Classic Film of the Week #3: Strange Interlude (1932)

It's Clark Gable month on TCM, and my recent classic film viewing has been dominated by his pre-code filmography--24 of his 25 pre-code films are airing this month! He starred in some really excellent films during this period, but when it came time to pick one to highlight, the flawed masterpiece Strange Interlude was my first choice. 

 Directed by Robert Z. Leonard and starring Norma Shearer and Clark Gable, Strange Interlude is an early pre-code film based on a play by Eugene O'Neill. It concerns the life of Nina (Norma Shearer) and the three men who love her: Charlie (Ralph Morgan), a lifelong friend who is too timid to admit his true feelings; Dr. Ned (Clark Gable), who is attracted to Nina, but doesn't want any romantic interference in his dreams of a big career; and Sam (Alexander Kirkland), who is crazy about Nina and never misses an opportunity to tell her so. Between the three, Nina chooses Sam, and she has a blissful honeymoon as all of her dreams of life as a loving wife and mother seem about to come true. But it all comes crashing down around her when her new mother-in-law sits her down for a chat and reveals that madness runs in Sam's family, and if Nina has a child with him, she will pass this horrible fate onto the child--but if she doesn't give him the child he wants so desperately, the stress and confusion may well drive him mad anyway. And the cherry on top of the cake is that Sam has been kept completely in the dark about his mentally unstable lineage, leaving Nina to carry this horrible burden alone. Ultimately, she chooses the best option among a bunch of bad ones: she has an affair with Ned, with the intention of getting pregnant by him and passing off the child as Sam's. But as most women having an affair with 1930s Clark Gable would be apt to do, she falls in love with Ned, beginning a lifelong conflict between what she wants for herself, and what she feels she owes to her husband.  

Norma Shearer's pre-code work has been making a big comeback in the last decade, with her daring and feminist performances leaving a big impact on contemporary moviegoers. Strange Interlude is one of the few exceptions, a film that remains in the background of her regenerated popularity and carries a pretty bad reputation when it is acknowledged. The reason why is not because of a bad story, bad acting, or any of the other usual suspects: the culprit is an experimental sound technique. Where the original play apparently featured fourth-wall breaking in the vein of The Office or Parks and Recreation, with the action stopping and the characters expressing their innermost thoughts to the audience, the film utilizes voice-overs in which dramatic conversations pause for the characters to look into the distance, think deeply, and relay their thoughts to the audience, thoughts they can't express out loud. These thoughts also happen to be awkwardly verbose, quotes written for the theater that simply don't translate to the screen. The result is an incredibly silly, dated effect that plagues almost every major scene of the film, and for most modern viewers, it's simply too ridiculous to take seriously, robbing the film of all of its dramatic weight.

While I can certainly understand the viewpoint that this results in a bad film, I strongly disagree with it. Admittedly I did laugh at many moments that were meant to be serious, but these were the kinds of moments that would be a bit corny now regardless of the heavy-handed monologues--the important moments, the big emotional climaxes of the film, still got through to me and affected me in ways only a great film can. The scene pictured above, for example: Ned discovers the heartbreaking truth that his son Gordon, being raised as the child of Sam, hates him and is turning into a spoiled, arrogant boy that Ned would be ashamed to call his own. It's not too late to fix things, but he can't without unraveling all of Nina's hard-work and sacrifice, and so their wounds deepen as Sam and Gordon's obliviousness grows. Gable puts in some of the finest work I've ever seen from him as Ned, walking this impossible emotional tightrope in which he's forced to live a lie and let another man--his best friend--take everything he loves without even realizing.

But despite the always-fantastic chemistry Gable and Shearer share here, this is truly her show--when isn't it?--and she shines just as brightly as in The Divorcee or A Free Soul. Smart, beautiful, and always keenly aware of what she wants and how to get it, she infuses all of these qualities into Nina--and then shows us what happens when such a free spirit is chained into the kind of impossible situation Nina is in. In this, the film is actually quite unique: there's a million movies about characters stuck in bad situations who make a change for the better, and a million more about characters stuck in bad situations who just stay there, whether because they actually prefer it or because they don't have the strength to get out of it. But what about a movie where a character stays in a bad situation for the sake of another person? This is a lot more uncommon, and especially so because this film chronicles Nina's entire life: there's no ambiguous ending halfway through her misery, allowing us to believe things worked out for the better. We see this story through to the bitter end, and boy is it bitter, standing out as one of the more emotionally devastating endings in Hollywood cinema: Nina's life is nearly over, and for one reason or another, everyone she loves has left her. Her web of lies has dissolved, and she's left knowing that her life wasn't wasted, but instead it was all just one big sacrifice--if she had wasted it, at least it would have been on her terms, but instead she's lived her life for another person who never even knew to thank her. 

The idea of reaching the end of your life and feeling completely empty as you look back on it: that's the feeling the film as a whole seeks to convey, and it does so perfectly, more so than any other film I've ever seen. Despite its early sound era shortcomings, I truly believe this film deserves a second look for its unique and tasteful treatment of these difficult themes, and the beautiful performances by Shearer and Gable. Strange Interlude comes cautiously recommended--I would definitely advise watching it with a good-natured classic film buddy to help take the edge off of those voice-overs--and is available on DVD, as well as occasionally appearing on TCM.


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