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Once upon a time, "divorce" was a dirty word and "free love" was a concept tantamount to political anarchy. Since the movies have always capitalized on current taboos (and continue to do so), it is only natural that such topics should be addressed head-on, even in 1931. In Hollywood's pre-Code era -- when filmmakers cleverly abided by the letter of censorship law while merrily violating its spirit -- entire films were built upon such moral unmentionables.
George Fitzmaurice's Strangers May Kiss (1931) is a sophisticated exercise in shameless sensationalism, as it pokes, prods and exploits the concept of premeditated infidelity. Norma Shearer stars as Lisbeth Corbin, a modern woman who is romantically entangled with upper-crust journalist Alan Harlow (Neil Hamilton). "Love and marriage mean internal combustion," she tells her pal Geneva (Marjorie Rambeau), who is inclined to more traditional romance. Alan and Lisbeth have agreed that matrimony is for saps, and proudly declare their non-monogamous affection for one another. Or as Lisbeth puts it, "We don't believe in the awful necessity of marriage."
But there are signs, beneath Lisbeth's footloose exterior, that she is not as morally emancipated as she appears. She seems to harbor deeper feelings for her restless beau, but is afraid to discuss them, knowing his cynical feelings toward the institution of marriage. All too eager to accompany Lisbeth down the aisle of normalcy is Steve (Robert Montgomery), an equally sophisticated playboy who has long harbored a crush on the worldly woman. But Steve's weakness for drink disqualifies him from the race for Lisbeth's heart, even though his charming inebriation (in a Hollywood sense, where drunkenness is nothing worse than slurred speech and impaired balance) makes him an adorable runner-up.
When Alan leaves Lisbeth in pursuit of a news story in Panama, the romantically frustrated woman takes charge of her "affairs" and sets out on a transatlantic trek, falling into the arms of a succession of Euro-Romeos. Eventually Alan catches up with Lisbeth, playing the role of "anybody's gal," and discovers that he is not such a free-thinker either.
Perceptive viewers may discover Ray Milland hiding among the supporting cast, having a bit part as a British party-boy attending one of Lisbeth's lavish soirees. Milland was only two years into his film career (which would span more than half a decade), but his distinctive voice and charm are unmistakable in his brief appearance.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Strangers May Kiss is picking out the risqu moments calculated to raise the eyebrows of the viewer and transport them to a world of jet-setting decadence. In the opening scene Alan lifts Lisbeth above the clouds in a single-engine plane, but gives her a kiss so passionate that it sends the Cessna into a sudden tailspin. The film depicts the fairytale world of Prohibition-era urbanity, from gin-swizzling flappers who don't mind frolicking with a married man (Hale Hamilton), to ribald collegians (complete with raccoon coats, flasks and pennants) groping the spangled showgirls of a Manhattan revue. Knowing that the film will surely conclude with a flourish of proper morality, the viewer is allowed to indulge in the kind of Depression-era escapism that has since become legend.
Strangers May Kiss is hardly the only film of its kind. In fact, it was an attempt to reformulate the success of another scandalous Shearer vehicle, The Divorcee (1930). Both films were based on novels by Ursula Parrott, a writer gifted at teasing her readers with notions of bold immorality.
Unlike the character whom she portrayed, Shearer was anything but carefree during the production of Strangers May Kiss. As the wife of MGM's head of production, Irving Thalberg, and one of the studio's most prestigious stars, she had to maintain a certain propriety on the set, even as she unleashed her passions on camera. Neil Hamilton recalled, "Her love scenes positively sizzled, and she would get so passionate with me -- before the camera's eye, of course -- that I used to wonder if she was getting enough at home. But she always walked off by herself after the scene, never hung around me, never made even the hint of a pass."
Being married to the boss seemed to make Shearer fair game for inappropriate speculation. The idea seemed to be that a woman as vivacious as Shearer couldn't possibly be satisfied with a man as ordinary as Thalberg. Biographer Gavin Lambert also builds the case of Shearer's sexual frustration. "The strain of holding her sexual drive in check during Irving's lifetime remained camouflaged until after his death...To get what she wanted and become Mrs. Thalberg, Norma had to disguise inner tension; three years later she was still disguising it, to conceal what she wasn't getting."
Others, however, have a more practical explanation for Shearer's conflicted behavior on the set. She had just had a child and was extremely self-conscious about her postpartum appearance. Cinematographer William Daniels remembered, "She worried about her figure and her complexion and we dickered a lot about the lighting. I had to assure her several times that her figure was as svelte and shapely as it was before her pregnancy. 'I don't want the fans to see any difference,' she said nervously, 'I did my exercises, watched my diet, and I deserve to look good in this. I've earned the right!'"
As self-confident as she seemed, she would reportedly hide herself behind various props while the cameras were turning. Gown designer Adrian complained, "She was obsessed with the idea that the pregnancy had left her pudgy, that the audience would be able to see through the fabric and undies straight to the stretch marks -- it was ridiculous."
To everyone's eyes but her own, Shearer was as lithe and lovely as she had ever been. "She never looked better," said MGM producer Hunt Stromberg, "Motherhood has given her a new bloom." The critics agreed, "This is Norma's first picture since she became a mother and it's her finest picture to date," said Photoplay magazine, "Rarely has one been as gorgeous as our Norma while treading the primrose path."
And it wasn't merely her appearance that wowed critics and audiences alike, it was the compelling performance that immersed the viewer in the heartbreaking entanglement of love with no strings attached. "We girls' love problems have been gone into pretty thoroughly in the past six months," wrote Motion Picture magazine, "[but] Norma Shearer's sufferings undoubtedly make the best of the lot... Her sufferings are cannily calculated to enthrall the feminine movie audience."
Shearer had many burdens to bear: speculation about her sex life, insinuations of nepotism, being a mother while maintaining a movie star figure. But she managed all these hardships beautifully in the production of Strangers May Kiss. Perhaps co-star Robert Montgomery best encapsulates the Shearer spirit circa 1931. "In Strangers May Kiss I sensed a new restlessness in her... Norma had such a strong inner drive, such a fierce discipline, she would have made it to all-out stardom no matter what the circumstances of her life."
Director: George Fitzmaurice
Producer: George Fitzmaurice
Screenplay: John Meehan, based on the novel by Ursula Parrott
Cinematography: William Daniels
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Norma Shearer (Lisbeth Corbin), Robert Montgomery (Steve), Neil Hamilton (Alan Harlow), Marjorie Rambeau (Geneva Sterling), Hale Hamilton (Andrew Corbin).
BW-81m. Closed captioning.
by Bret Wood