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Two women from opposite ends of the social spectrum seek love and happiness in Monta Bell's Lady of the Night (1925). Conceived as a vehicle for rising Metro-Goldwyn star Norma Shearer to deliver a virtuoso performance -- and seal her leading lady status -- the film presents the actress in a dual role: as Florence, the pampered daughter of an affluent judge (Fred Esmelton), and Molly, an underprivileged dance hall girl. As fate (and a shamelessly sentimental script) would have it, both fall in love with the same man: David (Malcolm McGregor), an ambitious young inventor.
As the film begins, one expects biting social commentary. A child is born in the tenements, fingering the handcuffs of her father, who is thereafter led away to prison. After a passage of years, the two female protagonists are introduced and contrasted on the occasion of their respective graduations. Florence Banning marches arm-in-arm with her friends through the gates of the Girls' Select School, a finishing school for serious-minded debutantes. Molly Helmer, on the other hand, stumbles out of the Girls' Reform School. On the way home, she checks her appearance in the reflection of a hearse window.
But screenwriters Alice D.G. Miller and author Adela Rogers St. Johns (a prolific novelist, journalist and scenarist) were more interested in charting the emotional arcs of the two women than pointing accusatory fingers at the society in which they live. The bitter realities of urban life are quickly brushed aside for the more compelling topic of the bitter realities of the lovesick.
Molly loves David, even though for years she has been the girlfriend of "Chunky" Dunn (George K. Arthur) a mild-mannered underworld dandy. Chunky immediately recognizes his own shortcomings, and becomes the poignant, if clown-like, figure of the jilted lover. In one memorable scene, he catches Molly setting an elaborate table for dinner with David, using a women's magazine as her guide. A ray of sunshine peeps through a torn window shade, and falls onto a magazine photo of the perfect place setting. Chunky gazes at the glowing image, tries to hold the fragile sunbeam in his hands, but it slips through his clumsy fingers. Chunky was played by George K. Arthur, a Scottish-born character actor with a Shakespearean background, who later teamed with Karl Dane for a series of comedy shorts.
By far the more interesting of the two women is jaded, streetwise Molly. For the ordinarily posh Shearer to be seen without makeup in the cold light of morning was a daring move for the actress. But an even greater revelation is seeing Shearer in Molly's garish drag, dancing and brawling at Jimmy Kelly's Palais de Danse. With heavy makeup, cheap jewelry, serpentine spit-curls and a hat adorned with enormous white feathers (which become weather-beaten as the film progresses), she is a sad and comical embodiment of one uncultured woman's idea of "class." Although drawn to such extremes, the character is emotionally engaging, and her well-to-do rival (even though she is played by the same actress) is utterly uninteresting by comparison.
The critics responded enthusiastically to Shearer's risky performance. "The make-up of the dance hall girl is something new for Miss Shearer, especially as it is rather exaggerated." reported the Los Angeles Times, "She has imbued the character with a great deal of sympathy." The New York Times wrote, "Miss Shearer does the best acting she has ever done. She is splendid as Molly, who wears weird clothes and has a flair for imitation aigrette feathers. She is comely, sympathetic and attractively gowned as Florence."
The pressures of portraying two women infatuated with the same man put quite an emotional strain on Shearer. As if unable to detach from her day job, the actress herself fell for the man playing the role... and by some accounts fell for him hard. Shearer is said to have been recovering from a similar infatuation with actor John Boles, who co-starred in Shearer's previous film Excuse Me (1925). Biographer Lawrence J. Quirk quotes screenwriter Anita Loos as saying, "John was a let-them-down-lightly-and-gently boy... while Malcolm was blunt and direct, and if he wasn't interested he'd make it plain. Maybe he thought he was being cruel only to be kind, who knows?"
Another of Shearer's gal pals, Helen Ferguson, recalled the starlet complaining of the heartache caused by performing love scenes with an actor who showed no signs of romantic interest in the woman behind the role. "Why does it have to be like that so often," Shearer asked, "the ones who want us we don't want, and the ones we want don't want us?" To which the more streetwise Ferguson tartly replied, "C'est la vie, honey."
From this distant vantage point, it is impossible to know which emotions were truly throbbing in Shearer's veins -- whether she was a hopeless romantic or living up to the role of the major-studio diva. Some writers say she was being pursued by (or was involved with) director Bell, while others say she was already dating MGM production head Irving Thalberg, whom she would marry in 1927. But one can fairly infer two reasons why McGregor was not interested in playfully indulging Shearer's backlot crush: he had a wife and five-year-old daughter.
On the set of Lady of the Night, Shearer crossed paths with a starlet who was just beginning her ascent. Twenty-one-year-old Lucille LeSueur performed the thankless (and credit-less) task of being Shearer's over-the-shoulder double. That is, when both characters depicted by Shearer appear in the same frame, the illusion is accomplished one of two ways: either by double exposure, or by posing an identically-costumed stand-in with her back to the camera. The latter was LeSueur's job, her first screen acting role. For one scene, however, neither camera trickery nor careful composition could achieve the effect: when Florence and Molly embrace, and cross into each other's screen space. In this shot, we get a brief glimpse of Ms. LeSueur herself, in profile. This would be of no great interest had not LeSueur gone on to a long and illustrious career, under the screen name Joan Crawford.
Director: Monta Bell
Producer: Louis B. Mayer
Screenplay: Alice D.G. Miller, based on a story by Adela Rogers St. Johns
Cinematography: Andre Barlatier
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Jon C. Mirsalis (2006 piano score)
Cast: Norma Shearer (Molly Helmer/Florence Banning), Malcolm McGregor (David), George K. Arthur ("Chunky" Dunn), Dale Fuller (Miss Carr), Fred Esmelton (Judge Banning).
BW & C-90m.
by Bret Wood