Monday, December 03, 2007

The Queen of MGM

No, not me. Norma Shearer. And she was, too! (Although there was a point, years later, when the Arthur Freed musical unit was alleged to have entered the commissary one day, en masse, only to have Ethel Barrymore announce at the top of her lungs, "WELL, HERE COMES THE ROYAL FAMILY." -- one assumes she was referring to Vincente Minnelli, of course, or one of the many other queens in the musical unit).

Norma came by the title in good old-fashioned Hollywood Style. By marrying the 2nd in command at the studio, Irving Thalberg (yes, THAT Irving Thalberg, whom the award is named after).

She was no great beauty, but she did light and photograph beautifully. Her acting was stilted and forced and more reminiscent of the highly-stylized acting style of lower East Side Yiddish melodramas than of the more naturalistic style that the talkies had ushered in. She tended to "indicate" with her hands.... a lot.

Nevertheless, I've always like Norma. She was fun to watch and, being Irving's wife, the studio lavished her with huge productions and spectacular sets and costumes. They spared no expense in making her one of their top 10 stars.

Until Irving unexpectedly died, of course. And that was pretty much the end of that. No more lavish productions (her really big movies never turned profits, even though they were very popular), and no more painstaking photography and lighting to cover up for her "lazy eye" condition.

One of her most stupendous roles was as "Marie Antoinette" produced by MGM in 1938. I only ever saw a bowdlerized print of it, when I was a kid, on the Early Show in Philly, circa 65-66. But I wanted to see the whole thing. A year or so ago I read that Criterion (I think) had come up with a beautifully restored print, complete with the original overture, entr'acte and exit music, plus a lot of deleted scenes. I wanted it, so I added it to my wish list on

And there it languished, like Norma, for a whole year. Until this past weekend. A friend of mine (a very good friend of mine) had raided my Wish List and not only ordered it but also a director's cut version of Altman's "Nashville" which I've not seen (because it's so long) since it's original release back in the 70's.

Wouldn't you know it, the cable went out for the weekend. So I had NO choice but the watch it (Marie). It's long by 1938 standards. Over 2 and a half hours. For a black and white film it's humongous (the additional material on the DVD quotes statistics like "10,000 costumes, 5,000 extras, 98 huge sets). I was mesmerized. Tyrone Power plays the Swedish Count who is the real love interest of the frivolous little Queen. Robert Morley (in his 1st Hollywood role) is the Dauphin/Louis XVI to whom she is married off, John Barrymore plays his grandfather, old Louis, and Joseph Schildkraut plays the smarmy Duc D'Orleans who is secretly in cahoots with the revolutionaries.

I love movies like this. I could watch 'em all day long (although I must confess that during some of the revolutionary crowd scenes I half expected Cloris Leachman to burst in and to plead with the people of Fraance, er, Fraahhhnce to storm the Bastille).

What was utterly amazing to me, though, was that Norma, near the end of the movie when she's a prisoner in the Bastille awaiting execution, allowed herself to be shown on camera looking run down, dowdy, careworn and, frankly, just plain "bad." Her hair is a mess. Her face all wrinkled. It looks like she's not wearing any makeup and her skin shows it.

This movie was filmed at a time when even the most beat up harridan/heroines were always shown looking like a million bucks just before they got strapped into the electric chair up at Sing-Sing. It took a lot of courage, I thought, for Norma to allow herself to be seen in the last minutes of the film looking so bad. That's how people would remember her after they'd left the theater.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I'm extremely grateful to my friend for her thoughtfulness. It was a timely gift and exactly what I needed to pick me up given some of the events this past week.

So thank you, Bev!

And more on the rest of my weekend anon.


Mrs. R said...

I LOVE Marie Antoinette. Tyrone is SO SWOONWORTHY. One of my favorite of his roles. The film was intended to be in color but they went too far over budget, which is a real shame. Norma fell hard for Tyrone but by then he had met Annabella, his first wife, and also, I think he liked to be the aggressor.

One point of interest is that Zanuck lent Tyrone Power out understanding that he was to have a leading role. (Norma had requested him.) When he saw the size of the role of Axel, Zanuck felt that MGM had used him and thrown his top star into a small part. He was furious and said he would never, ever lend Tyrone Power out again. Tyrone Power at that time was in the top 10 box office and therefore lost out on Paris in Kings Row, Ashley in Gone With the Wind, and Joe in Golden Boy, among others. He could have been in many more important films.

JoyZeeBoy said...

Oooohhh, another fan! I didn't know the subplot involving Zanuck lending Ty out for the role. Thanks for the dish, er, details.

Bev Sykes said...

:) Your enjoyment made my whole day!

JoyZeeBoy said...

I've been thinking about this and I'm glad that Ty missed out on playing Ashley Wilkes. Frankly, I think Ty was too butch to play the part.