"A face unclouded by thought." - Lillian Hellman on Norma Shearer.
Norma Shearer has always gotten a bad rap. Here's a woman with glassy, crossed eyes which didn't photograph well, chunky legs, and a fluttery speaking voice who managed to become a movie star by marrying Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive Irving Thalberg. She wasn't just another bimbo who made it big, however - a mixture of elegance, poise, edge, and sheer determination made her a fascinating screen presence. Acting-wise, she eventually redeemed herself after Thalberg's death, turning in affecting work in Marie Antoinette, The Women and Escape. Warner Archives' made-to-order DVD edition of one of Shearer's mid-career vehicles, 1929's The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, offers a glimpse at how a major studio positioned one of its biggest stars in the early talkie era.
The initial arrival of sound was a strange period for Hollywood, in which the studios literally rushed out product to cash in on the trend while simultaneously managing their biggest stars' first talking vehicles with a fine-toothed comb. The Last of Mrs. Cheyney's busy, frou-frou entertainment presents Shearer as some sort of patrician jazz baby - a common girl pretending to be a lady. This sub-Noel Coward comedy of working-class jewel thieves casing out a group of wealthy Britons certainly fit in with MGM's idea of sophistication. An elegantly dressed yet ill-at-ease Shearer stumbles through her role as Fay Cheyney, a wealthy widow who is first seen holding a charity event at her well-appointed home in Great Britain. The beautiful, enigmatic Mrs. Cheyney captures the attentions of two gentlemen at the event, stuffy Lord Elton (Herbert Bunston) and wry playboy Lort Arthur Dilling (Basil Rathbone). She eventually charms her way into staying at the estate of another local, dowager Mrs. Webley (Maude Turner Gordon), where it's revealed that Cheyney, her butler Charles (George Barraud) and her entire household staff are actually a group of thieves intent on fleecing Mrs. Webley of all her jewels. Their plans go swimmingly until Cheyney is caught by Dilling, who recognized Charles from an earlier encounter in Monte Carlo. Dilling realizes that he's falling for Mrs. Cheyney, jewel thief or not.
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney epitomizes the clumsy early talkie, although there are some attempts to enliven things with close-ups and intriguing compositions from director Sidney Franklin (The Good Earth). Shearer gamely essays her way through this overlong effort, although she can't handle the subtle transformation Mrs. Cheyney goes through in the course of this story. She's not particularly adept at fizzy comedy, nervously rushing through her lines with gestural, silent-era mannerisms and a fluttery, high-pitched voice (it's also worth noting that the actress has gone bra-less for much of the film!). Shearer's interpretation of Cheyney's misgivings on what she does for a living amounts to a bunch of repeated tics - her ever-present sideways-glance-of-consternation-with-arched-eyebrow gets a workout here. She's especially awkward when compared with her rising co-star, Basil Rathbone, who is refreshingly casual and modern as Cheyney's would-be paramour. Rathbone and future gossip queen Hedda Hopper (playing a wealthy lady with a shady past) contribute the sole flashes of contemporary spark to what is otherwise a dated dud.
As antique and clumsy as it was, MGM wasn't about to see the last of The Last of Mrs. Cheney. The property was revived eight years later as a vehicle for Shearer's arch-rival, Joan Crawford. Perhaps she took on the role for purely spiteful reasons, but Crawford proved herself equally inept at affected comedy as Shearer. I'd give a slight edge to the '29 version, just for being more faithful to the proscemium bound source material.
Warner Archives' made-to-order DVD edition of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney uses a weathered but decent print of the film with good light/dark levels (although a few scenes get too contrasty). The image sports a greater-than-average amount of dirt and debris, with one scene having the white impression of a hair burnt onto the film negative.
The ragged mono soundtrack has seen better days, and there are a few reels where the distortion of age becomes especially apparent. As with many early talkies, the dialogue tends to get louder and softer at random moments.
None. A simple main menu with one Play option is provided.
Creaky, miscast early talkie The Last of Mrs. Cheyney has MGM's "Queen of the Lot" Norma Shearer flitting about as a jewel thief attempting to pull one over on a bunch of British swells. More of a curiosity piece for the flighty, semi-forgotten Shearer than anything else, although Sherlock Holmes lovers may enjoy a spry Basil Rathbone as Shearer's flirty acquaintance. Skip It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.