Norma Shearer takes on two roles in this mild-mannered “how the other half lives” picture: Molly the lady of the night and Florence, a judge’s daughter and demure as can be. Naturally, both young ladies fall for the same fella but who will win his heart?
Double your pleasure, double your fun
Throughout the silent era, big social questions like nature vs. nurture, the damage of grinding poverty and just how high up the social ladder a child of the slums could hope to climb were featured prominently in major films. And so it must have been an obvious choice to pose these questions yet again in a vehicle for the up and coming Norma Shearer and, just to double the value, have her play both an impoverished child of a convict and the daughter of the judge who sentenced him.
The film opens powerfully with Molly getting herself born as her handcuffed father and the policeman assigned to escort him back to his trial look on. Molly ends up in reform school but quickly finds work with her pals as a member of the oldest profession. Meanwhile, the judge who convicted her father has a girl as well and Florence is pampered and educated and generally given every advantage.
By all rights, other than being played by the same actress, neither woman would ever cross the other’s path but then there’s David (Malcolm McGregor). Like many a silent era leading man, he is an inventor and he has come up with a gadget that will open any safe. Molly has a terrible crush on David and encourages him to sell his device to the banks as a theft prevention measure. Naturally, this leads David into Florence’s line of sight and, well, I think we all know where this is going.
There’s pretty much not a single scene in Lady of the Night that will surprise the audience. The film putt-putts along strictly by the numbers. It looks great with its moody cinematography but if you’re looking for any surprises, you won’t find them here. Director Monta Bell constructs some interesting images and juxtapositions but nothing to set the world on fire.
But, really, the picture’s main goal was to showcases Miss Shearer’s talent and versatility and it accomplishes that very well. While Molly is the more obviously interesting character, with her loud costumes, heart of gold and bonkers makeup, Florence manages to make an impression as well by not being entirely a goody-two-shoes.
Lady of the Night was met with favorable reviews and trade periodicals were filled with happy theater owners crowing about the good business it did but when people hated it, they really hated it. A reader of Photoplay Magazine claimed she was still shuddering from shock after seeing Norma Shearer’s performance as Molly. “Down with dual roles!”
Throughout the years, a few critics have wondered why Shearer was cast in both roles at all. The answer, of course, lies in the career of another Canadian actress in Hollywood. Mary Pickford was not the first performer to play dual roles in the same film but her performances as both the gorgeous title character and the abused waif, Unity Blake, in Stella Maris can be seen as the blueprint for Lady of the Night.
Like Molly and Florence, Stella and Unity are not related in anything except love for the same man. He naturally prefers the prettier iteration of the star but the audience feels the broken heart of the more homely girl keenly. (Pickford greased up her famous curls and wore white mascara to make her eyes look smaller for Unity.)
Pickford was aware of the fact that she had to fulfill audience expectations if she hoped to remain a star but she also was an actress with ambitions and dreams of deepening her craft. Playing both the by-the-numbers beauty Stella and the abused, dark, Dickensian character of Unity allowed her to have her cake and eat it too. As stated before, Pickford didn’t invent dual roles but her success in Stella Maris was a very clear influence on other actresses.
Norma Shearer’s early career is a bit difficult to discuss because so little of it remains and the topic we will be discussing depends on understanding the nuance of her performances. So, I am going to have to make a few educated guesses.
Lady of the Night is sometimes described as Shearer’s attempt to escape the goody-two-shoes roles in which she had been cast but her filmography at Metro-Goldwyn and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer doesn’t support that theory at all. It seems pretty clear that the films, a combination of dramas and marital comedies, were patterned after the career of Gloria Swanson, who could be either naughty or nice. Shearer seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time either accidentally falling for a married man or pretending to be married to one. Par for the rom-com AND melodrama course at the time.
The virginal heroine still existed in Hollywood, of course, but audiences of the 1920s demanded a bit more worldliness. In short, she isn’t naughty but she knows all the words. In a 1927 piece on “the sex jinx” Photoplay Magazine declared that neither vamp nor virgin could satisfy film audiences because they were an exaggeration. Moviegoers wanted flappers with hearts of gold and temptresses of a less cartoonish nature.
Colleen Moore described the completely innocent heroines as “Papa, what is beer?” roles. Florence in Lady of the Night knows exactly what beer is, even if she doesn’t drink it herself, and the way her face lights up when she walks in on a necking couple tells us all we need to know about her state of mind. Shearer was deftly avoiding the sex jinx.
Lady of the Night was clearly a low risk way to showcase Shearer’s versatility, dipping her toes into darker, less glamorous roles while still staying safely in Florence territory. Unfortunately, the film’s opening scene raises questions that act three of the picture is reluctant to address and this is where we have a problem. (Spoilers ahoy, obviously.)
But Chekhov’s gun remains on the mantlepiece on full display but never fired. The love story is one we’ve seen a hundred times before and the relative class of the two women never really factors into the text of the film. Does David prefer Florence because he is a social climber? Does Molly perceive it that way? We don’t really know. Molly’s desire for upward mobility is shown to be a pipe dream but why? David managed it.
I take it back, Chekhov’s gun is fired, screenwriters Adela Rogers St. Johns and Alice D.G. Miller just shoot their own foot with it. None of this would have been quite so noticeable without the dual roles but since Lady of the Night is clearly supposed to follow the Stella Maris pattern, one cannot help but notice that it is done badly. Comparing and contrasting the women is all well and good but it’s not enough to simply show that Florence has a more sophisticated toilette, we need a bit of meat to go with the window dressing.
Further, dual role pictures are an ideal way for the special effects team to show off that they know their onions. Trick shots are notoriously scarce on the ground here and while it is amusing to see Joan Crawford double for Norma Shearer, I should point out that Her Sister From Paris managed technical virtuosity with its special effects in the service of giving the audience two Constance Talmadges.
The supporting cast varies in quality. I remain utterly unconvinced that any woman who looked like Shearer, troweled-on makeup be damned, would ever date somebody like George K. Arthur. But keep in mind that I think any film with George K. Arthur can only be improved without George K. Arthur. Malcom McGregor didn’t strike me much either way as the object of both heroine’s affections. Dale Fuller is utterly wasted as Florence’s bossy aunt. Gwen Lee makes quite an impression as Molly’s pal, who uses an inordinate amount of foot powder. Nudge nudge.
(In silent films, women using foot powder, having achy feet, needing new shoes or new stockings were all a signal that they did a lot of walking. On the street. You get me?)
The Educational Screen managed to get the wrong end of the stick with the foot powder scenes and went on a long rant about how product placement was ruining movies. (The brand in the film seems to have been entirely fictional.) Any other meaning to the scene seems to have flown straight over their heads, as it also seems to have done with other censors of the time.
The magazine then, very curiously, complains that Lady of the Night “was a boost for the crook. A man has a patent to open safes. He goes to the bankers to sell it. His friend remonstrates with him and says: “The bankers will steal it from you, go to the crooks. They will pay you well for it.” And our great nation, worrying as it is over the crime wave, will allow this suggestion to go out to our boys. The bankers are said by the producer of this picture to be thieves, while the crook is lauded. And yet those bankers probably do not believe in censorship, and probably finance many theatres which will house this picture.”
Okay, let’s unbunch these panties. In fact, the suggestion of taking the invention to the crooks was made by Chunky, Arthur’s character, and it was immediately shot down by Molly, who encourages David to take the honest route and sell his invention to the bankers. The crooks are only lauded by a comedy relief character who is immediately told to be quiet. And the bankers in the picture are presented positively, paying David well for his invention.
As for capitalists not believing in censorship… A major push for the Code to be fully implemented in 1934 came from financiers like Bank of America’s A. P. Giannini. So there. And as for money men being portrayed as bad guys, well, they weren’t but it would hardly have been out of line if the film had done so. (sips tea)
Oh, and by the way, I think this film will be valuable to fashion history nerds. When discussing 1920s cosmetics, there is a tendency to skitter to the extremes like cartoonishly huge cupid’s bow lips. Shearer’s contrasting makeup for Molly and Florence showcases some of the variety available and how super extremes were no more accepted in daily life then than the are today.
Lady of the Night is an okay movie that’s simply too big for its britches. A few more screenplay drafts to clarify the themes introduced at the beginning would have been most welcome. As a vehicle and showcase for Norma Shearer, it succeeds brilliantly. As an overall film, not so much. Shearer’s fans will want to see this, obviously, but otherwise your mileage may vary.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Warner Archive with a fine score by Jon Mirsalis.