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Forbidden Hollywood Collection - Volumes One & Two

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I purchased the Criterion Collection's 2011 release of Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933) w/ Fredric March, Gary Cooper and Mirian Hopkins:


Paramount released Design for Living at the very end of 1933. With the possible exception of Baby Face (also 1933), no film did as much as Design for Living did to bring on full enforcement of the Code in 1934. And no wonder! The central conceit of the movie -- that Hopkins cannot choose between March and Cooper and therefore resolves to live in a menage a trois with them -- must have pushed public opinion of that time to its absolute limit. One can only wonder what censors of the time made of the very frank discussions of sex which occur in the movie!

March and Cooper are dynamite together as the best friends who find themselves in love with the same woman. They are like a proto-Bing Crosby/Bob Hope comedy team. It's a pity the two didn't make more films together.

Hopkins is the central pivot on which the movie turns and she gives a fine performance as the vacillating Gilda. I do find her accent off-putting, though. She hailed from Savannah but had the phony-baloney "refined" accent that so plagued early talkies. Why did so many female stars employ it when male stars like March and Cooper used regular American accents?

The Criterion Collection print transfer is outstanding.


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I must respectfully disagree on some things - when I saw this years ago I thought Lubitsch's timing was off and the picture proceeded rather clunkily, for him. I knew the Coward play well and was surprised at how much of his dialogue was discarded - Ben Hecht rewrote quite drastically. Given that the principals were March, Cooper, and Hopkins instead of Lunt, Coward, and Fontanne, this is understandable, but again weird if you're familiar with the play.

I remember Hopkins as very appealing and the accent didn't bother me (and stars hailing from the South tended to drop their regional accents at this period). I was not crazy about Cooper or March in this.

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Rewatched The Divorcee this weekend. I found myself really paying attention to the clothes and the Art Deco set design of Norma Shearer's apartment. The clothes, in particular, caught my interest. It had only been 16 years since the start of World War I. But given how women dressed then and how Shearer dressed in this 1930 movie, it may as well have been 160 years,

Oh, and I love how Shearer's character has a full-time maid for her tiny NY apartment!

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I just love Norma in her naughty-modern-woman-of-the-world phase and she looks fabulous in those bias-cut frocks. She was never anything like a real actor but she was definitely a real star.

Did you ever get around to checking out the 1931 Waterloo Bridge?

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She was never anything like a real actor but she was definitely a real star

The two commentators on the commentary track are generally quite positive about Shearer but even they admit that her performances tended to be a collection of calculated effects rather than seamless performances. But you know what? I don't care! There's a scene late in the movie where Shearer is filmed on location on the deck of a ship. She is lit so beautifully and the camera loves her so much that I just can't care that much about the acting deficiencies. Like you wrote, she was a true star!

The more I watch The Divorcee, the more impressed I get with Robert Montgomery and Florence Eldridge in supporting roles. Montgomery, in particular, is so effortless.

Did you ever get around to checking out the 1931 Waterloo Bridge?

Not yet. I tend to get obsessed with particular performers rather than specific movies.

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I saw it originally because It had Bette Davis in a small role, when she was still very much the ingenue. I think the '31 Bridge is one of the most interesting examples of pre-Code license. It's frank, but not salacious, like Baby Face, for example. (Interestingly, although it was a pre-Code flick, the heroine's ghastly end is distinctly post-Code in tone.)

Offhand I can't remember seeing a bad performance from Montgomery. He was a really gifted light comedian, but the competition at MGM was intense in that category in the 1930s. You should check out the Private Lives he did with Shearer if you haven't already. Eldridge could get a little hammy, like her husband Fredric March, but probably her best work never made it to the screen. It's too bad that March and she didn't get to recreate their stage roles as James and Mary Tyrone in the film version of Long Day's Journey Into Night. Not that Ralph Richardson and Katharine Hepburn are anything to sneeze at, but reportedly March and Eldridge were awesome - and perfectly cast in those roles, unlike Richardson and Hepburn.

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but the competition at MGM was intense in that category in the 1930s.

MGM, as it got going in the second half of the 1920s and really got going in the 1930s, was a very competitive place for everyone. Irene Mayer Selznick, the very perceptive daughter of Louis B. Mayer and first wife of David O. Selznick, had this to say about the subject (in the context of the Joan Crawford-Norma Shearer rivalry):

"She [Joan Crawford] blamed her overwhelming sense of rivalry on the preferred position Norma Shearer came to hold as Irving's wife, ignoring the fact that Norma didn't always get the roles she wanted. She also overlooked the fact that Norma had been with the company since early Mission Road and had traveled a long way. The truth was that, as the ever-growing group of MGM actresses reached stardom, each found the competition intense [my emphasis]. Every one of them had come up through the ranks except Garbo; she began as a star."

You can see the competitiveness in the way both Crawford and Shearer worked very, very hard after the introduction of sound movies on the MGM lot to update their images for this new medium (and new decade.) Garbo kind of sailed above the storm with her brand of anti-stardom stardom.

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Yeah, as you probably know, Shearer had to pose for some sexy shots by George Hurrell to get cast in The Divorcee, her Academy Award role, because her loving hubby didn't think she was hot enough for the role and initially refused to cast her. She was also away from the screen for prolonged periods because of pregnancies and Thalberg's ill health.

On the other hand, MGM spent a lot of dough on Romeo and Juliet because Norma hankered to play it, and there is no question that Thalberg was tending carefully to his wife's career. She made some bad decisions after he died. And by the middle of the decade Shearer's vehicles were getting the Garbo treatment - usually one or at most two pictures a year, presented as Events.

Most notable perhaps is the dominance of three giant female stars on one lot. There was Gable representing the menfolk, and then Garbo, Shearer, and Crawford (not necessarily in that order, I hasten to add, lest I offend any Hollywood shades). The competition was intense, but there was room for all of them, and they had clout.

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The Shearer/Hurrell story is one of my favorite stories from Old Hollywood because what ended up being a pivotal moment in Shearer's career hinged on several chance events:

  • If Ramon Novarro hadn't been worried about his MGM sound debut in 1929 (with Devil-May-Care), he wouldn't have started planning a career in light opera as a fallback.
  • If Novarro hadn't started planning a musical career as a backup, he wouldn't have needed high quality photos to promote it that didn't come from MGM.
  • If Novarro hadn't needed images of himself from outside MGM, his friend Poncho Barnes might not have recommended him to a struggling young photographer named George Hurrell.
  • If Hurrell hadn't taken such extraordinary images of Novarro at their first sitting, Novarro wouldn't have had a portfolio of photos to show to his good friend Norma Shearer on the MGM lot.
  • If Shearer hadn't seen the Novarro photos, would she have even known who Hurrell was, let alone booked a sitting with him in the hope of convincing her husband, Irving Thalberg, that she had the sex appeal to play the lead in The Divorcee?
  • If the Shearer hadn't convinced Thalberg to give her the part of Jerri, would her career have had the rocket power it did, at least through the first half of the 1930s?

The odd person out, of course, was Joan Crawford, who had been rumored to be in contention for the lead in The Divorcee. This more than anything else (in my opinion, anyway) fueled the sense of grievance Crawford harbored against Shearer for the remainder of the 30s (or at least until Thalberg died.) The irony of it all is that the only person who did more sittings with Hurrell during his career than Norma Shearer . . . was Joan Crawford. And Hurrell did as much as anybody to establish the Crawford persona via the extraordinary images they produced together.

and then Garbo, Shearer, and Crawford (not necessarily in that order, I hasten to add, lest I offend any Hollywood shades.) The competition was intense, but there was room for all of them, and they had clout.

Ahem. The APPROPRIATE order is Crawford, Garbo, and Shearer!!!!! wink1.gif

You are right that there was room for them all. There was no reason for Crawford to develop such resentment toward Shearer because they were never cast in similar types of roles. Shearer moved from girl-next-door roles in the silents to "liberated women" roles in her Pre-Code movies to literary/historical parts in the latter half of the 30s. Crawford went from playing flappers in the silents to shop-girls-on-the-rise in the 30s to parts in the 40s that presaged her great Middle Period at Warners.

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Nice picture. Shearer looks good. 

Shearer was one of TCM's featured stars this month. Miss Crawford is not, although they did just show one of my favorite Crawford performances, Flaemmchen in "Grand Hotel," flirting with John Barrymore and fending off Wallace Beery.


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