Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Silver Cord (1933)

THE SILVER CORD is a highly engrossing tale about a warped mother (Laura Hope Crews) whose obsession with her sons threatens their relationships with the women who love them.

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.


Blogger panavia999 said...

I remember watching this in AMC's Golden Years. Very interesting. Didn't Crewes play the part on stage? Maybe she couldn't tone down the stage performance for film. I love Irene Dunne's pre-code womens pictures.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

You're right, Crews did play this part on the stage, so you may well be correct.

I've got a couple more of Dunne's pre-Codes on tape from TCM...looking forward to watching them! One title, NO OTHER WOMAN, also has Eric Linden from THE SILVER CORD.

Best wishes,

10:08 AM  
Blogger Moira Finnie said...

Hi Laura,
I'm so glad that you got a kick out of this movie too. I just loved Irene Dunne's way with the dialogue in this movie. She really made her science-oriented character more credible by the way that she dissected the issues facing her husband, herself (and her baby) with such clinical logic, cutting through the false politesse of the Crewes' character.

I agree about the staginess of Laura Hope Crewes portrayal, (she created the role on Broadway in 1927 for the Theater Guild), but to me that gave her character a certain amount of added poignancy. Her dithering and ham-fisted ploys to keep her control over the "boys" seems easy to see through now, but I can feel a bit of a pang for her desperation and for the emotional patterns she had set in stone when dealing with (or should I say, manipulating), her sons.

Frances Dee was so good in this movie, I hope that you also have a chance someday to see the pre-code Blood Money (1933), which she made after this movie. She is fantastic and unpredictable in that role too.

After seeing Eric Linden in this movie, as well as Big City (1932) recently, I will have to look for No Other Woman> too since I am interested in his work more now too.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Good insights on the Dunne and Crews characters, Moira. I can see your points on each of them.

When Dunne had her long speech near the end of the movie, I was struck by how "real" she was. Some of the dialogue in the film sounds like lines from a play, but with Dunne it truly sounded like she had just thought it for the first time.

Fortunately I taped BLOOD MONEY in a past showing on Fox Movie Channel so I am looking forward to catching up with it! From what I've read, Dee's character in that sounds quite unusual.

Perhaps sometime I'll get a DVR recorder -- would love to be able to share a copy of NO OTHER WOMAN.

Best wishes,

7:52 PM  
Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Thank you, Laura, for your insightful review of this fascinating film. I, too, thought Dunne and Dee were terrific. Dunne's Christina was such a modern women who could easily have walked onto a 2010 movie screen. And Dee's Hester was a breath of fresh air and saved the movie from becoming oppressive with the overbearing mother. It's sweet to think this film was the beginning of the long and happy union of Joel McCrea and Frances Dee. We live near the McCrea Ranch and the locals still talk about the couple's wonderful family and generosity to our community.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and the lovely personal anecdote.

I recently learned that the Ranch is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Please visit again!

Best wishes,

10:44 PM  

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