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'Strange Interlude': Eugene O'Neill at MGM

LOVE IS A MUCH-FRUSTRATING THING

Norma Shearer, Clark Gable in Strange InterludeBy Marcus Tucker of Shadow Waltz

With the advent of new technology comes experimentation. When sound arrived in Hollywood, films became stagebound because of the crippling limitations of the primitive equipment. But by the time MGM's film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's 1928 Pulitzer-winning play Strange Interlude was released in 1932, filmmakers had become comfortable enough with sound to experiment with it. Thus, in Strange Interlude the thoughts of the characters are vocalized – and watching this drama about impossible love makes one realize how much better it is not to know what others are really thinking.

The film begins with a written prelude: “In order for us to fully understand his characters, Eugene O'Neill allows them to express their thoughts aloud. As in life, these thoughts are quite different from the words that pass their lips.” In other words, proceed with caution for Strange Interlude is strange indeed. (See synopsis.)

The basic plot revolves around Nina Leeds (Norma Shearer), a woman loved by three men: Charlie Marsden (Ralph Morgan), Sam Evans (Alexander Kirkland), and Dr. Ned Darrell (Clark Gable). Charlie's love feels like an unfulfilled crush, Sam's love is juvenile and idealistic, whereas Ned's love for Nina is a tangible and all-consuming passion. Nina eventually marries Sam, who has a deep, dark secret: The Evans bloodline suffers from, gasp, insanity!

Compounding matters, Nina falls for Gable's Dr. Darrell, with whom she becomes intimately acquainted following the suggestion of Sam Evans' own mother (May Robson, best remembered as Apple Annie in Lady for a Day). In trying to avoid the “curse” of insanity, Nina and Dr. Darrell drive themselves to the brink of madness for Nina is incapable of leaving her mentally unstable husband. All the melodrama aside, what sets Strange Interlude apart from most films of the period is the uncommon use of voice-over soliloquies representing the characters' thoughts.

Within the film's first few minutes, Charlie Marsden remarks on “this pleasant old town, dozing. What memories it brings back!” Suddenly, the camera moves in on Charlie's face; he looks as if he has lost control of his bladder. That's a sign that he has started to think (in voice over): “Queer things, thoughts, our true selves. Spoken words are just a mask to disguise them.” The effect is jarring, and remains so throughout the film.

Voice over is seldom used in modern cinema – usually as a last resort to confusing narratives – but in this instance the voice-over bits confuse more than they clarify the story. In fact, the voice over is off-putting no matter who is doing the “thinking out loud” – especially since the actors stop and mug for the camera every time they “think.”

Ralph Morgan (the brother of The Wizard of Oz's Frank Morgan) is particularly guilty of overdoing his “thinking.” Besides being a poor performer, Morgan plays a character that comes across as a fussy, jealous old maid, rather than a man with a burning passion for a younger woman. Whenever his thoughts are spoken out loud, he assumes the look of some godawful silent-screen villain from the 1910s. Either Walter Huston or Warren William would have been a much better choice for the role.

Norma Shearer, at the time the Queen of MGM, has some solid moments because she knows what to do – or rather, what not to do – with her face better than anyone else in Strange Interlude. In fact, only Shearer seems to really survive director Robert Z. Leonard's handling of the material (from an adaptation by Bess Meredyth and C. Gardner Sullivan). Even though she also overacts and her “thinking” makes her character sound like a bitch – the closest Shearer ever came in talkies to being truly unsympathetic – when compared to the other actors her heartfelt performance is remarkably subtle.

Among her lovely moments in the film, are a scene in which she runs with her husband through an orchard in bloom, and another when she is alone in her bedroom – thinking. (This is one instance when the voice over is almost effective). Additionally, she cuts a sexy figure as the middle-aged version of her character.

The film's intent, however, never really crystallizes the way it should, partly because of the basic set up, and partly because of its now laughable approach to mental illness. (There's even a giggling aunt who is never seen, but the thought of her is as horrifying as that of any movie monster.) Clearly, there was still much to be learned about mental illness in 1932.

Ultimately, Strange Interlude is neither a great triumph nor a dismal failure. Most importantly, the film proves that there are some things better left unsaid – or, to be more accurate, unheard.

© Marcus Tucker

Strange Interlude (1932). Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard. Scr.: Bess Meredyth and C. Gardner Sullivan, from Eugene O'Neill's play. Cast: Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Alexander Kirkland, Ralph Morgan, May Robson, Robert Young, Maureen O'Sullivan, Henry B. Walthall, Mary Alden, Tad Alexander.

Marcus Tucker is a free-lance Alt Film Contributor and Pre-Code Hollywood aficionado.

 

Synopsis:

After the man she loves suddenly dies, Nina Leeds (Norma Shearer) becomes despondent.

Not too long thereafter, however, she finds herself loved by three men: the older, somewhat prissy Charlie Marsden (Ralph Morgan), the manly Dr. Ned Darrell (Clark Gable), and the man who eventually becomes her husband, Sam Evans (Alexander Kirkland). The marriage was supposed to relieve Nina's apathy, but the catch is that Nina truly loves Dr. Darrell.

Following the advice of Sam's own mother (May Robson), Nina has a child with Dr. Darrell. Her marriage to Sam can't bear any fruit of that sort for the Evanses have a terrible secret: mental illness runs in the family. Nina, of course, pretends that the child belongs to Sam.

Dr. Darrell wants her to divorce Sam, but Nina will have none of it. She would feel too guilty. Thus, she continues her unusual relationship with her husband and her two suitors while devoting most of her energy to her son, Gordon (Tad Alexander, as a child; Robert Young, as a man).

 

Notes:

Strange Interlude - The Play:

Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude opened on Broadway on January 30, 1928, running for 426 performances. Directed by Philip Moeller, the play starred Lynn Fontanne (Nina Leeds) and Glenn Anders (Edmund Darrell), Earle Larimore (Sam Evans), and Tom Powers (Charlie Marsden). In order to accommodate the play's nine acts, the presentation began in the afternoon and, following a dinner intermission, concluded in the evening. Source: Internet Broadway Database.

 

Production:

Strange Interlude was bought for Norma Shearer, the wife of MGM's second-in-command, Irving G. Thalberg, in 1929. (Director Clarence Brown was reportedly involved in the acquisition of the play.) As per a Hollywood Reporter article, the studio had much difficulty adapting Eugene O'Neill's five-hour play into an acceptable screenplay.

With Irving Thalberg as (the uncredited) producer, Strange Interlude was produced in 40 days at a relatively hefty cost of US$654,000. It earned a solid US$1,237,000 worldwide (most of it in the U.S. and Canada market), but left a relatively small profit of US$90,000. Note: The “cost” figure reflects only direct production costs. It doesn't include prints, distribution, advertising, and other ancillary expenses. The “gross” amount is the amount earned by MGM, at the time owned by Loew's, Inc. Source: The Eddie Mannix Ledger found at the Margaret Herrick Library.

 

Trivia:

During one sequence in the 1932 comedy Me and My Gal, Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett – through voice-over soliloquies – share their thoughts with the audience.

Strange Interlude is also parodied in the Marx Brothers' 1930 comedy Animal Crackers. In one scene, Groucho Marx's character expresses his deep, dark thoughts to the audience while debating which prospective wife he should marry. More details here.

The 1988 made-for-TV version of Strange Interlude was directed by Herbert Wise, and starred Glenda Jackson (Nina Leeds), David Dukes (Dr. Ned Darrell), Ken Howard (Sam Evans), Edward Petherbridge (Charlie Marsden), and Kenneth Branagh (Gordon Evans).

 

Review Snippets:

“For once Hollywood has dared to produce a picture that deals with life in terms of adult intelligence. But though the courage thus shown deserves every credit, the outgrowth of this courage, the film itself, is hardly a feather in the producer's cap. It confirms faithfully to its Hollywood type of an uninspired crossbreed of the stage and the screen, and it is badly miscast in its two principal parts. Neither the beautiful but cold Norma Shearer, nor the uncouth Clark Gable are the actors for the parts of Nina and Darrell.” Alexander Bakshy in The Nation, Sept. 28, 1932.

“In the difficult role of Nina, Norma Shearer lives her lines, gives her greatest performance. It is unquestionably her picture. Clark Gable, as her lover, Darrell, is a new person – intensely sensitive. Alexander Kirkland, as Sam, her husband, is convincingly Rotarian. Ralph Morgan, as Marsden, who has a mother complex, is sharply amusing.” Motion Picture, Oct. 1932.


         
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1 Comment to 'Strange Interlude': Eugene O'Neill at MGM

  1. Mark Miglio

    I found the voice overs brilliantly done, could not disagree with the review more. What a shame this reviewer doesn't appreciate the wonderful way this cast and director made character voice overs a thing of marvel. I only wish there were more films like this one.