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teaser Riptide (1934)

"She's got 'conscience' written all over her. At this moment, she is cooling off -- like some beautiful volcano that has decided not to wipe out a lot of Italian villages." -- Robert Montgomery, describing Norma Shearer in Riptide

Norma Shearer returned to the screen after spending a year-and-a-half nursing her ailing husband, MGM production executive Irving G. Thalberg, with the 1934 romance, Riptide. It must have seemed like a tailor-made vehicle, with the star suffering elegantly as a woman whose past comes back to haunt her when the husband (Herbert Marshall), whose child she had borne out of wedlock, doubts her fidelity when an old suitor (Robert Montgomery) turns up. Yet for all the film's MGM glamour, it was a pale imitation of her earlier sin-filled romances, too properly British and too repetitious for most American audiences.

On his return to MGM, Thalberg left his position as production head, taking over his own production unit instead. In his eyes, he was in charge of the studio's prestige pictures, a few films each year with the highest production values and most ambitious scripts. For his wife's return, he set out to showcase her. At first he considered a new screen version of Michael Arlen's steamy novel The Green Hat, which the studio had filmed in 1928 as A Woman of Affairs. That silent classic starred Greta Garbo and John Gilbert as British aristocrats whose romance was thwarted by a series of scandals. He assigned Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, 1932), one of the studio's most successful directors of leading ladies, to direct and Charles MacArthur to write the screenplay. But after a few weeks, MacArthur became convinced there was no way to make the '20s-set story work in the midst of the Depression and quit the project. Goulding took over the screenplay and eventually fashioned an entirely new story. Constance Bennett would star in the silent film's disastrous 1934 remake Outcast Lady.

Goulding's original story was similar to The Divorcee, the 1930 romance that established Shearer's mature sex appeal and won her the Oscar®. Unfortunately, the film's production corresponded with the rise of a national furor over sex on screen. With the Legion of Decency gaining in influence and threatening a boycott of all movies, the studios were trying to police themselves more effectively. Goulding had originally titled his screenplay Riptide, but MGM changed it to the more provocative Lady Mary's Lover. Squeamish exhibitors convinced them to change it back. The script itself was mostly sexual sizzle with no payoff. Although Shearer's Lady Mary clearly had sex with her husband before they were married, she remains steadfastly pure from that point on. His jealousy is clearly unfounded -- not only does nothing happen between her and former suitor Montgomery, but she steadfastly fends the dissolute playboy off until Marshall leaves her. As a result, the sanctity of marriage is never seriously challenged, and she clearly suffers mightily for her earlier indiscretion.

As a whole, Riptide was presented with all the glamour MGM had become famous for. The $500,000-plus budget allowed costume designer Adrian to pull out all the stops for an opening scene at an "Insect Ball," with the cast wearing his high-fashion versions of tentacles, claws and antennae. Snow from the Sierra Nevadas had to be imported for the Alpine skiing sequence. Nonetheless, Riptide was not well received in previews. At one point, one of the "veddy" British characters said, "Ah, this air of old England; presently I shall hear a nightingale." One member of the audience responded with a loud Bronx cheer, which was followed through the rest of the screening with more raspberries. Distraught, Thalberg supervised three weeks of retakes trying to whip the film into shape.

As part of his quest for quality, Thalberg cast one of the supporting roles with Mrs. Patrick Campbell (ne Beatrice Tanner), a stage legend who created the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, shared a long platonic romance with the play's author, George Bernard Shaw, and stole Lady Randolph Churchill's husband. Mrs. Campbell's stage career was fading when talking films came in, and she originally traveled to Hollywood to coach actors in the use of their voices. Her insistence on playing the diva, even then, scared most producers out of working with her, but Thalberg thought her name would lend prestige to MGM's productions. Although she had not had a film role in four years, Campbell was still upset with the size of her role. Goulding tried to reassure her with a telegram: " are being put on the screen with all the charm and technique that made you....Relax, trust, don't worry, sleep well, feel well and give me your confidence." But all the encouragement in the world, couldn't reign in her stage-pitched performance, most of which had to be cut, nor curb her notoriously acid tongue. Sources differ on what she said that soured Thalberg on working with her again. Some say that on the set she trumpeted, "Look at that Shearer person. Her eyes are so far apart, you'd have to get a taxi between them." Others contend that at a party, she innocently remarked to Thalberg, "How is your lovely, lovely wife with the tiny, tiny eyes." Always sensitive about Shearer's squint and her slightly crossed eyes, Thalberg stopped casting Campbell after only two more films at MGM. She would make only one more picture, Josef von Sternberg's 1935 Crime and Punishment. By the time she passed away in 1940, she was so broke she had to beg friends for money to live on.

Riptide received mostly lukewarm reviews upon release, but turned a small profit as Shearer's many female fans flocked to see her. Delight Evans of Screenland complained that Shearer's performance was " very much the same silken, slightly decadent, and exquisitely accoutered characterization which has won her so much box-office acclaim in the past," while Cy Caldwell in New Outlook called the plot "a luscious, sloppy gob of whimsical elfishness." The film sent Thalberg and Shearer looking for a change of pace, which resulted in one of her biggest hits, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). It also played a role in world history when a fifteen-year-old Argentine girl became entranced with it and made Norma Shearer her role model. The girl would grow up to become Eva Peron, half of one of the world's most glamorous dictatorships.

Producer: Irving Thalberg
Director: Edmund Goulding
Screenplay: Edmund Goulding
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Director: Alexander Toluboff, Fredric Hope
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Norma Shearer (Lady Mary Rexford), Robert Montgomery (Tommy Trent), Herbert Marshall (Lord Philip Rexford), Mrs. Patrick Campbell (Lady Hetty Riversleigh), Skeets Gallagher (Erskine), Ralph Forbes (David Fenwick), Lilyan Tashman (Sylvia), Helen Jerome Eddy (Celeste), George K. Arthur (Bertie Davis), Halliwell Hobbes (Bollard), Cora Sue Collins (Child), Arthur Treacher (Reporter), E.E. Clive (Sleigh Driver), Walter Brennan (Chauffeur), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Orchestra Leader), Bruce Bennett (Bit).

by Frank Miller

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