Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Strange Interlude (1932)


Strange Interlude is based on the play of the same title by famed playwright Eugene O’Neill. The feel and dramatic-ness of the stage play is carried over nicely into the film version starring Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.
            Shearer plays Nina Leeds. In the beginning of the film she has lost the love of her life Gordon in World War I when his plane was shot down. To get over the loss she goes to work as a nurse in an army hospital. While working at the hospital she meets a doctor named Ned Darrell (Clark Gable). After a year of being away her father dies and to get over the pain of losing her father she marries a man named Sam who is very sweet and kind. Her friend Charlie who is not happy about Nina marrying another man but he was always too timid and shy to say his real feelings for her out loud and all she really thinks of him as is “Dear Old Charlie.”
            Nina really loves Sam but unfortunately she finds out that mental illness runs in his family. His mother has kept it from him all his life and he must never know and never have children. Nina is devastated but she really wants to have children to make Sam happy. She tells Ned about her situation. She and Ned agree to an affair to give Sam the child he wants. Ned and Nina begin to fall in love with each other and their lives become complicated. The next time they see each other their baby Gordon has been born.
            No one knows about Gordon not being Sam’s son until the end when Nina breaks down and tells Charlie who has suspected something between her and Ned for many years.
            Looking at the film today without the eye of a true film buff or classic film fan it is a bad soap opera completely over acted by everyone (especially at the end, even I had to cringe in shame). Well I guess the same could be said for me I found it over the top and the acting annoying most of the time. But I could not stop watching Strange Interlude I found myself really enjoying it and wanting to see more. What probably made the film addicting was the use of voiceovers for internal monologues. Just as in the play we get to hear what the characters are thinking. No one says what they really feel or think but we know and because we know what they really want to say and how they really feel we are left in a bit of suspense.
            Norma Shearer for how much she over acted I found her to be really good. Throughout the whole film Nina plays with the emotions and devotions of all three of the men in her life. She was manipulative and got what she wanted but she was never truly happy. Nina truly loved Ned not Sam. Shearer played all the emotions the character was feeling very well. You can tell with her facial expressions in certain scenes especially when the internal monologue is being played that she was a silent film actress she was able to show so much emotion. As much as I like Shearer her acting can be bothersome but I found she was at her calmest with her acting when she acted/spoke her voiceovers.
            Clark Gable was pretty much being his Clark Gable self. He was the macho guy with not too much emotion. But like some Gable films when he does need to show some sentimental emotion he does a very good job.
            I like Shearer and Gable together. They were in A Free Soul and Idiot’s Delight together as well. To me he seems like the sturdy acting anchor to Shearer’s over acting. My favorite scene between them is when they agree to the affair: Shearer looks at Gable so seductively and he gives  an even greater stare of lust right back. The sexual tension could be felt through the screen.

            I kind of felt bad for Sam and Charlie which I guess is what we are made to feel for them. Sam was the bumbling, kind, sweet man that no one could hurt because he would go crazy (literally). His sweetness is enough to make your teeth hurt and your blood boil. Ralph Morgan as Charlie reminded me too much of Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker in Laura so I thought nothing of him. Maureen O’Sullivan makes a short appearance at the end as Gordon’s fiancée and she even gets her own quick internal monologue.
            Strange Interlude is a very good early Hollywood pre-code film. The play by O’Neill was a bit more risqué but of course this was Hollywood back in the puritanical days even though it was the pre-code era. The film is even risqué for the time it was made no matter how much it had been censored (there is a part with Shearer walking around in a robe all seductive with one side hanging off her shoulder).  What really set me to liking the film is that it is not what we are expecting. We get this build up of oh- finally- Nina- and- Ned- are- going- to- tell- everyone- about- Gordon- and- run- away- with- each- other but they never do. I like the unexpected I like that twist. Audiences want to feel they are smarter than the film and think they know what will happen but with this we cannot outsmart the screenplay. Another thing I really like is that Sam and Gordon never find out the truth which is great because sometimes as proof with this film not telling people things brings the most drama. Nina and Ned were psychologically a mess from keeping their secret which was fantastic. With stories I always like to know what the character is thinking and feeling so I found the voiceovers very clever.
            Strange Interlude was not well received when it was first released in 1932. The story is outrageously intelligent: Nina, Ned, and Charlie are all psychologically and emotionally tormented over worrying about everyone else. Nina can never get over the loss of her first love Gordon, even at the end of the film when she is supposed to be in her old age she still has Gordon on her mind; Ned never got over Nina and was tortured by the fact that he could never be a real father to his son and that his son would never really know about him; Charlie tormented himself that he never could express his love for Nina and lost out on marrying her. This setup is still not typical for a film even today so I can understand why not too many people liked it which is a shame.
            If you like pre-code films and are interested in really getting to the minds of characters watch Strange Interlude… at least once. Currently available on DVD and to view on Youtube.

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer
“Strange Interlude” (1932)