprised by the appearance of his children, whom he has not seen in three years.  Bob is emotionally overcome.  Unintentionally, the film becomes a kind of rebuke to women who lose themselves in domesticity and fail to keep themselves sexually attractive for their husbands.  It is the new, sharply dressed, carefully made-up Kitty who regains Bob.  Her tears at the end emphasize the penalty for severing the marriage bonds and undermine the force of her feminist language.  Nevertheless, something more subtle than this does occur, merely as a result of the presence of the assertive logic Kitty mouths.  The film at least puts into public play ideas with the power to subvert traditional notions of gender power relationships.

Female (which featured Kathryn Scola as one of its writers) commences at what was, in terms of sexual politics, the halfway point for Let Us Be Gay.  Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton), president of a car-manufacturing company, runs the company with assurance, bossing around several male executives at a board meeting.  While at work she is visited by an old friend, Harriet Brown.  Harriet is a model of domesticity, discussing all of her husband’s activities but none of her own.  Alison, however, is so busy running her company, she can barely converse with Harriet, as she is repeatedly interrupted by business concerns.  She tells Harriet that “a woman in love is a pathetic spectacle” and asserts, “I decided to travel the same open road that men travel.”  When Kitty in Let Us Be Gay makes an almost identical claim, she’s only bluffing; in Female, Alison means it.  In practice, she has captured some of the obnoxiousness of powerful men who ogle subordinate women, as she openly leers at young men she employs.  She invites male employees to her house, seduces them, then, if they try to pursue the relationship, transfers them to another location.

She eventually pursues Thorne, a man who views her as unnatural, telling her he prefers to do his own “hunting.”  Soon Thorne launches into a class-based attack on Allison, calling her undemocratic and snobbish.  But by his doing so the film averts the issue of gender power, evading the issue of female assertiveness in favour of the class issue.  In this way like Let Us Be Gay, Female averts its eyes from the issues it has advertised itself as confronting.  Instead, after initial sympathy, both films find ways to view assertive women as unnatural.

Somewhat surprisingly, Thorne says he wants to marry Allison.  When she resists this idea, he criticizes her with the words, “You and your new freedom.”  Referring back to their first meeting he casts a sexual slur, calling her a “pick-up.”  Having for a moment held the high ground on the question of class snobbery, Thorne loses it by resorting to chauvinistic name-calling.  He leaves her, and back at the office she is suddenly faced with a crisis in the form of a challenge from a competitor.  With her all male executive staff awaiting her plan of action, she suddenly breaks down, sobbing, “This is no place for a woman.”  Her male assistant comforts her with the words, “You’re just a woman.”  This aspersion irritates and toughens her up and she takes charge of the company again, but soon leave in pursuit of Thorne, finding him at a democratic carnival, a point the film telegraphs by making sure its audience sees some African Americans milling around.  By the film’s hazy “semio-system” we are supposed to see that Allison has learned a lesson in democratic behaviour.  Though she has shown traces of class snobbery, the film illogically conflates its class rebukes with her needing a lesson in natural womanhood.  When she confronts Thorne and he can see that she is now properly submissive, the film makes a gesture towards its earlier feminism: Thorne tells her that she should continue to run the company.  But, overcome by hormones, Allison responds that he should run the company and she will stay home and have “nine children.”  She had become a “natural” woman.  As in Let Us Be Gay, in Female feminism is an aberration provoked by male mistreatment.

This Side of Despair: How the Movies and American Life Intersected During the Great Depression by Philip Hanson (2008)

Let Us Be Gay (1930)By any standard the doyenne of American women playwrights of the twentieth century was Rachel Crothers, who achieved her first Broadway production in 1903, antedating by nearly ten years that of her only rival, Clare Kummer.  For the next thirty-four years, Crothers wrote almost a play a season, most now forgotten but several included in Burns Mantle’s annual Ten Best Plays volumes.  She must also be considered the American pioneer in writing this kind of social comedy, since her career goes back so much further than those of Behrman, Barry and the others.  From her large output, three films were made in the 30s, the very titles of which (Let Us Be Gay, When Ladies Meet and As Husbands Go) suggest the kind of lighthearted–but never light-minded–air that makes her work the very epitome of the drawing-room or, more precisely, country house comedy.

Let Us Be Gay (1930) offered Shearer a decided change of pace between the heavy dramatics of The Divorcee (1930) and Strangers May Kiss (1931), as a dowdy, bespectacled wife who loses her philandering husband (Rod La Rocque), then spends three years in Paris, after which the hard-working silkworm emerges as a glittering butterfly and femme fatale.  Invited for the inevitable weekend at the home of the standard determined dowager (Marie Dressler), she is asked to save the old lady’s granddaughter from her infatuation with a middle-aged roué by vamping him herself.  Though the others do not suspect, he is, of course, her ex-husband.  (It is remarkable how many plays which seemed to deal lightly with divorce still had the original couple getting back together; nearly ten years later, Shearer was still following the same pattern in The Women.)  With a cast that included Hedda Hopper, Sally Eilers and  Gilbert Emery, Let Us Be Gay was, said the Times, “a mirthful affair…eight reels of carefee madness.”

From Scarface to Scarlett by Roger Dooley (1979)

Ambitious as always, Norma decided to sandwich in yet another film before her child was due.  In a rush schedule, she tore through Let Us Be Gay in six weeks.  The Rachel Crothers play had been well received on Broadway, and Thalberg had felt it would be a good vehicle for his wife, since he and director Robert Z. Leonard could stage it in a succession of quick scenes, many of them constructed on the same soundstage, which conserved Shearer’s energies and stepped up the production pace.

For all its sparkle, smart dialogue, and snappy pacing, Let Us Be Gay was yet another story about the drab, colorless wife whose husband leaves her for more lively surroundings–and women–and who goes from ugly duckling to swan and collects her own share of admirers of the opposite sex.  In the end, of course, the errant husband sees what a sophisticated, sexy lady his little wren has become, and they are reunited.

Hedda Hopper, an actress then, played Shearer’s love rival for straying hubby Rob La Rocque, and Marie Dressler, who had shot to prominence as a character star after playing with Garbo in Anna Christie, played a society dowager who aids Shearer in becoming svelte, chic, and wise in the ways of the sex chase.  (This is not correct: it was Sally Eilers who was rivalling for La Rocque’s affections and Shearer was already sophisticated when her character met Dresslers.-Caren)

When we talked in 1964, Hopper dismissed Let Us Be Gay.  “It was just another of those thankless roles I was given at the time, though I was surprised to find myself Norma’s love rival; they usually had me presiding at a tea table and asking ‘Milke?  Sugar?'”  Hedda found herself amazed at Shearer’s ability to conceal her rapidly advancing pregnancy.  “The child was due in August, I believe, and the picture got released the same month!” she recalled.  “I asked Norma why in hell she wanted to cope with morning sickness and other pregnancy discomforts on a movie set when she could have been home taking it easy, and she said pregnancy made her bored and restless and she’d rather keep busy.  Also, she was afraid the fans would forget her if she stayed off the screen for many months.  Now that is what I call cold-blooded!”

As in The Divorcee, Shearer hid her figure behind tables and chairs and drapes.  When she had to wear anything of a more revealing nature, she got into stiff corsets and pored for hours over fitting designs.  “It took a miracle to keep her svelte,” Adrian later said, “but we performed that miracle and Irving later said it floored him.”

Thalberg’s mother disapproved mightily and let the family know that her son’s wife was jeopardizing the child, but Shearer told Frances Marion, who had crafted the action to keep Shearer’s physical movements at a minimum, that she was past caring what Mother Thalberg thought.  She was a grown woman of twenty-nine and would use her own judgment.

Another problem for Norma and Thalberg during the shooting of Let Us Be Gay was Rod La Rocque, who had unwisely been cast as the erring husband.  La Rocque had been a prominent silent star, and his 1927 marriage to the beautiful Vilma Banky, a Valentino costar in The Sheik’s last two films, had been one of the events of the year.  The Thalbergs liked Rod and wanted to help him repeat his earlier success, but his voice and diction defied the best efforts of Thalberg’s speech coaches.  Handsome and appealing, Rod was typical of the silent personalities whose voices failed to match their looks.  Critic Richard Dana Skinner in The Commonwealth confirmed everyone’s worst fears later when he wrote: “Mr. Rod La Rocque talks in the fashion of a traveling salesman who has about half-finished a course in elocution.  His diction is deliberately monotonous and marred by a strong [regional accent]…he gives one of the impression of being a hastily rehearsed amateur.”

After the picture’s release, Thalberg ceased his attempted revival of Rod La Rocque, and Rod, a sensible, realistic man, accepted with good grace the increasingly minor parts that came his way.  In 1941 he retired altogether and wound up a real estate broker, where he prospered mightily.

“These silent stars who fall victim to the mike,” Thalberg lamented to his wife.  “The ‘love of mike’ turns to the  ‘hate of mike,’ unfortunately!”  But they had no such problems with Marie Dressler, who after decades on the stage understood the spoken word better than anyone.  Her friend Frances Marion wrote some crackerjack dialogue for her as the society dame who teaches Shearer a few tricks in handling men and life, and Marie almost stole the show.  (Marion had gotten Marie reinstated in movies after Marie’s fight for actors’ rights evoked producers’ wrath.)

“That Norma is the most ambitious woman I ever met in my life,” Dressler commented to Marion.  “I can’t accuse her of stealing scenes; she’s gracious enough about giving other players their head, but does she pay attention to herself–mirrors, lighting, fittings, makeup, cosmetics, the whole caboodle!  I don’t know where she finds the time to get in there and act, but she manages that, too.  And pregnant, too!”

According to Frances Marion, a warm affection built up between Shearer and Dressler, who was to become one of the screen’s great stars in the next four years before her untimely death, and Shearer was  happy to be on hand for warm congratulations when Marie succeeded her as Oscar winner for 1931, winning for Min and Bill.  She also gave Marie some shrewd financial advice, which helped her salt away more than she would have otherwise.  Marie, Marion said, was a scatterbrain with money and a chronic soft touch.

The trade paper Exhibitor’s Herald-World, based in New York, said of the picture: “Norma Shearer and marie Dressler share the honors in this delightfully entertaining version of Rachel Crothers’ stage play.  Miss Dressler is no doubt laugh insurance for any picture.  But the role of a belligerent, blustering society dame here allotted her is a perfect vehicle for her brand of humor.”  The Commonwealth critic who had blasted La Rocque’s diction wrote of Shearer: “Her voice matches her personality and records with smoothness and effect.  Her scenes…have the lightness, vivacity and naturalness of life itself.”

Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence J. Quirk (1988)

I have been hemming and hawing if I should include this piece below because I don’t believe it’s true and in that case not very nice to malign real people’s characters.  But then when I thought of who joined me for the evening and I figured you would all get a laugh reading a little bit of badly written fantasy porn!  Ha ha!  Before you read the excerpt below, here are three reviews of the book it came from.  Caren

  1. This book should be on a roll in an outhouse.
  1. The most outrageous statement in the above bit of PR nonsense about this book is that it is “exceptionally well-written,” attributed to ‘Hollywood Inside,’ which is either a front for Porter himself, or an incomplete quote that continues “for a dyslexic monkey on LSD typing while going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.” This is a train-wreck of a book, an assault not only on Bogart and his peers but also the English language and the intelligence of the reader. It is unsubstantiated baloney, presented in a breathless frenzy of semi-literate rantings that barely make sense grammatically and syntactically, much less logically. I will say this for it: Once I started, I kept turning the pages, thinking that I was missing something that would make sense of this ridiculous verbal mess. I didn’t read it to the last page, I admit; it was just too awful to slog all the way through.
  1. I waited eagerly for this book to arrive in the mail only to be very disappointed upon reading it. It has an air of unreality about it as well as extreme vulgarity. No one could have been THAT disgusting all the time. Every woman in the book sounds exactly like an adolescent male, which leads me to wonder about the author himself.  Just not believable. I have no doubt that people in the entertainment industry were more sexually liberated than others at the time but to this extent? Give me a break!

Anonymous Reviews

Hump(hrey Bogart) might have fallen for (Nita) Naldi, but the male star of the film, Rod La Rocque, had fallen for his director.

Born in Chicago of an Irish mother and a French father, Rod had played mainly “boy parts,” often at a dollar a performance, before Brady Sr. cast him in Life (1920).  At the time he met Hump, he was living at a local YMCA with another aspiring actor, Ralph Graves.  A closeted homosexual, known for his good looks, elegant profile, and–years later–for a real-estate fortune he developed by buying up then-undesirable California real estate, Rod quickly became a factor in young Hump’s life.  La Rocque had already appeared in a Brady theatrical production Up the Ladder, with Brady’s daughter, Alice.  The play had bombed, but Brady Sr. was sufficiently impressed with the actor to give him a chance on film.

As Hump tried to direct Rod, the male star of the film had eyes only for Hump and not the camera.  Rod even suggested that Hump direct him privately so he’d know how to play his love scenes with Nita Naldi.  “I can play Naldi’s part and you can be me in the love scenes.”

Fellow sailors during his military duty had put the make on Hump, but he’d never been pursued by a homosexual as aggressively as he was chased by La Rocque.

“The fucker even send me roses and buys me chocolates,” Hump confessed to Bill.  “Like I’m his best dame or something.  He begs me to go out with him.  I can’t even go take a piss in the latrine but what he follows me, panting away.  He begs me to let him suck my dick.  I’m too nice a guy to punch him out.  Besides, he’s the star of my picture, and I don’t want to mess up his face.”

Hump didn’t become La Rocque’s lover but offered some good professional advice when the actor came to him to discuss screen billings.  “Here is my choice of names,” La Rocque said.  He’d written down suggestions for screen credit on a piece of paper which he handed to Hump.

Roderick La Rock.  Rodney La Rock.  Roderick La Rocque.  Rodney LaRocque or Rod laRocque.  Hump studied the sheet, then wrote, “None of the above.  Make it Rod La Rocque.  It’s catchy.”

When Brady Sr. back in New York saw the first footage of Life directed by Hump, he was horrified….The next day Brady drove over to Fort Lee and personally fired Hump, taking over as director himself.

The Secret Life of Humphrey Bogart: The Early Years (1899-1931) by Darwin Porter (June 2003)

Joining me for the evening was Brandy, Christina, Ronda, Allison, Stan, Christiane, Scott, Allen, Calvin and Chris.

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2 thoughts on “Lady of the Night (1925) and Let Us Be Gay (1930)

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