Saturday, June 29, 2013

Strange Interlude (1932)

I watched Strange Interlude so you don't have to.

Harsh words for a glossy, high-end 1932 MGM movie, perhaps, but the experimentation in Strange Interlude not only doesn't work, it makes for a downright unpleasant movie watching experience.

Strange Interlude is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning Eugene O'Neill play that has the following conceit: the audience can hear selected thoughts of selected characters. This method was handled in various ways onstage, including the actors holding face masks. In the MGM movie, character's voices are heard on the soundtrack while the actors keep their mouths closed but go through facial acting gyrations as if they speaking. It doesn't work. Director Robert Z. Leonard seemed to have realized it doesn't work because the technique is used less often as the film progresses. And, does it progress: the movie's only 109 minutes long, but by the end it feels like three hours.

The story is long, convoluted and unbelievable. Norma Shearer plays Nina, pining for a lost, unrequited love who died in WWI. She has an odd relationship with her Sigmund Freud-like father, who exits the film quickly (I suspect his role was larger in the play version). She then ping pongs between Clark Gable as her doctor and lover, Alexander Kirkland as her long suffering husband and Ralph Morgan as a pathetic, lovelorn uncle type. The mechanics of the plot I'll leave to your imagination or, if you plan on watching the film, your discovery.

The original play's length was at least twice as long as the filmed version, a length which, I hope, allowed for more subtlety and complexity. When those essential elements are stripped away from Strange Interlude, what's left is sheer melodrama. Strange Interlude invokes madness and the prospect of more madness as an essential plot device. Given more space and attention, that device could have been more believable (as in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer). Here, it's just an absurdity piled on top of other absurdities.

Despite the fact that the film is pre-code, its reticence also harms it. The ad for the film claimed, "For the first time, you hear the hidden, unspoken thoughts of people!", but these thoughts are sanitized. In the play, Nina aborts the (perceived) mad child she had with her husband, but that act isn't mentioned here. The script for Strange Interlude was written by Bess Meredyth, who'd been writing movies since 1910. Meredyth worked on a lot of good movies, but MGM's Strange Interlude needed a more modern sensibility. (Groucho Marx had it, with writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, making fun of Strange Interlude in their stage show and movie, Animal Crackers).

The makeup was also no help. As the characters age, Shearer looks beautiful, but poor Clark Gable looks like he walked out of a coal mine; his makeup is completely unconvincing. The best I can say of the many fine actors involved is they did the best they could with the script they were given. Young Robert Young has an especially thankless role, playing one of the most clueless and dense sons in film history.

Strange Interlude is available on Warner Brothers Archive DVD-R.

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