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Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Strange Interlude (1932)

Director: Robert Z Leonard
Stars: Norma Shearer and Clark Gable

When this project morphed from being about classic bad movies into why classic bad movies were made, Strange Interlude was an immediate choice. It wouldn't have fit well with my other reviews that were mostly of genre flicks, often low budget in nature, a basic sampling of what people have traditionally called the worst movies ever made. By comparison, this was a big budget production from the biggest studio of them all that featured many major names. Yet the reason for its rather spectacular failure fits perfectly here, because it has to live or die on its gimmick, a scenario that it shares with many of those low budget genre movies. Not only does it die, it dies horribly in ways that would have swept the Razzies, had they existed in 1932. Even back then, this must have felt horrible, but the passage of eighty years has only worsened it. Now, it's frankly impossible to see this quintessentially serious picture and not laugh. Well, laugh or cry.

Like many pictures from the early thirties, when sound technology was still in its infancy, Strange Interlude was sourced from a play. It's an experimental piece from the groundbreaking American playwright Eugene O'Neill, who wrote it in 1923, with two Pulitzers already to his name for Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie, though it wasn't staged until 1928, when it won him a third. He'd make it four with Long Day's Journey into Night. While O'Neill was established as a playwright, he wasn't yet well represented on film, perhaps because of the talky nature of his work, four of the five screen adaptations of his plays made earlier than this being of Anna Christie, including the famous 'Garbo Talks!' film in 1930. Strange Interlude played for 426 performances on Broadway, even though its nine acts meant a four hour running time that became increasingly broken up over two nights or with a break for dinner halfway through.

While the Hollywood of the thirties was drawn to popular plays like a kid to candy, you might have thought that it would have paused for thought at such a length. While epic films are nothing new, D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance each running over three hours even in the mid-1910s, this isn't an epic story, it's a melodrama. MGM hacked it down to 100 minutes. You might have thought it would have baulked at the subject matter, which had often led to the play being censored or banned outright. Even in the relatively free days of the precodes, films were allowed less than plays. This material was all cut, prompting O'Neill to call it the adaptation he liked the least and that MGM had 'censored it into near-imbecility'. Most of all, you'd think that they'd have seen flags in the gimmick, which to my eyes is an idea inherently rooted in the stage and utterly unsuited to film, except in parody, as Groucho Marx ably demonstrated in 1930's Animal Crackers.

This gimmick is a modern adaptation of the soliloquy, a theatrical convention that allows an actor to temporarily remove himself from the body of the play and speak his thoughts aloud. It's an age old convention well used by Shakespeare, who wrote some of the most famous soliloquys, such as 'To be or not to be' in Hamlet or 'Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?' in Romeo and Juliet. Usually grandiose in nature, it mostly disappeared from the stage when playwrights moved more towards realism, but O'Neill brought it back with a vengeance. Rather than give his characters a few long soliloquys, he wrote them many brief ones, more like asides not aimed at the audience, and they pepper the dialogue continually. To avoid staginess on film, they were provided here in voiceover, as the actors pause to look pensive and act out their thoughts with facial movements or body language. Unfortunately, this breaks the flow, prompts overacting and looks stupid.
Revisiting Strange Interlude after almost a decade, it looks even more stupid than before, because now I realise just how important these actors are. When I first saw it, I didn't have much of a clue. I had seen May Robson in Lady for a Day and Bringing Up Baby and Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan movies, but I only really knew Clark Gable at this point and even there I hadn't yet realised what importance his precodes had, as he redefined the concept of masculinity by slapping his co-star here, Norma Shearer, a year earlier in A Free Soul. Now, I realise that this was a major cast, not only Gable, who would literally be voted King of Hollywood in 1938, but Shearer, the epitome of the liberated woman on film and the wife of MGM's wunderkind, Irving Thalberg; Ralph Morgan, a perennial screen villain who co-founded the Screen Actors Guild and served as its first president; and Robert Young, who later found fame on TV in Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, MD.

Unlike some critics, I don't believe the actors were miscast, even Gable clearly there to serve as the masculine ideal, as he did so often in the precodes. However they're as clearly hamstrung by the gimmick as the film is by its relentless bowdlerisation. The story revolves around Nina Leeds, who begins as a histrionic young lady pining for Gordon Shaw, a World War I flier shot down and killed in action. In turn, a family friend, Charlie Marsden, pines for her but can't confess his love. She decides to honour Gordon's name by caring for disabled servicemen in a sanitorium, only to turn into a tramp. She marries Sam Evans, a likeable but forgettable soul, but is then warned by his mother that hereditary insanity in his family means she shouldn't have kids. So she bears the child of Dr Ned Darrell, his best friend, whose career can't afford a relationship, while pretending that it's Sam's. As you can imagine, she falls for Darrell and heartrending melodrama ensues.

I tried to imagine how this would all play out without the gimmick. Back in 1932, it would surely have been much better, audiences generally being far more accepting of melodramas. Nowadays, it would still be improved, though the result would be painful nonetheless. Perhaps going back to the original play might work, as the 253 minute television adaptation for American Playhouse did in 1988, but I haven't seen it or the play, so I can only assume that it all unfolds better as O'Neill wrote it rather than as Hollywood crippled it. One major problem here is that there isn't a single character worth caring about or rooting for. O'Neill is known for his pessimistic realism, so it may be that he's as responsible for that as the Hollywood screenwriters who attempted to adapt his work. Certainly the soliloquy gimmick enhances the pessimism, almost every voiceover thought being negative, if not downright bitchy, and I'm talking about the men too.

If it would be a poor film without the gimmick, it's a truly abysmal one with it, as highlighted by the few scenes that are fast paced enough to disallow the possibility for thought. The best scene in the film is probably the one where Nina's mother-in-law explains the insanity in the family and rushes her upstairs to look at Sam's crazy cackling aunt. Without time to think, this is traditional and capably shot, but it doesn't run long, and any dramatic tension it builds is lost with the first thought that follows. You see, every thought means a pause, not just by the actor who's thinking but to the action unfolding or the conversation in motion. We discover in the very first scene that two characters can't think at the same time because they would interfere with each other, so the thoughts unfold in serial rather than parallel. Soon afterwards, there's a thought conversation in which Darrell and Marsden politely take turns thinking while the actors mirror it all in facial tics.
Perhaps the definitive scene of the picture has the four main characters fall into thoughtful poses in close quarters, while Nina thinks about her 'three men'. It's a well composed shot, beautifully put together, and Nina's thought underlines how picturesque it all is: 'That makes it perfect!' she thinks. The catch is that it's not the result of happy characters thinking happy thoughts, it's the result of miserable characters thinking miserable thoughts, so it becomes a perversion of the picturesque, a parody in which three of the four characters look utterly downtrodden. Only Sam, apparently immune from such misery, is happy and in being so, appears to have photobombed the scene. The definitive scene for the gimmick is the one when Marsden becomes Sam's silent partner entirely as a dig at Darrell, after figuring out his and Nina's big secret through a surreal Mexican thought standoff. Thoughts here are musings far less often than they're weapons.

While the gimmick has aged terribly, the film has aged even worse, though not always on its own merits. While melodrama has been out of style since the 1940s, the sort of story that feels like it's being depressing for the sake of being depressing has been out of style since the 1970s, after the kitchen sink drama ran its course. Those films succeeded because of their grounding in working class struggles, eliciting at least some sympathy at the plight of others. This kitchen sink drama is from an era where the characters never need to see the kitchen, let alone the sink, and there isn't any sympathy in their misery. They dug their own holes and frankly, we don't want to see them climb out. We don't care about characters like this any more, who spend years sick because they don't want to be well, flounce around for sixty years not declaring their love or describe falling in love and getting pregnant as 'that scientific afternoon', even if only half of it was planned.

Some of it is pure coincidence and utterly not the fault of the filmmakers at all, but still telling to posterity. When Robert Young tells Clark Gable that he ought to spank him, it isn't just sexually inappropriate, it's the punchline to a cinematic joke that hadn't been written yet. It's as wrong as Jackie Chan having to fight Peter Fonda. Ralph Morgan cornered the market on polite heels who were less gentlemanly than those given to George Sanders, but his endless scheming in thought makes him reminiscent of Jonathan Harris in Lost in Space. Suddenly Good Old Charlie becomes Sinister Dr Smith and any power in his acting is gone. Even worse, translating the play's gimmick to voiceover as actors pause for effect feels like a gift to Mystery Science Theater 3000. As each thought is more histrionic than the last, as well as the speech that preceded it, it's increasingly difficult to avoid hearing these thoughts as inserted comments by Joel and the bots.

Some of it is less forgiveable. Having Shearer get more and more melodramatic, even as she says, 'I can't feel anything at all,' sounds like deliberate irony, but it isn't. It's incompetent writing. When she falls into Charlie's lap and confesses that she's been bad and wants to be punished, that may have been free of sexual innuendo in 1932 but it certainly couldn't lead to Charlie telling her that she should marry Sam in anything but a bad script. Given that Shearer brought life to a vast array of Adrian's famous gowns in MGM movies, her truly awful dress here that serves only to highlight that she isn't wearing a bra is a major mistake. Perhaps aging the adult characters two decades for every one young Gordon Evans grows is a deliberate commentary on how misery adds years but I doubt it. It's just overdone makeup, even if it gave Gable his first screen moustache. Above all, the gimmick isn't forgiveable at all. Even William Castle couldn't have made it work.

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