Sunday, January 19, 2014
Lady of the Night (1925)
Lady of the Night stars Norma Shearer in a duel role: as Molly, daughter of a convict, frequenter of bars; and as Florence, innocent socialite, angelic and pure. They spend most of the picture unaware of one another and share only one thing, besides a freakish resemblance: their love for the same man. Upper class, lower class, not so different really. It is as contrived a structure as a story could have.
But it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it. When I finished watching the film, I turned to a friend and said, “with silents, you can tell if they’re going to be good from almost the first scene. And that one was good.” And it was. Lady of the Night really works; not because of some ham-fisted moral lesson about love and class—or a plot structure that makes it insistent—but thanks to its pockets of delicate melodrama. Its poetic moments, imbuing the characters with tragic quality. Without these moments, Molly, Florence, and their hangers-on would be buffoons. Instead, they break our hearts.
The credit goes to the film’s director, Monta Bell, and cinematographer, André Barlatier. Bell and Shearer had worked together before, and would again. He appreciated the actress’ unusual screen presence: her ability to portray effervescent women who were, nonetheless, no free spirits. I think that’s hard. With Joan Crawford, you got a party girl with gusto. For Shearer’s characters, at least in films like Lady of the Night, partying was work.
In the hands of Bell and Barlatier, this quality is manifested literally. It is not just Shearer, but Molly and Florence themselves, who seem to be costumed—particularly Molly, whose slicked hair, plaid skirt and dangling beads, among other things, put her somewhere between a prostitute and a fastidious bag lady. Molly’s hat, which she wears on every outing, has a pair of white features that splay outward at eight and eleven o’clock. They look like a water sculpture.
This is a woman trying to be something—more specifically, something men envision her to be—and she is blaring her signal loud. Florence, meanwhile, drifts between elegant gowns and an overhead wrap that recalls the Virgin Mary—again, an image even the thickest male could intuit, to Florence’s advantage. We suspect that Florence’s gimmick is more true to the woman than Molly’s, but in fairness, only Molly has to make a living.
If Molly and Florence are putting on acts, the men in their lives seem almost wholly unreal. The one they both pine for, David Page (Malcolm McGregor), is a young inventor who thinks he’s got a foolproof method for securing a safe. His tiny apartment is dominated by a long workbench covered in wiring and vacuum tubes. The imagery, in a film like this, seems odd—better suited to a silent serial than a melodrama—and David’s motivations are never well defined. He seems earnest and decent enough, but when it is suggested to him that criminals would pay more for his invention than a banker would, he seems open to the option.
Molly’s boyfriend, ‘Chunky’ Dunn (George K. Arthur), is an underworld figure of some sort. But he could not be less imposing. Arthur was a small man with a pudgy face; as Dunn, he spends the film under an overlarge bowler hat, wearing an expression of bewilderment. Molly is out of his league, and both of them know it. But their relationship is important, because the hapless Chunky really does love Molly, whereas the more eligible David may or may not, and Molly’s decision regarding the ideal man for her is the key to who Molly is.
Two sequences establish this. The first, very early in the film, begins with Florence’s graduation from an exclusive private school. The beautiful girl exits the gates with her friends, each of them looking ahead to a life of luxury. The luxury is rooted not in money itself, but options—even if Florence has no idea what she wishes to be, we know she’ll have time to consider it, and suitors, ever at the ready, with suggestions.
From this moment in Florence’s life, Bell makes the first of several abrupt cuts to a parallel moment in Molly’s. Molly and her friends have just graduated too—from reform school. They stand in a cluster, under gates of their own, and one of them wonders: ‘what’ll we do now?’ None of them claim to know. But really, they do know. Molly advances from this nest, on her own. A hearse pulls to a stop in front of her. She looks at the contents inside, then checks her reflection in the glass. Molly intends to survive.
She soon finds an apartment, and a job as (I suppose) an escort. And she meets David. David is going places and Molly reasons that she ought to follow suit—so she invites the man to her place for a meal, which she researches in advance by reading an article in a lifestyle magazine. But Chunky arrives first, unannounced and uninvited. Molly does nothing to disguise her annoyance at this, but Chunky is oblivious. He sees the magazine on the table, open to a picture of a fancy dinner-setting. It is illuminated by a beam of light coming through a crack in Molly’s door. Chunky entered through this door without even knocking. Now he traces the features of the picture, almost bathing his hand in the light. He closes his fingers around it and, of course, he is holding nothing.
This all may sound like a bit much. And indeed, shots like these can pummel a viewer if handled wrong, even in the stylized reality most silent films occupy. But in Lady of the Night, they’re kept in check. Or at least they seemed to be, to me. I think it’s because they were always put to work. They advanced the characters’ stories, or revealed to us more about them, or both. Lady of the Night is an indulgent film at times, but never at our expense.
Like the similarly structured, but much more famous Stella Maris (1918), Lady of the Night suffers from imbalance. The privileged, delightful Florence isn’t half as compelling as her cynical, hard-luck opposite number. She is tame because she can afford to be, and has little to lose. Molly, on the other hand, has everything to gain.
The real battle, in this film, is not between Molly and Florence for the heart of one fickle inventor. It is between Molly’s competing visions of herself. Is she deserving of the life she must sacrifice so much to have? Or should she resign herself to the life she has, which is not without its pleasant days? We know what we want for her, but we don’t have to live her life in the meantime. Nor do we have to face our own doppelganger, living the life we believe we ought to have, unearned, and doing it well. Florence has everything a girl could want. Molly’s hand is empty.
Where to find Lady of the Night:
Lady of the Night is part of the Warner Archive Collection, available as a made-for-order DVD from WBshop.com.
Thanks again to Caren Feldman, who screened this film, along with Shearer’s 1930 comedy-drama talkie, Let Us Be Gay.