|Norma and Norma|
There’s a moment in this film when Norma Shearer leans over and embraces Norma Shearer. She’s playing two roles and in a critical scene her characters meet and make fateful decisions in the back of a limousine. We all think we know how it’s done: split screens and double exposure but that moment… you can’t quiet explain it away. Well, not until you realise that a double has been used briefly to play the more heavily made-up character: an uncredited actress named Joan Crawford.
Back in 1925 viewers wouldn’t have been able to freeze the frame and roll back the action to reveal the truth to the vague delight of their wife and daughter… nor would they have been able to recognise one of the most famous faces in cinema history... but I could, so there you go.
|Norma and Joan|
This snippet aside Lady of the Night’s major revelation was Miss Shearer herself who gives two top-notch performances in a manner my daughter described as naturalistic and unaffected – “she’s not like the rest: she’s almost modern…” (I feel that I’m giving our Beth a good grounding; don’t you?).
|Norma Molly and Norma Florence...|
Norma does indeed stand out and the same intelligence on evidence in her more famous pre-code hits can be seen here in the sassy, gum-chewing, broken hearted Molly Helmer. If you didn’t know she was also the soft, highly privileged but decent, Florence Banning you might struggle to recognise her… but that is acting. I get the impression she really enjoyed the former role more – there’s a lot more of an emotional ride and she’s the true noblewoman in the end; defined by her choices and not her position in society.
This is typical Hollywood double-think – an industry in a hurry to get rich quick, largely peddling tales in which the ordinary poor have it better because that choice of being “good” is much harder: this played well with their working class audience who then gave them back a fortune in return.
Miss Shearer is often accused of riding high on the extent of her husband, Irving Thalberg’s, considerable influence but this is some months before their affair began although she was in a relationship with this film’s Director Monta Bell at the time… But Norma Shearer is a darn fine actress and she shows it twice over in Lady of the Night (1925): even in the 1920’s women didn’t need any help from men in gaining success through sheer talent. And, do we really think that one of the best talent-spotters in Hollywood history would push the claims of anyone he didn’t think was anything less than exceptional?
On this evidence Shearer was an unique acting presence and one that relied more on skill than sheer good looks to impress. Her emoting is impressively nuanced and you are compelled to watch her every sneer, wince and head-tilt as her Molly struggles to make the best of things as the dice roll first for then against her…
The film opens with Molly’s father Chris being sent down for twenty years just after she is born. He says goodbye to her in handcuffs then rails against the wealthy Judge Banning (Fred Esmelton)
as his baby daughter is wheeled up safe in the arms of her rich aunt Miss Carr (Dale Fuller).
18 year’s later both girls are orphans and as Florence leaves her select school for girls, Molly leaves her reform school with her gum-chewing friends Gertie played by Betty Morrissey and another, un-named, performed by Gwen Lee.
|Typical Girls: Gwen Lee, Betty Morrissey and Norma Shearer|
Molly heads off to Kelly’s bar for an evening of dancing with her long-standing beau, “Chunky" Dunn (the marvellous George K. Arthur) whilst Florence attends an elegant coming out party. Chunky attempts to defend Molly form the attentions of a local wide-boy only for a neighbour, David Page (Malcolm McGregor) to have to step in and do the job properly. Molly is impressed and starts planning a boyfriend upgrade by inviting her rescuer to diner.
|George K. Arthur|
Mr Page is not just handy with his fists though, he’s an inventor and before his appointment he achieves the breakthrough he’s been working for: a device that can open any safe! Wow, if only the script had gone into more specifics on that one… He tells Molly and, their gooseberry for the evening, Chunky who suggests there will be a fortune available from the underworld but Molly’s having none of it and tells David to sell it as a security device to banks.
He follows the straight and narrow and seals a lucrative deal with local bankers and their wealthy backers – including Judge Banning. He meets Florence and falls in an instant… future life sorted – not bad for an evening’s work.
|Choices, choices... Malcolm McGregor and the Normas|
But… it’s not that simple and David’s life is to be eventually decided by the women in his life and not his own free will… an interesting progression from Alice D.G. Miller (who wrote the scenario) and Adela Rogers St. Johns who scripted. The ending’s not too surprising but the way we get there is based on moral code and not character weakness or happenstance… it’s not greatly dramatic but it is well done and Norma Shearer shines!
I watched the Warner Archives edition which comes with a cracking new score from Jon Mirsalis. It’s worth it for the double barrels of Norma and that first glimpse of Miss Crawford. It's available from Amazons...