Monday, December 03, 2001


I watched these two early talkies, both starring Norma Shearer, in one sitting. They are very similar in style, content, and performances. Both are based on plays and the staginess of the material shows. Both are set among the upper class, and the acting style is exaggerated, artifical, and full of stereotyped mannerisms. Still, both had fun moments.

CHEYNEY, which was remade a few years later with Joan Crawford, is about a woman posing as a high society divorcee in order to steal jewels (with the help of a small band of conspirators who pose as her servants). She winds up spending the weekend at a house party where she falls in love with Basil Rathbone and ends up going straight. The best, most subtle performance here is by George Barraud as her primary confederate (and, apparently, lover).

In GAY, Shearer begins the movie as a dowdy wife and mother (she is made up to look so *very* plain that it took me several minutes to be sure that it was indeed her playing the part) who divorces her philandering husband, then meets up with him again three years later at a high society house party. She has transformed herself into a stunning beauty and charming wit, and of course, we know very soon that they will wind up together by the end. Rod La Rocque is absolutely terrible as the husband--he sounds like a cross between Vincent Price and Jack Benny, and looks pretty silly to boot. The best male performance is from Tyrell Davis as a silly, poetry-spouting buffoon.

The exaggerated performances in both movies seem to be partially on purpose, as a way of acting "upper-crust," but they do date the movies. It's difficult to tell if a character is actually supposed to be seen as genuine, duplicitious, or ridiculous. Hedda Hopper is in both and isn't bad, especially as the silly bitch in GAY, but the male actors are all fairly laughable. In GAY, all of them in fact seem rather light in their loafers even though, despite the evidence, they are all supposed to be solidly heterosexual. Being early talkies, they are both directed in very stagy fashion, like the Marx Brothers COCOANUTS, where most scenes are played in front of a static camera. GAY's direction is particularly inept, with several odd shots that look accidental but were kept in anyway. Marie Dressler gives a rather weak performance, fluffing a few lines, but I chalk that up to direction as well. Other scenes involve missed cues that they just decided to print and not shoot over. I can't really imagine watching either one again, but viewed as cultural artifacts, they were quite interesting.

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