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Saturday, May 4, 2013

LET US BE GAY (1930)

This once popular Rachel Crothers play must have been catnip for actresses back when big theatrical stars still toured. Les grande dames (say Kit Cornell or Gertrude Lawrence) could slum thru the prologue as a drab little thing who smothers her husband with too much love before kicking the bum out after a surprise visit from the horrid mistress he’s been screwing. Three years later, our little brown wren has gone glam, a much desired divorcĂ©e who sets men a’twitter . . . even her own Ex. Norma Shearer was in the middle of her ‘daring modern women’ phase when she made this, with a characterization & character arc she’d largely repeat in THE WOMEN/’39, and she’s pretty insufferable in both. In the prologue, she’s as awkward as the Early Talkie technology, which lends a touching quality, and remarkably lovely sans make-up. (A stunt still popular among glamor media gals today.) But once she becomes a fascinatrix, she’s insufferable, adding a little laugh or two on every single line. As the eccentric hostess who’s having people in for a wknd of flirtation, Marie Dressler gives the sort of grotesquely over-scaled perf only a great talent can sink to. She’ll get her laughs or clobber you. Everyone else is veddy, veddy Mid-Atlantic in manner & accent, treading water as the early Talkie machinery slowly churns around them. Only Rod La Rocque, as the errant husband (a role played on B’way by William Warren), comes off as human. Well, Rod and a gorgeous little baby in the prologue, an uncredited Dickie Moore, still around today & married to Jane Powell. For the record, Robert Z. Leonard is listed as producer, but actually directed while Shearer’s husband, Irving Thalberg, produced without taking credit. But you can spot many a retake & insert he insisted upon, killing whatever rhythm the film might have had with mismatched shots. 

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Norma Shearer’s rep has never quite recovered from all her noble suffering, and from being over-parted in the classy theater adaptations Thalberg thought suited her. But she's a positive revelation working under Lubitsch in THE STUDENT PRINCE/’27; getting slapped by sexy, young Clark Gable in A FREE SOUL/’31; and she almost manages the high comedy of PRIVATE LIVES/’31 . . . if you can deal with those gay little laughs.

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