Norma Shearer: We Were Dancing

The Queen Of Hollywood At The Beginning of her reign
The Queen Of Hollywood At The Beginning of her reign

The Queen of Hollywood was coming to the end of her rein. 1942 saw the release of two movies starring Norma Shearer.

These would be the last films of the former Mrs Irving Thalberg’s career.

That name had caused quite a bit of grousing among some in the Hollywood community. Irving Thalberg was the head of MGM production and marrying him arguably got Shearer plum roles.

At least that’s what people like Joan Crawford thought:”I resented the hell out of Norma Shearer; the only reason she got plum roles was because she married Irving Thalberg. I cried buckets when they gave her Idiot’s Delight.”

Except there’s one slight problem. Irving Thalberg had died in 1936. Idiot’s Delight came out in 1939.

Unless Thalberg was a fortuneteller and wrote into his will that Norma Shearer get the lead role in a film three years after his death then it seems Crawford’s tears were not for the reason she proclaimed.

The fact of the matter is Norma Shearer was a star and she worked hard to maintain that status with or without Thalberg.

We Were Dancing directed by Robert Z Leonard is based on Noel Coward’s Tonight At 8:30. Shearer is Princess Victoria ‘Vicki’ Wilomirska. She meets Baron Nicholas Eugen August Wolfgang ‘Nikki’ Prax (Melvyn Douglas) at a party for her and her fiance. They fall madly in love, ditch the fiance (played by Lee Bowman) and marry each other.

However they are European nobility with no financial resources or place to call home. So they do the only thing left open to them: Use their royal pedigree to become professional house guests for the noveau riche. Then like now people were fascinated by hobnobbing with the well to do. The higher up the food chain the better.

Vicki and Nicki have no problem with this in the beginning but their travels soon take them to people and accommodations that get more gauche and low class than they’re used to. It gets so bad that Nikki even threatens to get…a job!

Still even in the midst of woes Vicki refuses to play the game of what if. As she tells her former fiance, “I have nothing to regret Hubert. I chose my life and I like it.”

In some ways this movie eerily reflects what was happening to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

By 1942 and truly for the rest of their lives Edward and Wallis Simpson were nothing more than globetrotting house guests. Not really contributing much of anything. Just shiny ornamental trophies that their hosts could point to with pride. A pride that comes from being acutely aware of social standing.

There are some funny moments in We Were Dancing. The two stars have good chemistry but that’s not a stretch when the leading man is Melvyn Douglas. Douglas by now was an old hand at doing witty sophisticated comedies.

Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo and directed by Ernst Lubitsch proved that. We Were Dancing is not in that league but Douglas was brilliant when it came to establishing that bond with his leading ladies.

There’s decent support from the other players.

Melvyn Douglas: The consummate actor
Melvyn Douglas: The consummate actor

Gail Patrick in one of her usual roles as the other woman always losing out to the other woman is stylish.

Lee Bowman is shaky at first but really seems to get it in gear later on.

And Majorie Main is hilarious as the flirtatious Judge Hawkes.

But this is Norma Shearer’s vehicle. It may not be her best work but it shows how wrong Joan Crawford was in her assessment. Shearer radiates.

She comes on screen and it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off her. Her acting which seemed a cross between naturalistic and melodrama is full of energy and little surprises. If she was tired of making movies it sure doesn’t show.

Coward’s sharp eyed observations and the always good Melvyn Douglas make We Were Dancing worth a look. But more than that it shows that Norma Shearer even while her film career was drawing to a close had earned the right to be called the Queen of Hollywood.

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