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Saturday, 7 July 2007

A Lady of Chance (1928) Robert Z Leonard

Here's Norma Shearer's last silent film, not that it ended up that way. She's Dolly Morgan, aka Angel Face, a con artist who gets recognised pulling scams in a hotel by a couple of crooks who want her to work with them. One evening and ten thousand dollars later, she's back on the wanted list both by the cops and the crooks who try to swindle her but get swindled instead.

However she's long gone, at some cement convention trying to crack what would appear to be an easy mark but who turns out to be completely unlike she expected. He's Steve Crandall, played by Johnny Mack Brown, who has always seemed to me like the closest thing to Gary Cooper without actually being Gary Cooper. Back in the silent era, he was cast in women's pictures, with people like Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford and Norma Shearer, but soon he would find his way to westerns where he'd spend the rest of his long career.

Like Brown (and Cooper), Norma Shearer often tended to appear too serious, which got quickly boring and was a shame as she was very expressive when she chose to be. Here she gets to be extremely expressive, playing most scenes from a variety of temperaments depending on who the man in the scene was looking at. As possibly the ultimate example of what she could do, there's one extended closeup shot halfway through this film that is nothing but Shearer's face going through a multitude of emotions for almost forty seconds!

This is almost entirely Norma Shearer's show, unsurprisingly, but she has a little competition. Johnny Mack Brown's boyish charm is old but contagious and Brad, the lead crook, is played by silent regular Lowell Sherman who appears like half Bill Murray and half Edward Everett Horton. He and WAMPAS baby star Gwen Lee do a solid job of making their presence felt. The only downside is the overly sappy ending.

1928 was a strange time for movies, especially for MGM who hadn't bought into the whole concept of sound. Thus a whole bunch of pictures came out that were made as silents but had sound sequences added so as to not seem like throwbacks to a public very happy indeed at the arrival of the new technology. Those that I've seen seem like complete messes: half one thing, half another and wholly nothing at all. Lionel Barrymore's The Mysterious Island is a perfect example of how not to do it. I saw this as an entirely silent picture but it was another of those later messed around with by the studio. I'm glad I didn't see that version.

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