Sunday, May 1, 2011

Strangers May Kiss (1931)

Strangers May Kiss

Starring:  Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Neil Hamilton, Marjorie Rambeau, Hale Hamilton

Director:  George Fitzmaurice

Writers:  Ursula Parrott (novel), John Meehan (screenplay)

Release Date:  April 4, 1931

Runtime:  81 minutes

Flick in Five (Sentences or Less):  Lisbeth (Norma Shearer) is a modern woman who is having a passionate affair with footloose and fancy free journalist Alan (Neil Hamilton), both claiming that the dreadfully traditional institution of marriage is not necessary nor wanted in their world.  However, Lisbeth has fallen in love, and fallen hard, for Alan, who leaves her alone in Mexico to pursue a story with no promises for the future and Lisbeth goes on the rebound through Europe, changing men as often as she changes her lingerie, where good friend Steve (Robert Montgomery) who has long had a thing for Lisbeth, finds her and provides a tuxedo-ed shoulder for her to cry on.  Naturally, Alan reappears and he and Lisbeth both find that he is not nearly the open-minded free thinking modern man presumed when confronted with Lisbeth's very modern affairs. 

Flick Facts: 

*   Author Ursula Parrott also wrote the novel Ex-Wife, the book The Divorcee was based on.  That film, released the year before Strangers May Kiss, won Shearer her first and only Academy Award.

*  Actor Ray Milland has a brief uncredited, and yet memorable, role as one of Lisbeth's European admirers who cheekily states that she "changes her men with her lingerie".

*  Norma Shearer was married to MGM's "Boy Wonder" Irving Thalberg from 1927 until his death in 1936.   She was also the sister of the head of MGM's Sound Department, Douglas Shearer - - making Norma and Douglas the first brother-sister team of Oscar winners.

*  Shearer had just given birth to her first child when Strangers May Kiss began filming.  She was deathly afraid that her fans would notice changes in her appearances and went to extremes in dieting and exercise, as well as (needlessly) attempting to position her body behind set props, to disguise her post-partum figure.

*  Neil Hamilton began his career as the Arrow (Shirt) Collar Man in print ads for the shirts; by the time of his death in 1984 he had appeared in 268 silent and sound films.

*  Hamilton is perhaps best remembered as Commissioner Gordon from the 1966 television series Batman.

Hamilton had a rare long-lasting Hollywood marriage, from 1922 until his death. 

*  Strangers May Kiss is the third of five movies in which Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery co-starred. 

*  Robert Montgomery was widely considered to be one of the best dressed men in Hollywood  and for years didn't carry a wallet because it ruined the drape of his suit.  In many of his 1930s roles, Montgomery is seen exclusively in suits and tuxedos.

*  Montgomery joined the Navy during World War II, becoming a Commander and seeing action in both Europe and the Pacific.

Montgomery was the father of actress Elizabeth Montgomery, television's beloved Samantha of Bewitched.   

Flick Flove:  Nobody did fashion like the glamorous Hollywood leading ladies of the 1930s or set designers.  I could drool all day long at the stunning gowns and hats that Norma sports, and the fabulous Art Deco sets.  From the evening gowns to casual day attire to the jewels to the elaborate headwear . . . sigh.  I can't imagine living in such amazing apartments, lounging in the incredible clothes, working when I want (a la Lisbeth) and then jetting off to Mexico and Europe.  I sure would like to try though. 

Norma absolutely makes this movie a must-see.  Yes, I have a film crush on her but how gorgeous does she appear?  She's so endearing, so fun, so lovely, any movie with her during this Pre-Code period is worth the price of popcorn. 

Robert Montgomery is dependably solid as the sidekick Steve.  I much prefer him to the self-centered Alan and he has sure chemistry with Norma although in this film their chemistry is better suited to a brother-sister type of friendship.  While she had a little "tussle" with Montgomery in The Divorcee, Norma is strickly hands off with him here. 

Flick Flack:  I love Norma but what on earth was she thinking, pining away for Neil Hamilton when Robert Montgomery was waiting around?  Granted, Montgomery's character was a lovable drunk - - a common type during the early 1930s when drunks were merely bumbling and joking.  Maybe Hamilton translated better to 1930s movie audiences but I thought his character of Alan was a real jackass and Norma's Lisbeth deserved better.  Perhaps it's just me, as I've never gotten Garbo's appeal and she's immensely popular.

Can you say double standard?  This movie is rife with it.  Robert Montgomery's Steve tells Norma's Lisbeth that "we like our women straight".  Not straight, as we take it today, in a sexual orientation way but straight, as in no nooky before marriage, no history, no nothing, ladies.  Old fashioned?  You betcha.  Where's the double standard?  That men are expected to run around, sow their wild oats, do whatever they like while "their women" are staying prim, proper and tidy. 

And it's insinuated that Lisbeth has been tramping all over Europe with little discretion.  Steve informs her that he's heard "600 or 700 times" about her antics and she's supposedly well known throughout the region.  Seriously?  Was Lisbeth the only woman in the free world giving up the goose? 

Spawns and Sequels:  Strangers May Kiss is a virtual rewrite of sorts of The Divorcee and Let Us Be Gay, both starring Shearer, but without marriage being involved.  In The Divorcee, Shearer gives her husband a taste of his own medicine by "balancing their accounts" when she finds that he cheated on her.  In Let Us Be Gay, Shearer divorces her unfaithful husband and gallavants around Europe as a revitalized and revamped woman. 

The Final Word:  Strangers May Kiss is not as popular or well received as The Divorcee but the movie is just as worthwhile.  The message is similar - - that the rules are different for men and women and women who share the wealth are deservedly shunned and for feminists, it's a frustrating message.  The message probably dates the movie more than anything else. 

That being said, Strangers May Kiss is a fascinating look at Pre-Code Hollywood.  The film, with its depictions of decadence, gin-swizzling and perceived sexual immorality, would never been made a few years later, after the Code came into play, so seeing it here, almost flaunted for the viewer's pleasure and Depression-era escapism, is a treat. 

Strangers May Kiss was filmed and released 80 years ago but Norma Shearer remains as fresh and lovely today as she did all those years ago. making this film a joy to watch. 

Strangers May Kiss is not yet available on DVD, unfortunately, but Turner Classic Movies has the film in its rotation. 

For a scene from Strangers May Kiss:

To watch the film for free in its entirety click here.  (What are you waiting for?)

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