Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Pre-Code "Smother Love" From RKO

Legit Cast For 1926-27 Broadway Run

The Silver Cord (1933) Still Has Capacity To Shock

Weirdish mother love as x-ray’ed by a pre-code cast, The Silver Cord was used by AMC back in 80’s day of early RKO dredge, then came Coventry when Turner/Warners fell heir to the lot, some left to wonder if The Silver Cord was avoided for rights lapse, or content reasons, all righted when TCM sprang it last week, a prehistoric transfer yes, but let's give thanks for access at all. I watched, did inquiry re the play, which was staged from December 1926 into midway a following year, a hit by Broadway reckoning. Sidney Howard wrote it, him of later GWTW scripting and early exit crushed by a runaway farm tractor. Rough being remembered less from how you live than horrific way you die. Legit drama by the 20's needed novelty or a sting in tails to attract buyers, as seating did not come cheap, this among myriad of reasons silent shadows overtook live performing, be it B’way, further flung vaude, or stock companies on an iron lung. Plays to be successful would do so on a diet of forbidden fruit. Howard led The Silver Cord with a suffocating Mom in Laura Hope Crews that “shocked” some who lived on notion that bearing offspring conferred inarguable sainthood (Crews “must revel in this role, so rich is it,” said The Bookman’s Larry Barretto). Hint of incest, hammer of it observed many, was giddiest of impurities brought to bear on The Silver Cord, and it must have struck a chord, because troupes are reviving the play to this day, which speaks at least to ongoing Mommy issues amongst potential patronage.

Old-timey reviews are fun to read. Robert Benchley lent waggish wit to his Life column, calling The Silver Cord “something to be seen and acrimoniously debated.” For many, the play was less nasty than queasy, and that would extend to RKO’s movie. Howard had gone past mere heavy-hand Momism to Freud-inspired lunacy, that aimed cunningly at 20’s faddism that wore Freud as stylishly as a 60’s generation would a Beatles wig. And lest we forget, Freud was still alive when The Silver Cord was staged, him but lately tossing future director and then-news scribe Billy Wilder out of his house. So seeing The Silver Cord, and being able to at least half-way dissect it, if “acrimoniously,” was one's claim to sophistication, and of all things desired by New Yorkers, that was a top. Conflicting characters in The Silver Cord, primarily the mother vs. daughter-in-law, were shaded so that neither came off a pure black or white, Crews so good, said one critic, that “one is tempted to believe she has the better of the argument, so convincing is she.” The play presented “a living problem,” sensitive enough that men would need “a list of ladies they could not take to it.” Certainly "married women with children" should be kept away, the observer (Barretto again) not kidding. “We should advise advertising The Silver Cord as “For Men Only.” Problem was, would men see themselves in mother-fixated sons portrayed here? Not that the play has lost its potency, according to producer Dale Carmon, who revived The Silver Cord in 2013, and reported audiences “shocked and entertained” nightly (the modern twist, a man assuming the Laura Hope Crews role).

A 2013 Cast Revives The Silver Cord

RKO had something of a pre-sold product in The Silver Cord, this extending to John Cromwell as director. He had guided the play in 1926-27. Greenbriar has lauded Cromwell before. His, like George Cukor’s, was a smooth transition from stage craft to screen. Cromwell knew play scripts could not be transposed as is. “I believe there are very few plays in their original form which lend themselves to the motion picture, because the medium is so totally different.” Cromwell recognized films as a visual medium, the story in most plays “static.” Screen narrative had to “flow,” and be told “through the eye and the emotions.” To this director’s mind, a play “tells its story through the mind and the emotions.” Cromwell realized that any screen narrative is subject to a number of interpretations, vetting by many hands. He worked well in a system built upon collaboration, this but one of reasons Cromwell saw success directing for David Selznick, who had observed Cromwell at work during a mutual sojourn for RKO, where they were a producer-director team on Sweepings. I do not find The Silver Cord stage-bound, realizing however, that others might. It depends on one’s comfort level with early 30’s drama, that is, drama adapted from plays where action, or more accurately dialogue, is limited to a handful of settings. Cromwell opens up The Silver Cord by moving his cast within a house and large rooms they occupy, so we don’t feel hemmed in by a single table with chairs. One long tracking scene has Irene Dunne and Joel McCrea starting on a second floor, talking as they walk down a flight of stairs, then entering a kitchen where she sits down as he explores an icebox and food stuffs inside, necessary dialogue covered while visuals vary and keep us engaged.

Fan Mag Partial Pan, But a Larger Critical Community Lauded The Silver Cord

Cromwell insisted on, and usually got, several weeks of rehearsal prior to cameras turning. He wanted actors to know their interpretations so that shooting out of sequence would not throw them. The director wrote of his technique in a 1937 book, We Make The Movies, that essay included in Richard Koszarski’s Hollywood Directors 1914-1940, an anthology I recommended highly. The Silver Cord had a negative cost of $153K, earned $319K in worldwide rentals. Pandro Berman was by now supervising RKO’s yearly program, his associate producers not an overall gifted lot, so strong directors were needed to put across those few Radio releases in a given season with potential to be hits. Variety cited Irene Dunne as a name draw, even though The Silver Cord was really Laura Hope Crews' picture. Lines and situations meant to be dramatic were getting laughs from rural patronage that mistook The Silver Cord for another “mother-in-law comedy” (Variety: “ … this is not the fault of the adaptation, but rather of the audience”). Selling was tough for exhib hesitation to tip off gloom hung like crepe over The Silver Cord. A click would need to come along confessional lines expected of Dunne, or any of RKO lead women, vehicles for which was a company brand, at least so long as censorship stayed lax. The Silver Cord departs from that formula, none among RKO staff, let alone studio rivals, having ventured near content like this. Fact is, there hasn’t been a same sort as The Silver Cord since. Worth seeing then, for one-of-kindness plus fine performances and direction to commend it.


Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

Thanks for the tip. Will seek this out.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Who is the young man holding the phone in your picture. I'd say,"Buster Keaton" except he is smiling (which, for Keaton, would be breaking character, but then we are told Buster had a wonderful smile which that smile is).

8:58 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Thank you, John, read this piece yesterday and realized I had DVR’d this last week. Didn’t know anything about it, but was intrigued enough by Dunne in a pre-code drama. Thoroughly enjoyed it, and was particularly impressed by Frances Dee, who’s work was mostly unfamiliar to me. A solid actor in addition to being quite a dish. Another great recommendation, and your insights certainly enhanced the experience.

(And Reg, the header photo looks to me to be (L to R) Jolson, Fairbanks, Pickford, Coleman, Goldwyn, and Eddie Cantor holding the phone.)

1:47 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

You're right, Eddie Cantor who was then with Goldwyn who may have been releasing through United Artists. Still, we are told Buster had a wonderful smile. We see him laugh in some of those early Arbuckles but I've never seen him smile.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

11:37 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Thanks Neely. It is a wonderful smile.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

I too caught this for the first time thanks to TCM. My wife's reaction would supoort the critic's suggestion of posting a FOR MEN ONLY warning. However I feel that a 1933 film, especially drama, needs to be viewed from a time machine perspective. I found the film entertaining from that historic view point and loved hissing the villain.

10:26 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022