Not That Innocent

Basil Rathbone and Norma Shearer

During her career as a silent screen actress, Norma Shearer was often cast as the ingenue even though her talents – and interests – were equally suited to more complex roles.

(For an early example, see her astonishing dual role as women from two very different social strata in the 1925 silent classic Lady Of The Night.)

Once she moved onto talkies, however, Shearer blew up her sweet on-screen image with roles that, in the words of film critic Mick LaSalle, “played off her propriety against her impetuosity.”

In The Last Of Mrs. Cheney (1929), her second role in a film with sound, Shearer played a jewel thief who posed as a socialite to scam her victims. Although “Mrs. Cheney” – like many early talkies, is stiff and slow-paced – Shearer’s portrayal of the title character is filled with such a lust for life that it is easy to see why she easily enchants the upper crust.

The most interesting sequences take place in her interactions with Basil Rathbone, who skillfully inhabits the role of a foppish cad and would-be suitor who suspects there is more to the clever and charming Mrs. Cheney than meets the eye.

One particular scene stands out as a summation of Shearer’s daring new image. Rathbone, who is growing more and more interested in the elusive – if flirtatious – Mrs. Cheney, asks if she is a good woman.

“Not very,” she replies.

Rathbone’s character repeats the question, eliciting this response: “There is more than one way of being a good woman.”

Pressed a third time, Shearer’s character smiles and reassuringly says, “I am.”

As the movie progresses, it becomes evident that each response is the truth as Mrs. Cheney changes from skilled con woman to sympathetic heroine, sometimes within the span of seconds.

Dated elements of the film aside, I have a hard time picturing many modern movies that place high-profile actresses in such morally grey areas.

(Carey Mulligan in An Education perhaps, although her public image had yet to form much of an impression with the general public – outside of Doctor Who fans, I suppose – at that time. Otherwise, there seems to be a lot of black and white and little grey in Hollywood these days.)

The Last Mrs. Cheney was remade twice by Hollywood, once in 1937 starring Shearer’s arch-rival, Joan Crawford.

By that point in time, Tinsel Town had grown use to the use of sound and had increased its technical expertise a hundredfold. The film is decidedly slicker and more fast-paced than its predecessor, but Crawford –  for all her admitted talent – doesn’t capture Shearer’s spark.

Crawford plays the part well, but it is generic. Shearer’s Mrs. Cheney, however, was a living, breathing character who refused to be hemmed in by the expectations of society

That woman, who would be further fleshed out in such Pre-Code classics as The Divorcee and A Free Soul, is  – to once again take a page from LaSalle, “fresh and timeless.”

Thoroughly Modern Norma

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The morals of yesterday are no more. They are as dead as the day they were lived. Economic independence has put woman on exactly the same footing as man.

Norma Shearer

I  recently “discovered” Shearer’s work on Turner Classic Movies, which aired the Hollywood pre-Code classic The Divorcee.

Exceedingly bold for its day, the film told the tale of a woman who gets even with her philandering husband by enjoying a quick tryst with his best friend. I couldn’t help but be moved by Shearer’s ability to convey great strength and equally great vulnerability … often within the span of seconds.

A singular beauty and talent, Shearer in The Divorcee epitomized the modern woman 80 years before the fact.