Saturday, May 23, 2009


Norma Shearer and Herbert Marshall in "normal" evening gear in Riptide. As always, Ms. Shearer's evening gear is by Adrian. Though Marhsall gives a great performance you can tell what MGM's publicity department thought of the male actors in Shearer's pictures by how little light his face is given.

With a first half hour that would make any comedy of re-marriage of the late 30s proud, Riptide is one of the best Thalberg-produced Norma Shearer vehicles. The story begins with an an unseen dowager's invitation to the "World of the Future Ball." Lord Philip Wrexton (Herbert Marshall) and Mary (Norma Shearer) are strangers meeting en route to the party while struggling with the ridiculous costumes assigned to them by the dowager. These costumes are at once masterpieces of art deco styling and totally hilarious. The pair decide to ditch the party and their silly duds. (I have to say that I was a little disappointed that we don't actually get to see what the MGM art department would have down with the World of the Future Ball). After one big eyeful of one another in regular evening clothes--though to be fair when was Norma Shearer in an Adrian gown, ever anything but spectacular--they fall instantly in love. They then have one of those ridiculous conversations that could only happen in the movies where they acknowledge their intense attraction and plan their future in the vaguest and most breezy manner.

After a whirlwind "spree," represented by the usual polo-playing, speed boat riding montage the couple marry despite her wild past and his somewhat fusty personality. We flash forward five years and the couple are happily married and living in London with a three year old daughter. (I was delighted to see Norma Shearer reading the Tale of Jeremy Fisher at bedtgime. That is as close to being Norma Shearer as I ever get in a day.) Philip is going away on a men's only business trip (whatever that means) his wife is feeling sorely neglected. If this weren't a recipe enough for trouble, Philip's blacksheep aunt Hetty (Mrs. Patrick Campbell) is called in to chaperone. Hetty is a fun-loving old scamp and she insists of dragging her niece first to Monte Carlo and then into the apartment of Mary's ex, Tommie (Robert Montgomery) who is the life of every party. Tommie introduces us to a great hangover remedy, the crown of ice cubes. Inevitably there is moonlight and too much booze and Mary and Tommie get unfairly caught in a scandal. Unwilling to believe that their romance amounted to nothing more than a kiss and some idle chatter, Philip asks Mary for divorce. Apparently there was more than polo playing happening during their spree and Philip decides that because she was the kind of girl who didn't stop at a kiss back then, there's no reason (other than, you know, five years of a marriage and a child together) she should have changed. Mary is understandably annoyed by this double standard and does the sensible thing which is to start sleeping with Tommie. Then Philip changes his mind after learning from a private detective that Mary was innocent after all. Now, Mary is happy to go back to Philip except she has this new and actual cheating to explain. Things get very awkward and driven by his insecurity and her temper, the couple decide to divorce again. The last third of the movie is tiresome as heart strings are tugged, child custody is debated and marriage triumphs about 15 minutes after we quit caring about it.

If this movie was just a tad funnier and a bit shorter, it would be remembered today as a classic romantic comedy. It has all the pieces: a stellar supporting cast, a juicy love triangle and a breezy clever script. As it is, Riptide isn't much remembered at all. Dismissed by critics as a typical Shearer vehicle, it was a box office hit and quickly forgotten when the next one came along. Like most of Norma's pictures it had a lot to say about sexual politics. It is very frank and not entirely outdated. For all its fantastical settings, the portrait of a marriage of opposite personality types was quite accurate--the very qualities which attract also cause tension. Marshall is adept at playing a man in love, yet wracked with quiet insecurities, unable to communicate with his wife. Shearer portrays her loneliness and frustration admirably and then simply shines in her scenes with Tommie. Robert Montgomery who gets billed above Marshall is in many ways the star of this picture, even though he doesn't get the girl. He is always the charming gad-about playboy in these movies, but he takes "charm" to it's zenith in Riptide. He is a leviathan of charm, scooping up hearts like so many plankton and swimming muscularly away when his part in the film is complete.

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