Stars: Norma Shearer, Basil Rathbone, Herbert Bunston and George Barraud
Otherwise it feels very late twenties. The early actors are very carefully enunciated, as befits a very early sound film. Only Hedda Hopper sounds remotely natural until Basil Rathbone wanders out of Mrs Cheyney's charity concert and promptly dominates the scene, not only with his clever and deliberate wit but with his effortless voice. He looks scarily young, somehow much younger than he appeared in films made only a year later, though he is buried under a good deal of makeup. He is excellent, matched only by Norma Shearer in the lead role. These two shine in a succession of glorious scenes, both as individual actors full of subtle nuance and as an engaging and charismatic pair. It's a shame that Rathbone's star hadn't yet risen to allow his name to join Shearer's above the title. Their interplay is an enticing to and fro affair, as Mrs Cheyney has Lord Arthur Dilling notably on the hop for a while, only for it to shift back and forth between them.
The term for such stories was 'comedy of manners' and that's notably more accurate here than usual. It's particularly fascinating to watch the reactions in this story. Certain actions naturally deserve contempt while others warrant forgiveness, though it takes impeccable manners and breeding to appropriately distinguish between the two. Larceny is far less heinous a crime than the abuse of hospitality, it seems, and early dishonesty can be outranked by later honesty, as long as the circumstances are appropriate. In other hands, this would be a crime drama with the MacGuffin the £50,000 string of pearls that Mrs Webley keeps by her bedside at night. Yet this is a comedy of manners with the MacGuffin the true moral character of the thief caught in the act. That's a quaint and fascinating concept, as much so as the bizarre facial acting that goes on between two people who don't look at each other very much. That happens a lot here.
I've been a Rathbone fan for years, but it's been tough to work backwards from his heyday in the code era to his earlier work. While movies like The Bishop Murder Case, The Lady of Scandal and Sin Takes a Holiday were decent and interesting films, for some reason I recall them less than A Notorious Affair, a much worse picture that epitomised the stodgy play-sourced early talkies. It's refreshing to see a dynamic Rathbone here: whether he's in command, attacking with his wit and romancing more emphatically than we might expect, or whether he's forced onto the defensive, battled back by the wit of Mrs Cheyney. It's a great performance, the earliest of his I've seen yet and presumably his sound debut, given that his previous film was three years earlier: a silent Ben Lyon picture called The Great Deception in 1926. The Last of Mrs Cheyney shows us a demonstrative Rathbone six years before stardom and a full decade before Sherlock Holmes.
Now I should go back to the 1937 version, not only to compare the quality of the two films and to see how they treat the same material differently, but to examine how far my understanding of such things has come in the intervening time. I saw the 1937 version early into my exploration of classic Hollywood and remember being impressed, but I can't help but wonder now whether I was really being impressed by the film or my early experiences of people like William Powell and Robert Montgomery. Like many modern viewers, I found that golden age films opened a glorious voyage of discovery, but after seven or eight intensive years of travelling through filmographies, both backwards and sideways, I realise that much of that gold was really gilt and the real magic is often harder to find. I have a feeling that this is going to be a great example, the 1929 version not as slick, not as polished, not as star studded, but a much better film for all that.