Joel McCrea plays Dave, the older son, who has just returned from Europe with his bride, Christina (Irene Dunne), a biologist. Robert (Eric Linden), the younger son, is engaged to pretty young Hester (Frances Dee).
In a very short time this briskly paced 74-minute film shows Mama Dearest brazenly plotting to keep her sons for herself. (I suspect her creepy feelings for her sons could not have been played so openly once the Production Code began to be enforced in mid 1934.) Each of the sons must decide between his mother's selfish love or the chance to have marital happiness and children with a lovely young woman. That there could even be a question about what the sons will find to be the better option is part of what makes the film so interesting.
Laura Hope Crews is a bit too flamboyant in the role of the mother -- more subtlety at times would have been nice -- but she does modulate the performance enough to keep it from being strictly one note all the way through. She's both a hissable villain and a complete loon, such as her throwaway comment near the end that there must be insanity in Hester's family because her brother was an aviator. Huh?!
The film's true stars are the leading ladies, Irene Dunne and Frances Dee. Dunne was a handful of years older than McCrea in real life and the age difference works in the picture, as McCrea's character is revealed as still having some growing up to do. Dunne's Christina, a bright professional woman, must single-handedly shoulder the burden of taking on her mother-in-law, not to mention protecting a distraught Hester, without any support from her supposedly loving husband, and then must face the possibility of being a single parent.
I was particularly appalled that David would even consider abandoning his pregnant bride to take his manipulative mother to Europe; it surely didn't bode well for his marriage. Even if Christina and David remain together, one has the uneasy feeling that it is Christina who will forever be the more mature partner in the marriage. It's an uncharacteristically wimpy role for McCrea.
Dee steals the picture as Hester, who looks forward to marriage and "lots of babies," only to experience the shock of discovering that her fiance is having second thoughts. Dee goes from being a sweet young thing -- who, though young, also has some wise ideas about motherhood -- to an emotionally devastated woman in the blink of an eye. She's riveting, and her sobs tear at the viewer's heart.
THE SILVER CORD reminded me a great deal of ANOTHER LANGUAGE, released the same year. In ANOTHER LANGUAGE bride Helen Hayes finds it difficult to cope with the devotion of her husband (Robert Montgomery) to his controlling mother. ANOTHER LANGUAGE was based on a play by Rose Franken (CLAUDIA), while THE SILVER CORD was based on a Sidney Howard play. Elisabeth Risdon, known as a superior character actress in the movies, played Irene Dunne's role, Christina, in the theatrical version of THE SILVER CORD.
A trivial note: I find it amusing that within three years Joel McCrea starred in both THE SILVER HORDE (1930) and THE SILVER CORD!
THE SILVER CORD was directed by John Cromwell, whose films previously reviewed here include THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937) and SON OF FURY (1942).
I was able to watch THE SILVER CORD thanks to the kindness of Moira Finnie, who recently wrote an excellent, very informative piece on the film for TCM. I just enjoyed revisiting it after writing this post, and I recommend both her article and this interesting film. As an added plus, Moira's got a wonderful anecdote about McCrea and Dee, who married not long after this film was made, a union which lasted until McCrea's death on their 57th wedding anniversary.