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I saw this silent film at the SF Silent Film Festival in 2004 as well,
and it was the highlight of the festival for me. Norma Shearer at her
best, and Monta Bell absolutely brilliant. I was amazed by how the
narrative was so well told through multiple simple, powerful visual
moments, and succinct, thoughtful words. The print was beautiful and
I hope this film comes out on DVD. It's a silent film that is so subtle, contemporary, and accessible that it defies some stereotypes of silent films as overly dramatic gesturing fests.
Monta Bell and Norma Shearer had an actress-director collaboration as important as that of Von Sternberg and Dietrich. And deeper. For while Sternberg never tired of exploring the planes of Dietrich's face, Bell explored Shearer's soul -- and through her, explored the moral nature of American women in the pivotal decade of the 1920s. All three of their extant films are to be cherished, but this is their absolute masterpiece.
Norma Shearer is terrific playing a dual role in this well-done silent
film about two women - Molly, the daughter of a convict and Florence,
the daughter of the judge who sentenced him. Molly of the heavily
painted face, huge feather hat, and big beaded necklace, lives in a
flat on the wrong side of the tracks and goes out with a little local
named Chunky. But while out at the nearby dance hall she meets a
handsome, crooked grinned lug named Dave Page, who she instantly falls
in love with. Dave has invented, of all things, a device that can open
any safe in the world - encouraged by Molly to "not go crooked", he
sells the invention to the judge and a group of bank directors, and
soon literally bumps into Florence - and into a love of his own! Poor,
Norma Shearer is so good in this, the characters of Molly and Florence completely seem like two different women, and excellent split screen photography is used here when they are both on screen at the same time. I thought there would be something in this about the fact that the two are lookalikes, perhaps switching places or something - never happens. The fact they look alike is just not part of the plot here. The lighting is done in an interesting way in this - Norma as Florence seems to be shot in more filtered, subtle lighting and she looks very lovely - Norma as Molly is severely lit to make her look more sharp and, boy oh boy, does the thick makeup she wears as this character look really harsh - she looks almost like a prostitute here. The print of this film looked gorgeous, full of sharp contrast, and brightly tinted in sepia/orange, pink, and blue shades. The piano score for this, done by Jon Mirsalis, is wonderful and matches the story well.
A new print of this film was screened in San Francisco at the July 2004 Silent Film Festival, with live original piano accompaniment. For Shearer fans, an unbelievable treat. She plays two roles, displaying a unique sensitivity to each character's situation. Even though the script is sparse, Monta Bell's direction and usage of prolonged portrait shots pulls the viewer into a deep understanding of the parallel stories. For trivia fans: Norma really had her eyes under control for this one! There are more 3/4 and full-faced shots than I have ever seen or could hope for. She more than deserves the on-going introduction of, "The lovely Norma Shearer." We must have a DVD of this one!
Norma Shearer began her career playing bit parts in 1920. Four years later she reached stardom in a series of hit films like "He Who Gets Slapped"(MGM,1924) and "The Snob"(MGM,1924) but it is this beautifully done film released in early 1925 that made her a top MGM star. She plays a good girl and a bad girl and is just marvelous in both roles. The film is not long on story but Monta Bell's excellent direction and Norma's superb acting make this silent film so much more. The forgotten George K. Arthur lends fine support but it is Norma at her silent era peak that makes this a must see. SHe is just great in the hooker role-a forerunner of the racy roles she would excel in during the early talkie period.
This is a pretty straightforward silent romantic melodrama, and it's unclear why Norma Shearer was cast in a dual role when the two characters are not related and there's nothing in the plot that requires them to look at all alike, but it's made interesting by the excellent performance Shearer turns in as Molly. Florence is a typical goody-good Shearer characterization but Molly is a much more fascinating character, not really a "bad" girl but a young woman who's living by her wits, close enough to the underworld to be involved with a shady character like "Chunky" Dunn but decent enough to steer the hero away from criminal temptations. Beautifully made up and costumed (those feathers in her hat seem to have a life of their own!), Shearer as Molly turns in a sensitive performance, alive to the pathos of the character: it's a real pity she didn't make more films playing roles like this instead of the impossibly good heroines (like Florence in this film) for which she became known. (Incidentally the print I saw on Turner Classic Movies ran only 64 minutes and did not contain a two-strip Technicolor sequence a real pity since I like the look of two-strip and am always glad when I can see a well-preserved example of it.)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The title seems to promise more than it delivers because you know that
Norma (as Molly), whether leaving reform school or being "vampy" at
Kelly's Dance Hall, was always going to be a good gal at heart. It did
deliver on Norma's depth as an actress however. Norma had been in the
movies for 5 years and even though her films were cheaply made, they
were extremely popular with the public. With Garbo's arrival at MGM,
Norma felt confident of her status as a star to ask for more diverse
parts. "Lady of the Night" was definitely a marked departure from her
"sweet young things" - even though Flo (she played dual parts) showed
she could still play pure and chaste with the best of them.
Chris Helmer is sentenced to 20 years - he leaves behind his wife and new baby daughter Molly. As he is taken away, he sees the Judge's new baby, Flo, and ponders about the "haves" and "have nots" of society. Eighteen years later while Flo is graduating from a Select Ladie's Academy, Molly is graduating - from reform school (along with buddy Gwen Lee). Molly goes to Kelly's Dance Hall - talk about dressed to kill - with spit curls, a beret and plumes, she is a real eyeful!!! She is also a real wildcat and when she receives some unwanted attention, she fights back - and how!!! She gets help from Dave Page (Malcolm McGregor), a friend of her boyfriend "Chunky" Dunn (George K. Arthur). Dave is an inventor and has invented a safe opening device. While "Chunky" wants him to sell it to some crooks he knows "they'll always play fair", Molly persuades him to do the right thing and sell it to the banks.
Dave is not like the usual types, who Molly hangs around with and she tries to make herself more respectable and just like a lady. While Dan likes her as a good friend, he has already found the girl of his dreams in Flo. Flo meets Molly in a cab and together they form a bond, even hugging - a quite inventive split screen scene. The film doesn't end in the conventional way - Molly decides to head out West with "Chunky" - for some "laughs". He never really seemed like a criminal anyway, more like a "good guy".
I really loved Norma as Molly - it was a role she could really sink her teeth into and of course with Monta Bell, she had a director of style and sophistication - together they were a brilliant combination.
TCM is showing a very crisp print of LADY OF THE NIGHT, tinted
throughout in shades of blue, yellow, orange, sepia, etc. and giving it
a more interesting look than most of the B&W films of that era. It's
accompanied by a very perky score by Jon Mirsalis that captures the
feel of the story with style.
NORMA SHEARER has the chance to play two roles, a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks and a rich society girl--with both of them in love with leading man MALCOM McGREGOR. The stories are blended because the poor girl is the daughter of a criminal sentenced to life in prison and the rich girl is the daughter of the judge who sentenced him.
Camera work is marvelous in scenes where Shearer acts with herself, technically excellent in the manner the actress is photographed for the dual scenes. Particularly clever is the use of tinted photography to make the story more vivid.
For Shearer fans, this is a must see since this is really a minor gem in her career. She's equally convincing as Molly, the gum-chewing gal who knows she's not respectable enough to win the love of the inventor she has helped, and the quiet and thoughtful rich girl who realizes that poor Molly really has first claim on McGregor's heart.
The ending manages to be a mixture of sadness and brightness, a satisfying conclusion to an interesting and poignant tale about the whims of true love when it comes to wealth and poverty.
Lady of the Night (1925)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
Norma Shearer plays dual roles in this film, which was out of the public eye for many years until eventually being rescued by Turner Classic Movies in 2006. They remastered the film and added a wonderful musical score by Jon Mirsalis. In the film Shearer plays Molly, a girl who grew up in a reform school after he father was sent to prison when she was born. Florence, also played by Shearer, is a rich girl who grew up with everything she needed. As adults the two women remain strangers but they both end up falling in love with an inventor (Malcolm McGregor) and soon will have to face another another. Okay, there was a review of this movie in the San Francisco Examiner, which called this movie a masterpiece and one of the all-time greats and this got expectations high for many, many people but then many were letdown when they actually got to see the film. I would be one of them because while the performances are good the story itself was a complete mess. Not only was the story completely unoriginal, it's also very lazy and it really doesn't try to do anything special. The IMDb lists a 70-minute running time but the edition prepared by TCM ran 64-minutes. I'm curious if the film originally ran longer because there are several plot gaps throughout the film including any type of backstory explaining why Molly was in a reform school. Shearer is very good in both of her roles but I prefer her as Florence. I think she brings a lot of heart and soul to both women but at times Molly rubbed me the wrong way. It's also worth noting that Joan Crawford was the body double used here so whenever you see Shearer from behind you're actually seeing Crawford. In the end, silent buffs will want to watch this early production from MGM but it's doubtful others will find too much entertainment here.
Actors: Watch and learn.
Most =talking= film performers haven't learned as much about the effective communication of internal processes and emotional congruence in speech =and= motion as Shearer knew about motion alone at the age of 23.
The standard of the time was "acting." This... is =being=.
If there had been a Motion Picture Academy and an awards show in 1926, Shearer would have won in a walk. And Irving would have had nothing to do with it.
Since IMDb requires ten lines, I'm forced to add the superfluous notion that though the script may have reflected the value judgments of a more belief-stricken and closed-minded -- vs. observant and open-minded -- cultural normality, "Lady..." is nevertheless right there in the ballpark with the probing of sensitivities Irving and other producers were trying hard to convey at the time. The Legion probably loathed "Lady...," but the "expansionists" came out in legions to see it.
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