Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lady of the Night directed by Monta Bell (starring Norma Shearer)

Lady of the Night (1925). Screenplay by Alice D.G. Miller from a story by Adela Rogers St. Johns.

I first became aware of Lady of the Night while reading Complicated Women, where author Mick LaSalle refers to it as the breakthrough of star Norma Shearer: "After the film's release, MGM stopped lending her to other studios. She was too valuable." He also praises Shearer's collaborations with Monta Bell (the director of this film and several others with the actress) as "delicate, poem-like films with a bite to them."

I'm not a huge fan of silent films in general, as much as I would like to be, but when I saw that it was going to be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, I set my recorder. I'm so glad I did. First off, in reference to my previous comment, once Lady of the Night began, I never once remembered that I was watching a silent film. Not only is the brand new score by Jon Mirsalis wonderfully apt to the point of invisibility, but the story is immensely involving because the characters are so engaging. Monta Bell's direction tops everything off with further storytelling touches using only visuals.

The plot of Lady of the Night involves two women from the proverbial opposite sides of the tracks: Florence Banning (Shearer) is the daughter of a rich judge/businessman, and Molly Helmer (also Shearer) is the daughter of a man sent to jail for 20 years on the day of her birth. Years later, they both graduate from school, Florence from the "Girls' Select School" and Molly from the "Girls' Reform School." Watch as Bell instantly sets up the different worlds: Florence leaves to much pomp and affection from her classmates, and Molly is kind of pushed out the front gate (of what looks like a prison) with her two friends, who immediately go their own separate ways. On the way home, Molly checks her reflection in a passing vehicle: a hearse.

Some time later, Molly has set herself up with "Chunky" Dunn (George K. Arthur), a milquetoasty "prince of fashion" who introduces her to ambitious inventor Dave Page (Malcolm McGregor), whom she instantly falls for, much to Chunky's chagrin. In fact, Molly is attempting to advise (and romance) him when he meets Florence while selling her father his new invention. (One could assume that the similar appearance of Florence and Molly is a consideration, but this is never mentioned in the film.)

One could say that the usual love-triangle conflict occurs, but the characters (especially Molly, one of Shearer's best performances, a true tour de force) are much too complex to be rules by cliches. Though both are played by Shearer, I never imagined Florence and Molly as anything other than two people who look alike.

Both are around 19 years old, but Shearer plays Molly as more worldly and "older," while Florence is giddy and much "younger." This speaks volumes about Shearer's work in Lady of the Night and suggests why she was so famous and respected in her heyday — in addition to bringing a sharp focus on the sad fact that so few of her early roles are available on video in any form.

The special effect of having both women sit together looks impressive even today (I couldn't see the line!). The only flaw is that, when they embrace, we do catch a glimpse of the double in profile. Interestingly enough, this is another famous face: that of a young Lucille LeSueur, still trying to break into the movies. Not long after, MGM would have a contest to rename Miss LeSueur (due to her surname resembling "le sewer"), and she would eventually be crowned "Joan Crawford."

At just over an hour, the story is tight and succinct, with no wasted film -- ideal for an evening's entertainment with time left over for discussion because the writing, acting, and direction are all top notch. It's only unfortunate that the Academy Awards would not begin for a few more years, or perhaps Lady of the Night would be better remembered as the terrific little film that it is.

2 comments:

Raquelle said...

I'm glad you liked this film! Most people either don't like it or only acknowledge it because Joan Crawford played Norma Shearer's body double.

I think it's a sweet story, very typical silent movie fare but Norma Shearer livens it up and makes it an enjoyable movie.

Craig Clarke said...

I don't see what's not to like about it, unless you just don't like melodrama (and therefore most silent fare). It's a sweet story, and Molly has surprising layers.

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