Stars: Norma Shearer, Basil Rathbone, Herbert Bunston and George Barraud
It's been a while since I've seen the 1937 version of this story, a golden age production featuring an all star cast including Joan Crawford, William Powell, Robert Montgomery, Frank Morgan and Nigel Bruce, among others. This predated it by eight years and an entire era, given that this is a precode, albeit one somewhat unique in its timing. The precodes got away with much that the production era simply couldn't, but they built up to their heyday: it's the pictures from 1932 to 1934 that are usually so notable, not the ones from the end of the twenties. This one, from 1929, closer to the silent era than the glory days of Warren William, opens with plenty of sparkling innuendo, much of it sexual. Verbal banter was an art long before this but it was a highlight of the early precodes because of how hard it was to move microphones, a key reason why so many were adapted from plays. Yet it's rare to see one quite so forward quite this early.
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.
I can't help but see the film as a collection of these scenes, because they and the two characters they contain are so full of life, while the rest of the film is so sadly lacking. Only George Barraud comes close to the lead couple, as Charles, Cheyney's intriguing butler. Everyone else in the cast is either far too good at being intensely annoying, such as Herbert Bunston and Cyril Chadwick, or too inconsequential to have much presence. Both these actors do their jobs well, as do the various ladies in the cast, but that doesn't make them enjoyable to watch. Late in the film is a breakfast scene, with almost the entire supporting cast bouncing off each other. It's perhaps the only scene in which they any offer any entertainment and then as an ensemble rather than as individuals; yet they're still overshadowed by Basil Rathbone sitting quietly at the end of the table and the underlying attempt to keep the most outrageous events impeccably polite.
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.
What all this quaintness leaves is a strange anomaly. From one angle it's a notable precode, full of moral ambiguity, with a strong leading lady and plenty of very forward dialogue. Yet instead of the usual modernity of the late precode pictures, full of reaction to the social situations of the time, this looks backward to a past age. So from another angle, it's a stagebound and talkative early sound picture that feels antiquated in its focus on manners, titles and reputations. I don't think I've ever seen such a quintessential mix of both ends of the precode era in a single film before. I'm far more used to seeing the past and future in late twenties movies for a different reason, one that's very apparent here: most of these actors were on their way out, while a few were on their way in. As with many early talkies, it's impossible not to realise which actors would thrive in the sound era, not because we recognise them but because it's just that obvious.
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.
On the other hand, it took a long while for me to appreciate Norma Shearer. It's easy to see her as important only as the wife of MGM's wunderkind, Irving Thalberg, but that's unfair. She was the female lead in MGM's first production, the Lon Chaney film He Who Gets Slapped, three years before marrying Thalberg, and her precodes demonstrate just how important she was as a strong woman who showed a young female audience how to escape the morals of the previous generation. Never mind overblown late thirties fare like The Women, watch her in precodes, as a succession of sexually active unmarried women, not pretty young things cast adrift in a man's world but sophisticated and experienced divorcées. Hollywood forgot her not for what she could do, but because, as with Warren William, for what she couldn't do any more under the code. This may be the best I've ever seen her, full of nuance and play, especially in the first half of the film.
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.