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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.

7 Comments:

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...

https://berlinartbooks.com/produkt/the-smile-of-buster-keaton/

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  

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