Sunday, June 11, 2023

Lady of the Night (1925)

Lady of the Night is a 1925 silent melodrama starring Norma Shearer, at that time a rising star. Within a few years she would become a very big star indeed.

It’s the story of two young women of the same age but from very different backgrounds. Both women are played by Norma Shearer.

Florence Banning is the daughter of a wealthy judge and banker. She has just graduated from the most exclusive girls’ school in the city.

Molly Helmer is an orphan, the daughter of a convict, and she has just left reform school. Now she will find work. It’s never actually explicitly stated but we assume she finds work as a prostitute (the title certainly implies that). In any case she is definitely not a respectable woman.

Molly is the girlfriend of 'Chunky' Dunn (George K. Arthur). His profession is never stated but we’re left to assume that he’s involved in petty crime, or he may be Molly’s pimp. He’s a nice guy, but rather awkward and a bit nerdy and he’s hopelessly in love with Molly.

The unlikely link between the two women is Chunky’s pal David Page (Malcolm McGregor). Molly has fallen for David in a big way.

David has come up with an invention which will make safe-cracking much easier. He’s hoping to sell it to a gang of crooks. Molly persuades him to sell it to bankers instead, as an anti-safecracking device. The bankers buy it with Judge Banning being particularly enthusiastic and as a result David gets to meet the judge’s daughter Florence. David and Florence fall instantly in love.

David and Florence want to get married but in the meantime Florence has met Molly and has realised that Molly is in love with David. She doesn’t want to steal David away from Molly. The romantic entanglements have become very messy.

That’s about it for the plot and it could be argued that there’s not quite enough plot even to fill the movie’s very short 70-minute running time. At the end you find yourself waiting for a third act that doesn’t materialise.

Surprisingly the very simplicity of the story becomes its strength. The focus is not on the working out of the romantic entanglements themselves but rather on the people involved. In particular the movie focuses on the two women. Despite being romantic rivals they have a certain mutual respect. Perhaps they see themselves as mirror images of each other, which then explains why it was decided to have both roles played by the same actress.

The acting is much more naturalistic than you might expect in a silent romantic melodrama. Norma Shearer’s performances are quite nuanced, and extremely effective. George K. Arthur is also very good as Chunky. He’s a character who could have been ridiculous and played strictly for laughs but he’s given a certain dignity, and his feelings are taken seriously.

All of the characters are in fact sympathetic. They’re all trying to behave honourably. They don’t really want to hurt anybody. We’d like to see them all end up happy although we wonder how that is going to be possible.

Lady of the Night
is a low-key subtle romantic drama. Real people don’t necessarily respond to romantic disappointment by becoming histrionic and there are no histrionics at all in this movie.

Technically it’s quite impressive, especially when both characters played by Norma Shearer are onscreen at the same time. Which was quite tricky in 1925. In some scenes a double is used for Norma Shearer - an unknown young actress by the name of Joan Crawford.

The ending is not what I expected but it works. Highly recommended, especially if you’ve always wondered why Norma Shearer was such a big deal.

The Warner Archive DVD release offers a good transfer and (pleasingly) it uses a proper tinted print. Not everybody likes the way tinting was used in silent movies but I do like it.

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