Thursday, July 23, 2009

Emma (1932)

Emma (no relation to the Jane Austin story) is one of the best Marie Dressler dramas - perhaps, in its gentle way, even stronger than Min and Bill.

Nominated for an Academy award for her role, Dressler plays the nanny for the four children of an inventor (well-played by Jean Hersholt). When Dressler and the inventor marry, most of the children revolt against the relationship, culminating in Dressler being dragged to court on malicious charges by the very kids she spent her life raising.

The screenplay, written by Dressler's friend and supporter, Frances Marion, is tailor-made for her, allowing Dressler a full range of emotions. The story is sentimental and endearing in the best ways; it has the ache of real emotions in it, such as the very effective scene in which Emma sees the ghost memories of the children she raised, in her vacant, lonely house.The long marriage proposal scene, beginning in her bedroom and ending in the middle of an airport, is also quite effectively sustained; the director, Clarence Brown, was perfect for sequences such as this.

One could argue that Emma's unblinking belief in her children (most of whom grew up vile and greedy) was naive. So what? Emma's not a perfect person, and it's the humanity of the characters that makes the film enjoyable eighty years later.

That Dressler's style could be utilized for dramas like this in addition to her career as a comedian is a testament to her versatility and professionalism.

Myrna Loy plays one of the bratty kids, in a role that in no way stands out.

Side note: the railroad station scene, featuring lingering close-up shots of a broad-range of just-released magazines, is a freeze-frame extravaganza for magazine collectors.

Emma has been released on Warner Bros. Archive DVD.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Strangers May Kiss (1931)

What a crazy, mixed-up movie! Rich man Robert Montgomery is a kindly dipsomaniac in love with rich girl Norma Shearer (I assume they're independently wealthy - are they ever shown working a job?), but Shearer is instead lollygagging about with a handsome but caddish, globe traveling news correspondent (played by future Commissioner Gordon Neil Hamilton).

Hamilton leads her on, lies to her, then leaves her to travel her own way back from Mexico! Spurned Shearer then does what nearly every spurned woman did in MGM films of this period: she sleeps her way across Europe with one aristocrat after another, natch!

To add to the confusion of the viewer (if not the characters), Shearer goes back to the untrustworthy worm in the last scene (all he does is glare at her and she's his) while Montgomery feebly and complacently looks forward to his next drink. The end.

Mick LaSalle, in his fine book on women in pre-code movies, Complicated Women, extols Strangers May Kiss as an adventurous "pop-feminist document", far ahead of its time.This is probably true, though it is noteworthy that none of the characters in the film seem particularly happy about their situations or choices; if the film is a feminist document, it's perhaps prescient in that regard, too.

The usual MGM slickness is in the house with stunning art deco sets and gorgeous gowns (though the movie is hampered by some very poor editing). The greatest actors and sets in the world won't help, though, if you find the characters absurd, unlikable, or nuts. Complexly amoral characters were frequent in pre-code movies, but what worked in Norma Shearer films like The Divorcee and A Free Soul just ain't working here.

Strangers May Kiss isn't available on DVD or VHS, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.