Monday, March 06, 2017

OVP: Their Own Desire (1929)

Film: Their Own Desire (1929)
Stars: Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Lewis Stone, Belle Bennett, Helene Millard
Director: E. Mason Hopper
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Actress-Norma Shearer)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

If there's any period in film history I find the hardest to review, it is surely the early talkies.  Coming out of the Sound Era, the marvel of films from this period was more along the lines of "wow, you can actually see someone talk" and not about, exactly, what they were saying itself.  As a result, I usually sit in puzzlement in how to handle these early films with my "born literally decades later" self.  Grading them on a curve is essential, but more to the point I have to sort of change how I'm looking at a piece of work.  By doing so, I can kind of get, for the first time, the appeal of Norma Shearer, a woman who was a massive hit with Oscar in the first decade of his existence, even if I don't know that I'd ever subscribe to giving her the Oscar (at least not yet-I've got some nominations left to go).

(Spoilers Ahead) Shearer, it's worth noting, is proof that not all screen stars are remembered equally and that even the brightest of an era get lost to film history if they aren't careful (I'm talking to you, Jennifer Lawrence).  While Joan Crawford's campy divadom is still relevant enough today that she's the subject of a new TV series and Greta Garbo has become synonymous with reclusive stardom, Norma Shearer is at best remembered as a famous actress of the 1930's, no movie in particular being her calling card.  And yet she was nominated for 5-6 (depending on how you handle, oddly enough, this film) Oscars, a huge number that puts her in the same vein as someone like Amy Adams or Elizabeth Taylor in terms of Oscar.  For this reason, it's worth looking at her early acting style as she was one of the biggest names in the 1930's.

This movie centers around Lally (Shearer), a smart-talking young woman born to a rich writer who is appalled when he finds out that his father is leaving her mother for a more "rouge-using" woman.  She is aghast at him, but soon finds herself in a predicament as she falls for John (Montgomery) a charming young man who also happens to be the son of her future stepmother.  The two of them fight their attraction to one another, but to no use (even if it means her mother is wildly unhappy), and after nearly dying in a storm (a scene that is weirdly edited-we don't even get a hint that the two might be alive until we randomly see them in a cave, killing all suspense), they end up living their happily ever after.

This film is a strange one for a number of reasons, but I want to single out two.  One is the length-this is an extremely short movie, potentially the shortest film ever to win an acting nomination (I can't prove that, but at 65 minutes it's certainly the shortest I've ever seen...if I'm wrong, the comments are there).  That leaves us with an unusually compact script, even if it's predictable, and very little time wasted.  This isn't a bad thing-I quite liked the chemistry between Shearer and Montgomery, and though the acting is a bit dated, I didn't hate the politics if you ignored some of what Montgomery said, and they seem like a couple that would actually fall for each other rather quickly.  The second is that this film has a weird spot in Oscar lore.  This was back in the days of actors getting nominated for multiple films in the same nomination, which normally would have meant that Shearer would have won her Oscar for this and The Divorcee combined, but in reality she just won it for the latter.  This is a pity as I actually liked this performance better-Shearer is more vivacious and interesting, and I feel like the romance works better, but it begs the question of how to count this as a nomination-was she up six times and lost here, or did the Academy not feel a 65 minute film was worthy of getting the Oscar alongside the Best Picture-nominated The Divorcee?  Something to ponder, but Shearer is good but not great here.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Anyone out there already seen Their Own Desire?  If not, share you thoughts on Shearer-what is the performance that will win me over?

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