Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
Let Us Be Gay (MGM, 1930) – Director: Robert Z. Leonard. Writers: Rachel Crothers (play), Frances Marion (s/p), Lucille Newmark (additional dialogue). Stars: Norma Shearer, Rod La Rocque, Marie Dressler, Gilbert Emery, Hedda Hopper, Raymond Hackett, Sally Eilers, Tyrell Davis, Wilfred Noy, William H. O’Brien, Sybil Grove, Mary Gordon, Dickie Moore, & Helene Millard. B&W, 79 minutes.
Now that sound was a fait accompli, MGM intensified its search for new material that would fit their stars. Irving Thalberg picked up Let Us Be Gay, a play by Rachel Crothers that had a good run on Broadway starring Frances Larrimore and Warren William, as a good vehicle for wife Norma Shearer, who was coming off the success of The Divorcee. Noting that for all its snappy dialogue and pacing, it was yet another story about a drab housewife whose husband deserts her for greener pastures. Frances Marion was brought in to revamp the prologue and add even more snappy new dialogue. In the end, the studio came away with a pleasing Shearer attraction. Of course, the fact that Marie Dressler is also on hand adds to the fun. Unfortunately, the ending completely undoes everything and nearly pulls the picture down with it.
As the film opens, we are in the house of Bob and Kitty Brown (La Rocque and Shearer). Kitty is a hausfrau who dotes on her husband, this day serving him breakfast in bed. She’s the definition of meek and subservient. Bob would like to stay and chat but he has an important date to play golf and he has to get ready. At one point, he can’t find his favorite tie and asks Kitty where it could be. Kitty, ever so dowdily dressed, is making yet another dress, but finds the time to locate the missing article of clothing. She asks Bob if she can come along on his golf date; after all, she has in the past. Bob, however, is evasive, telling her that he’s already rushed and for her to dress properly would take too much time.
Years of experience watching these sort of movies tells us instinctively that golf is the last thing on Bob’s mind, and a phone call shortly after he exits the bedroom confirms our suspicions, especially when he tells the caller never to phone him at his house. But it’s too late, she is on her way over to “clear the air,” and shortly afterward she’s standing in the living room. Just as she has her arms wrapped around his neck, who should saunter in but Kitty? Bob is too visibly embarrassed to speak, but his squeeze introduces herself to the shocked Kitty as Helen, adding that she thought it was time that they met.
Kitty, quickly pulling herself together, tells her adversary that she has heard a lot about her from Bob. Helen, damage done, tells Bob she’ll be waiting out in the car. After she departs, Bob and Kitty get into it, with Kitty asking him to leave. Bob coldly tells her that if he walks out that door he’s not coming back, which is fine by Kitty. After he leaves, Kitty breaks down in tears.
The interesting thing about this scene is Kitty. At first, we don’t recognize her. Then it hits us: it’s Norma Shearer! Yes, Norma Shearer sans makeup, looking as dowdy as she can get. And it works, for she is almost unrecognizable. The Shearer we are used to is the vivacious glammed-up model. With her hair in rollers, wearing unflattering glasses, and dressed like a frump, (those with HD can even see her freckles), Norma comes across as distinctly unglamorous.
Yet, despite her unmade look, on closer inspection we can still see that she is a beautiful woman; a lot more approachable, more down-to-earth without all the glam. It also reaffirms our faith in Shearer as an actress. How many other MGM divas would be so bold as to risk playing a scene without make-up? Remember, women in the movies even awoke in the morning wearing lipstick. Greta Garbo played a rundown prostitute in Anna Christie, but she still looked like Garbo. Joan Crawford may have despised Shearer and thought of herself as the better actress, but not even Joan would appear before the cameras facially naked. Shearer proved so good at it she repeated the feat in 1938’s Marie Antoinette.
A title card informs us that it is three years later and that we are at the estate of Mrs. Bouccicault (Dressler), a wealthy and scheming socialite, on Long Island. We gather from the servants that a new guest is coming to visit and they wonder if it will be anything like her usual run of guests. Mrs. Bouccicault is a collector. In this case, she collects upper class twits for her parties. It’s difficult to tell them apart as the film progresses, but with a little concentration we are able and equally repulsed as well. Included among the guests are lousy, boring amateur poet Wallace (Davis), and Townley (Emery), a dull figure who tries to get by on charm he doesn’t have and merely comes off as silly.
As we quickly surmised, Kitty is the expected guest. When we see her now, she has changed from a dowdy caterpillar into a most beautiful butterfly. The glam is back – and with a vengeance. This is the Shearer we know and love. Mick La Salle, in his wonderful book about Pre-Code cinema, Complicated Women, wrote the following about Shearer’s transformation: “Once again, Shearer was suggesting that women weren’t limited in their options. The picture promised the possibility of beauty and adventure for all women. As if to prove it, Shearer was willing to hint that her own beauty was manufactured.”
We learn that Mrs. Bouccicault met her while in Paris and has brought her to Long Island with a specific purpose in mind. Kitty is a hired gun. It seems that Mrs. Bouccicault’s granddaughter Diane (Eilers), though engaged to Bruce (Hackett), has become infatuated with a four-flusher. The dowager tells Kitty that she has been invited specifically to take the rat away from Diane and let the engagement follow its course.
Mrs. Bouccicault asks Kitty if she’s up to the task, and the banter between the two is risqué: “Well, my one little talent, clothes, is beginning to make money. When I can pay my own bills, men may come and men may go.”
Dressler, not quite sold by Kitty, continues the line of questioning: “Are you trying to imply that, until this point, there haven’t been any coming (she rolls her eyes slyly to make sure the audience knows what she means) or going?
In case we haven’t caught on to her meaning, Shearer emphasizes it: “Now Bouccy, that’s not like you. That’s clumsy. I’m surprised at you.”
Of course, we all know who the cad is that Bouccy wants to give the gate. Even those who haven’t yet seen the movie and are reading this for the first time can easily guess who it is. That’s right, it’s none other than good old Bob, on the make for money. Kitty is stunned when she discovers his identity and the rest of the movie becomes a sort of parlor game, with Kitty and Bob trying to top each other in witty remarks while not letting on to the others about their real relationship.
They pretend not to know each other, but as they make small talk, her feelings come out: “What were you saying, Mrs. Brown? Did something unlucky happen to you years ago?”
“Well, I thought so then, but I’ve grown wiser since.”
Bob asks Kitty about using the name, Kitty Courtland Brown. She explains: “Courtland was my maiden name. I took it back after my divorce.”
When Bob says that Brown is a name to be proud of, Kitty’s response is tinged with bitterness: “That’s the way I felt about it too. Evidently you don’t mind being a Brown, but I did – horribly.”
Taken aback, the only riposte Bob can come up with is, “You seem to have got rid of it very successfully.”
Kitty fires one final shot: “I hope so. Three years in Paris ought to improve any woman. Like you, I’ve been amusing myself with anything and everything that came my way. I know how a man feels about those things now.” Shearer plays the scene so well that we’re unsure if she is really serious or just putting the screws to him.
Bob, though he doesn’t believe her, is nevertheless taken with her. She didn’t look that way in all the years they were married and now she appears like a completely different woman – just the sort of thing a serial philanderer likes. If he was unsure about her veracity during their conversation, finding two men in her bedroom easily convinces him that she hasn't been home making new dresses. Kitty flirts so fast and easily it seems as if she’s practicing an early form of speed dating, and she’s expert at making the men feel as if they’re on the verge of conquest when in reality they are still at the starting gate. Bob is becoming convinced that what his ex-wife told him is the truth. The scene with would-be suitors coming and going into Norma’s bedroom is almost like the bedroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers.
The climax of the film comes when Bob, clearly dismayed by the antics in Kitty’s bedroom, announces that he and Diane are to be wed. Once again, Kitty is devastated. Bouccy, who’s been smelling a rat when it comes to Bob and Kitty, quickly figures out the truth and plays the trump card by arranging for their young children to join them at the estate.
While Bob is overcome emotionally by the children’s appearance (he has not seen them for three years), they prove to be Kitty’s undoing. Dressed for the film’s final scene in a man’s coat and tie, she gloats over her new-found liberation, telling all that she’s not ready to sit by compliantly at the domestic hearth. Suddenly, seeing the children causes Kitty to break down and throw herself at Bob’s feet to take her back. “I’m so lonely,” she cries, leading us to realize that she wasn’t out sowing her wild oats so much as sewing new coats. And yet, the main reason Bob takes her back is because Diane, upon getting a load of the kids, realizes what a scumbag he is and gives him the heave-ho, going back to Bruce.
It’s definitely a cop-out ending and I can’t say it any better than the critic for The New York Times: “The ending of 'Let Us Be Gay' is unfortunate. It comes abruptly, and with tears and a manner of "I won't do it again." It does not fit in well with what has gone before; it is not in keeping with the characterization. Kitty is one minute laughing at her former husband and the next is agreeing to start all over with him. She, the Long Island Lorelei, the young lady who had been asked by Mrs. Bouccicault to rescue her granddaughter from the toils of Bob.”
This is the real message of the film: Kitty’s verbal fireworks are just that – talk, born of anger over Bob’s tomcatting. Though a woman may test the bounds of traditional marriage roles, given the chance, she will go running back to the safety of traditional matrimony. Her tears only serve to emphasize her realization over the price she has paid for divorcing her husband.
At the end, Kitty is back to the beginning of the film. She was the one wronged, the one whose loyalty was repaid with treachery. And now she wants to go back to a guy who hasn’t bothered to see his own children in three years. The real message of the film is that if husband strays, it’s the wife’s fault for not keeping herself sexually alluring by employing glamorous make-up and chic fashions. A woman wronged by her husband in such a way can respond by asserting herself and turning away from the accepted view of marriage, but in the end she must return. There’s only so far she can go. Notice that Kitty “reinvents” herself as Kitty Courtland Brown. If she were serious, she would have dropped the “Brown” and simply taken back her maiden name. The way she does it here served more to irritate Bob than to declare her independence from him. As author Roger Dooley noted in his book From Scarface to Scarlett, “It is remarkable how many plays which seemed to deal lightly with divorce still had the original couple getting back together; nearly 10 years later, Shearer was still following the same pattern in The Women.”
As directed by Robert Z. Leonard, Let Us Be Gay is definitely an early talkie. Except for the prologue at the Brown home the camera hardly moves, and several scenes start a few seconds before the actors appear. One scene in Bouccy’s living room featured only a pillow for seven seconds (I timed it) before Shearer appeared to joust with Dressler. It comes across as exactly what it is, a filmed play.
The film was shot on a rushed schedule of 23 days due to the pregnancy of its star. It was brought in at a cost of $257,000 and produced a nice profit of $527,000. Though the critics praised Shearer, it was Marie Dressler who was singled for her performance. Dressler had established herself as a performer who could both draw gasps of delighted recognition and loud applause from audiences. Of course, with Marion wielding the pen, the role was custom-made for Dressler and she played it in her normal fashion: large, in charge, and able to chew scenery at will.
Compared to Dressler, Shearer’s performance comes off as a little uneven. Her scenes with Dressler are the best in the movie as their characters engage in a verbal dance with witty banter, smiles, and winks. Offstage, they built up a warm affection for each other, with Norma giving Marie shrewd financial advice that enabled her to save more than she normally would, for according to mutual friend Frances Marion, Marie was a scatterbrain with a lot of money and a known soft touch.
Unfortunately, though, Shearer had to act with Rod La Rocque, an actor so wooden he had to be sprayed with bird repellent to keep the woodpeckers away. La Rocque made his fame and fortune in the silent era, beginning in 1914. By the ‘20s he was well-established as a romantic lead in such films as Resurrection (1927), Stand and Deliver (1928), and Our Modern Maidens (1929), with Joan Crawford. Offstage, his marriage to silent siren Vilma Banky in 1927 had been one of the Hollywood events of the year. The marriage was a happy one, ending only with LaRocque’s death in 1969. But there were problems for Rod, as his voice, diction and acting skills combined to keep him from becoming a star in the new era of sound.
The Thalbergs liked Rod and wanted him to repeat his success in the silents, but despite the best efforts of MGM’s speech coaches, La Rocque could not overcome his deficiencies. As regards his acting, the less said the better. He has zero chemistry with either Shearer or Eilers. He also lacks any sort of charm or sexual charisma, something that would attract the audience to him. It’s hard to see why either woman was so attracted to him. There’s nothing there. But perhaps the best summary of La Rocque in the film came from critic Richard Dana Skinner in The Commonwealth: “Mr. Rod La Rocque talks in the fashion of a traveling salesman who has about half-finished a course in elocution. His diction is deliberately monotonous and he gives one the impression of being a hastily rehearsed amateur.”
After the film was released, Thalberg wisely stopped his push of La Rocque and the rest of the actor’s career consisted of increasingly minor parts with the occasional starring role for studios like Republic and Grand National. After portraying the character of Ted Sheldon in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), Rod left Hollywood for a career as a real estate broker, where he did quite well. Ironically, wife Vilma Banky also struck out in the talkies, the possessor of a Hungarian accent so thick one critic said that, compared to her, Zsa Zsa Gabor sounds as if she’s from Brooklyn.
Another problem plaguing Shearer during filming was the fact that she was pregnant with her second child. Norma, known as one of the most ambitious women in Hollywood, jumped at the chance to play the role, as her inactivity during pregnancy bored her. (She also feared that if she were away from the screen too long, her public would forget her.) Because her condition had become quite noticeable during the last week of filming, designer Adrian draped her with even more care than usual. Shearer also strategically hid her figure behind tables and chairs and drapes and restricted her movements to a minimum. As an actress known for her costuming, when the scene called for her to wear anything of a revealing nature, she stuffed herself into stiff corsets and along with Adrian, spent hours looking for the right design.
To say that Shearer finished filming in the nick of time is an understatement. The movie premiered on August 9, 1930. On August 25, Irving Thalberg, Jr. was born.
In 1931, a French-language version of Let Us Be Gay was released under the title Soyons gais. Directed by Arthur Robison, it starred Lily Damita and Adolphe Menjou.