O Canada Blogathon: Norma Shearer in Strangers May Kiss (or, The Dumbbell and The Jackass)
Her unaffected style, graceful manner, and infectious, girlish laugh combined to make her altogether delightful to watch. Not to mention that she looked darned good in a gown, and she could summon up tears like nobody’s business. Plus she could ACT! And her films are among my favorites, too – I could watch The Divorcee, Private Lives, and A Free Soul every day of the week.
But there is one Norma Shearer film that, quite frankly (and, sorry, Mommy, if you’re reading) pisses me OFF: Strangers May Kiss (1931). Not that this has stopped me from watching it over and over – it’s the Norma effect, dontcha know – but I watch it with a jaundiced eye, knowing what’s in store for our heroine (and my blood pressure) by the final reel.
I’m giving you fair warning, this post is going to contain a goodly number of spoilers. So watch your step.
Norma stars as Lisbeth Corbin, a modern, free-thinking young woman whose liberated philosophy is illustrated through her relationship with globe-trotting reporter Alan Harlow (Neil Hamilton). In the film’s opening scene, Lisbeth and Alan are seen flying back to New York after a weekend idyll where they obviously weren’t just playing tiddlywinks, if you know what I mean. And while Lisbeth acknowledges to a friend that she loves Alan “more than the Earth and the Sun and the moon and the stars,” she’s also quick to point out that neither she nor Alan believe “in the awful necessity of marriage.”
What’s my problem with all this, you might ask? My problem is that Alan is a little bit of a jackass and Lisbeth, as she’s described by one of her best pals, is “a little bit dumb.” And in both cases, a “little bit” is putting it mildly. Here’s the proof:
- Lisbeth has an Aunt Celia (Irene Rich) who’s been blissfully married for 10 years. One night, while at a nightclub with Lisbeth, Alan, and a few other friends, Aunt Celia spots her husband with another woman. Celia is so distraught at the abrupt end of what she thought was the perfect union, she commits suicide. In the next scene, we see Lisbeth at Christmastime, mournfully picking out “Silent Night” on the piano, with Alan nowhere in sight. We learn that he’s been gone for a month, and that Lisbeth hasn’t heard a word from him. (He can write for his newspaper, apparently, but he can’t take a minute to drop her a friggin’ postcard?) He finally turns up, and informs Lisbeth that he left because of her aunt’s reaction to her husband’s infidelity. “She reminded me that women are likely to get tied up with hysteria. Emotion,” Alan says. “I didn’t want to get your life so involved that you couldn’t handle it.” (Nice.)
- Notwithstanding his “noble” disappearing act, Alan asks Lisbeth to accompany him on a trip to Mexico that may last for two or three years. After a little coaxing from Alan, and despite a warning from her girlfriend (“Any use in my telling you that you’re making a mistake?”), Lisbeth decides to throw caution to the winds and go with him. And what’s the deciding factor? “I may never see him again if I don’t,” she says. (Deliver me.)
- For a while, the couple’s stay in the remote Mexican village is like a dream. Lisbeth is absolutely radiant, basking in the glow of the summer sun and Alan’s adoration – but it all comes to an end when Lisbeth gets a one-two punch of reality. First, Alan reveals – completely out of the blue, mind you – that he has a wife in Paris. (“It isn’t very important. We don’t bother about it very much. Haven’t for years,” he explains. “It struck me just now that I was keeping a secret from a friend. No reason why I should do that, is there?”) And then, as if that weren’t enough, Alan gets word from his newspaper that he is to travel immediately to Panama. Poor Lisbeth thinks she’s going along, too, but Alan soon cures her of that mistaken notion. “I played it fair, sweetheart. You said that you knew what you were doing,” Alan tells her. “I expected you to say, ‘Goodbye. Good luck.’” (Seriously????)
- Lisbeth mends her broken heart by spending the next two years sleeping her way through Europe – from London to Berlin to Monte Carlo to Spain – with a series of admiring gents. “I try to find one kick for every 24 hours,” she says. “I’m in an orgy, wallowing. And I love it.” Then one evening, out of the clear blue, Lisbeth receives a telegram from Alan, informing her that he has gotten a divorce and wants to marry her. And, like a dumbbell, Lisbeth doesn’t hesitate for a single second – just packs her duds and jets off to Paris to meet her man. Whom, as I mentioned a couple of sentences back, she hasn’t seen or heard from IN. TWO. YEARS. (Two years, y’all.)
- But wait! There’s massive jackassery ahead! When Lisbeth arrives in Paris and excitedly calls her soon-to-be-husband-she-thinks, Alan gives her the cold shoulder and hangs up in her face. Turns out that he heard all about her European escapades and has decided he wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole. So to speak. Lisbeth goes to see him, begging for his understanding: “I didn’t think I was ever going to see you again,” she explains. “Don’t you see, I had nothing?” But Alan isn’t listening, calling her everything but a child of God: indecent, promiscuous, cheap, contemptible. “If you loved me as you said you did,” he bitterly insists, “no other man in the whole world could ever put a hand on you.” (Unrealistic, much?)
- Instead of slapping Alan’s face or, at the very least, sweeping grandly from the room, Lisbeth concludes that his reaction means that he really and truly loves her. “You couldn’t be so brutal if you didn’t.” (Good GRIEF.)
- Time passes – we don’t know how much – but we do learn that since her confrontation with Alan, Lisbeth has kept herself as pure and pristine as newly fallen snow. If you know what I mean. So when she just happens to run into Alan outside a local theater, she tells him that he shouldn’t feel sorry for any of the things he said to her in Paris. “You were right. I should have waited. Even if you’d never come back,” she says. “I’m glad you expected so much of me. I don’t know what you want to do, but there’ll never be anybody but you. As long as I live.” (Are you KIDDING me.)
- And of course, Lisbeth and Alan wind up in the final clinch together.
Because it’s Norma Shearer (and, though I didn’t mention this earlier, Robert Montgomery’s in it, too – BONUS!), I can’t exactly say that I hate or even dislike this movie. It’s more like I can’t believe my ears. I mean, SERIOUSLY. It’s really jaw-droppingly awesome, though. If you haven’t seen it, make it your business to check it out. Just be sure you don’t have any blunt objects around, or you might feel compelled to chunk them in the general direction of your TV screen.
Visit these blogs and take some time to check out the many great posts being presented as part of this event!