Posted by Moira Finnie on February 24, 2010
Motherhood and the movies have often made for boffo box office returns. My glowing memories of those warm-hearted, endearingly fluttery, or nobly self-sacrificing mothers played by Spring Byington, Mary Astor, Fay Bainter and Barbara Stanwyck and others in classic movies may have fogged my vision of celluloid motherhood a bit.
The Silver Cord (1933), a 77 year old film made at RKO, broke that clichéd Mom mold with a disquieting crack, blending a domestic drama with strong elements of high camp. There were Bad Moms around in dramas before and after this exercise in theatrical Freudianism. Noel Coward enjoyed his first big success in the mid 1920s dramatizing the unhealthy relationship between a glamorous nymphomaniac socialite and her drug addicted son in The Vortex (1927), which was made into a silent movie in 1927. The same year as The Silver Cord (1933), director John Ford offered a surprisingly negative portrait of a mother played by Henrietta Crossman in Pilgrimage. Crossman’s dour character was so fixated on avoiding a marriage by her only son to “an unsuitable girl,” she sent him off to the trenches of World War I. And Gladys Cooper brought the Bad Mom to an artistic high point with her portrayals of lethally clinging matriarchs in Now, Voyager (1942) and Separate Tables (1958) in the ’40s and ’50s. The grandma of many of the later indictments of maternal love, however, might be this early talkie, which is statically staged but electrifying, thanks to the author, the actors and their under-appreciated director, John Cromwell.
The story of The Silver Cord (1933) suggested that Oedipus got off easy, compared to David Phelps (Joel McCrea) and his brother Robert (Eric Linden), especially when Mother was played with relish by the veteran character actress, Laura Hope Crews (1879-1942). Crews gave the performance of her life in this films–and with not even a wink from Oscar. In part her lack of recognition stemmed from the absence of a Best Supporting Actress category then. It may also have been neglected because the role, which really might justly fit in the Best Actress niche, was–frankly–a bit too unpleasant to be feted by an increasingly image conscious Hollywood. At the time of this movie, the 54 year old Crews had been acting since she was four, when she toddled on stage with her mother in a play that her parents were appearing in California. Making her Broadway debut in 1903, Crews became best known as a leading character actress, appearing in everything from Ibsen to Shakespeare, with forays into romantic fare such as Peter Ibbetson, but reportedly shining in quirky parts that allowed her flair for comedy to emerge, such as A.A. Milne’s Mr. Pim Passes By and Noel Coward‘s Hay Fever.
That comic side of the actress is best remembered today in her roles as Aunt Pittypat in Gone With the Wind and as Garbo’s mercenary “frenemy” in Camille, but the actress, who had made at least two silents, had begun to find Hollywood a lucrative alternative to the stage by the late ’20s. With the looming menace of the Talkies, silent stars such as Gloria Swanson and Norma Talmadge were paying her as much as $1,000 a week to coach them in proper diction in preparation for facing the mike. While always considering herself a stage actress first, Crews’ plum part in The Silver Cord of Mrs. Phelps (we are never told her first name) allowed her to play a rare leading role as a queen bee whose closeness to her “big boys” veers perilously close to Jocasta territory, as she urges them to eschew the “vulgar attentions” of a wife and a fiancee. She created her character using a lifetime of theatrical craftiness which may add to the general antique quality of this picture, but which is still a fascinating glimpse of a kind of actor I love. While some might find the character she plays repellent and the actress mannered, I was fascinated as this ultimate Bad Mom claims that her one gift in life was “seeing what people have in them and bringing it out in them.” Mrs. Phelps does just that throughout this film, trying to undermine each of the other characters’ sense of self while masking her efforts to control them through her ethereal poses.
The Silver Cord (1933), made the year before the Motion Picture Production Code went into force, flowed from the slightly acidic, sophisticated pen of playwright and screenwriter Sidney Howard and was brought to the screen by director John Cromwell with few changes after shaking up Broadway in the Theater Guild’s 1926-1927 season (which also starred Crews and was directed by Cromwell as well, as seen at left). Even though the film The Silver Cord (1933) hasn’t been seen much in the last two decades, the movie remains as sharp as a paper cut, with crisp performances that still smart from the overwrought Crews, and innocent bystanders Irene Dunne and Frances Dee, who watch Joel McCrea and Eric Linden dangling from the psychological tether as Mom’s objects of desire, or, as Mrs. Phelps calls them, “my great, big things.”
The black and white movie is basically a filmed play with few cinematic values or frills, concentrating on the homecoming of the elder brother and his new wife (McCrea and Dunne) to the family’s posh homestead. Following many of the principles of a “well-made play“, the story takes place over a period of about 18 melodramatic hours in a large, comfortable house in the country where most of the action is confined to arranging flowers, being tucked in my Mummy even though you’re pushing thirty, puttering around a kitchen at night getting a snack, and, oh, yes, having a telephone line pulled out of the wall by Mom in a fit of pique and witnessing a hysterical young woman (Frances Dee) hurling herself into an icy pond after Mummy breaks up her engagement with a few well chosen words in her vacillating son’s ear. The overly articulate characters populate a serious but oddly funny film, packed with Shavian-style colloquies and the kind of histrionics that come to us from a time when American drama dared to have some smarts, toying with Freudian concepts and peeling back the gauzy layers that protected Victorian notions of family, home and motherhood.
Sidney Howard‘s plays dealt with realistic situations in a way that balanced a sometimes prim propriety with the need to shake off censorship following World War I. His works include the 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning story of mature people coping with adultery in They Knew What They Wanted, the story of daring scientists and soldiers pushing the ethical and scientific boundaries as they search for a cure to malaria in Yellow Jack, the love of an obscure housemaid for a brilliant and suddenly fashionable dead artist in The Late Christopher Bean (from a René Fauchois play), and an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth. These plays were highly successful in his lifetime and were made into movies, (sometimes with screenplays written by him as well). Howard seems to be an obscure figure today, though a recent revival of the 1932 play, The Late Christopher Bean by the Actor’s Company in NYC appears to have alerted modern audiences to his still fresh ability to entertain and provoke thought about the clash of money, aesthetic values and class consciousness.
If he is remembered by most of us, it might be for the screenplay for Gone With the Wind, which won Howard an Academy Award for “Best Writing, Screenplay” at the 1940 Oscar ceremony. The award went to him alone for the script, despite the fact that there were more than a dozen more fingerprints all over the GWTW script after Howard first wrestled the huge storyline into a filmable shape. Reading some of his aggravated correspondence with the hyper-fastidious producer David O. Selznick from the period of script preparation, I suspect that the author considered the script a lucrative piece of hackwork and he really earned that credit and every penny the hard way. Howard was also the first person to be awarded an Oscar posthumously, since he was killed at age 48 in a freak accident on his Tyringham, MA farm when cranking up a tractor that had been left in gear, causing it to jump, pinning him to the wall of the barn.
Born in California in 1891, the Harvard-educated Howard found success in the theater through his introduction of once racy topics to that sometimes polite arena, leading to critic’s comparison of him to Eugene O’Neill. While he did not have loner O’Neill‘s tragic depth, they shared a gift for bringing ancient themes to modern dramatic life, dressing myths and ideas in modern raiments, with Sidney Howard consistently nurturing a more playful side to his talent within his dramas. The modest Howard once explained that his play They Knew What They Wanted was merely “a retelling of the Tristan-Iseult story” set in Napa Valley. In his last play Madam Will You Walk, the writer re-imagined the Faust legend as a cozy sort of romance between a reclusive spinster (what a word), and a Dr. Brightlee, who keeps his cloven hoof sharpened just enough to puncture the pretensions of the pompous conformists that the unlikely pair meet. With this kind of characteristic approach to writing plays, Howard took his insights into his close relationship with his mother, evident in his avid letters to her when he was in Europe during World War I, and exaggerated their affinity for dramatic purposes, transposing the romantic triangle that he often used in his plays and scenarios into one fraught with emotion between a mother and her two adult sons to dramatize what he saw as a fairly common unhealthy trend, especially among upper class mothers. This premise might have been misogynistic, but the author is fair to his characters giving villainess and victims a dignified voice and moments of self-awareness that saves them from two dimensionality. His once bold approach to drama may seem quaint now, but without his successes, it’s possible that the work of playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and William Inge might not have been possible.
The seasoned screenwriter Jane Murfin translated the play of The Silver Cord deftly from Howard‘s text, though she was compelled to soften some of the more overtly risqué moments, substituting the word “romantic” for “sexual”, excising references to pregnancy by that word, as well as eliminating the mother’s pathological attachment to her sons and remove topical lines such as “The Chinese have always put filial love first, and they would be the most powerful nation on earth if they didn’t smoke opium.” Little of the play’s themes and situations would ever have been translated so faithfully to the screen once the PCA cut its teeth in July, 1934.
The film begins in Heidelberg with a visit by David Phelps (McCrea) to the laboratory of his wife of six months. Christina, (Irene Dunne) a female biologist, is having a good day, experiencing a breakthrough in the ongoing experiment examining the “development of an embryo of a chicken” (uh, would that be an egg?) and surrounded with her awestruck male colleagues, who include a bowing assistant and a goateed Herr Professor (Gustav von Seyffertitz). Presenting her with the news that his budding architectural skills have earned him an opportunity with the outstanding architectural firm in New York, she is overjoyed at her hubby’s news since she can now take that position she had been offered at the Rockefeller Institute in Gotham as well. Christina is a New Woman, ’30s style, educated and interested in pursuing the fulfillment of her gifts as a researcher, and capable, as one of the adoring eggheads comments, of “being both a woman and a scientist [though] most women couldn’t do it. You are one of those who can have both, a husband and a job.” Interrupting his wife while she is peering through a microscope, David has no idea what she is doing and she clucks fondly at his cluelessness, giving us a few hints about the nature of this relationship.
Working with Irene Dunne for the first of four times that the two would collaborate, the director John Cromwell, who would next make the rather splendid Ann Vickers with Dunne, brought out some of the actress’s best qualities by spotlighting her natural, brisk starchiness at this stage of her career, having her deliver several closely reasoned arguments throughout the film with a prosecuting attorney’s logic. Her character is clearly brighter than her husband, and appears to have a handle on life that her callow spouse lacks, though McCrea‘s burst of spontaneous warmth, demanding some “show of affection” for his achievement, is quite winning, as is the sight of the neatly streamlined Dunne next to the shambling, golden lad McCrea. In retrospect that hint of neediness in the husband would be less ingratiating and more indicative of a man without a strong enough sense of himself.
Before settling in New York, the pair arrive at the home of David’s mother (Crews) mother for a visit, where she lives with her other son, the slightly effete Robert (Linden) and his visiting fiancée, Hester, played by Frances Dee in a high-spirited performance that is remarkably open emotionally. As soon as Mrs. Phelps arrives home, swaddled in furs and crying for “Dave Boy!”, she immediately begins to endeavor to regain her hold on her two boys, even if it means breaking up the one’s marriage and the other’s engagement. Insisting that David stay in his old room while his wife is parked with the other son’s interloper betrothed in another part of the house, she begins to play a game of psychological chess with each of the members of household, forgetting, for the umpteenth time how Hester likes her tea, and sending three of them off on unimportant errands while she makes her move on “her new daughter.”
Getting Christina alone, the older woman, who repeatedly asserts that she doesn’t have a “selfish hair on her head,” is shocked to discover that this young married woman wants to move to the Big Apple and expects to pursue a job–a term that Mrs. Phelps prefers to “profession, since that word has such a sinister sound for a woman, doesn’t it?” Mrs. Phelps can’t quite seem to remember what kind of job Christina has, calling her a “theologist” and “geologist” before being corrected more than once, which prompts the mother to say that she’d prefer that Dave would euphemistically term his wife “a student of life “, rather than a “bye-ologist” as she pronounces it. Appalled at hearing of the couple’s New York City plans, where her “Dave boy” will be a “small pollywog in a big pond” she begs her nonplussed daughter-in-law for just “a small corner of her boy’s heart,” even though the “such perfect plans” she’s cooked up for her older boy guiding the development of a nearby ironically named Pleasant Valley will be upset now. Mollifying her new mother-in-law somewhat, Christina explains that she married her husband only after he proved to her that he wanted to stand on his own two feet and make a contribution to the great world, even if it meant a struggle. Trying to comfort her new relative with a kiss and a hug, however, Christina gets the brush-off and retreats, only to checkmate her mother-in-law with the news of a baby on the way in five months–a bit of biological reality that gives the increasingly brusque Mrs. Phelps the vapors (and gives Crews a nice moment when she spills a drink on herself when the announcement comes).
Comforted by her lap dog younger offspring Robert, who acknowledges that Christina is “not your sort, is she?”, Mother Phelps starts fawning on him, crying on his shoulder that “You don’t know what it is to be a mother. I nearly died when [David] was born. He was a twelve pound baby, you know…” Soon she is murmuring that “you’re my true son, Robert…not like Dave, who takes after his father”.
When she has the weak-willed son completely enthralled, she starts chipping away at his tie to Hester, asking if Hester has been close to many other men, and if he really might not love her, especially since she doesn’t care where they go on their honeymoon and–the kicker– “she hasn’t even picked out a silver flatware pattern” for the upcoming wedding (a sure sign of callous indifference, I’m sure). Pretty soon Robert, who asks “a man ought to marry, shouldn’t he?” finds himself wondering if “he might not be the marrying kind?”
Robert, it is later revealed, has no profession but after cutting Hester loose, decides that he may go to Europe with his mother to study interior decorating soon (to which his brother comments wryly “that would suit you–painting rosebuds on bathtubs”). Linden‘s acting throughout the film is first rate, never falling into a gay caricature but conveying a longing on the part of his character for something more. This is evident in his voice as he sensitively watches his brother and sister-in-law’s through the window as they walk in the winter moonlight and in his later outburst when he learns of his mother’s ploys regarding her allegedly fragile health. Never quite having the strength of character to shirk off the seeds of doubt planted by Mom, he is his older brother’s rival for maternal attention and is haunted by his mother’s query to him when she’s encouraging him to break his engagement: “You will be a man?”
Eric Linden, a good actor whose youthful face would condemn him to callow roles for much of his ten year film career, always seemed to sound as though his characters are about to burst into tears. His pained childishness in this part and his overly solicitous concern for his mother indicates a man who has never quite been able to cut the apron strings. Yet Linden‘s scenes with his Iago-like Mom played by Laura Hope Crews are quite chilling as she tells him of her loneliness, but never acknowledges the isolation of her younger son, treating him as a familiar doormat rather than a human being. By the conclusion of the story, when illusions are gone and he is trapped with his mother, his pathetic figure becomes more poignant than pitiable.
In the role of the jilted, guileless Hester, she artlessly admits that the primary reason for wanting to marry is “to have lots of babies.” Believing that the thing to do with children is “have ‘em, love ‘em, and then leave ‘em alone,” Hester shocks her future mother-in-law and charms this viewer in this part. Frances Dee offers a viewer one more example of this excellent performer’s acting range and capacity for expressing intensely felt emotion in her characters. She deserves far more exposure among cinephiles beyond her identification with Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943). By 1933, the 24 year old actress, who said she entered her profession “on a lark” had played intense and diverse roles in von Sternberg’s interpretation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1931), etched a lively portrayal of a fervid thrill seeker in Blood Money (1933), as well as her best known turn as gentle Meg in Little Women (1933). When an ambivalent Eric Linden‘s character breaks their engagement after Mom’s seeds of doubt germinate, her grief and shock build into a believable cathartic hysteria that shreds the respectable facade that the five adults have kept up during the first part of the movie.
Tended by a puzzled Christina, who efficiently strives to calm the girl, Hester’s realization that her future mother-in-law has fostered her rejection by her son, leads to her frantic attempt to call a taxi to escape the presence of her prime tormentor, Mrs. Phelps. One hilarious moment comes when Mrs. Phelps, after snapping the phone line in Hester’s hands to prevent her escape (and possible gossip), rounds on the girl and blames her for forcing her “to do an undignified thing.”
When the distressed Hester later escapes from the house and attempts to drown herself in the frozen pond, Robert and David dash out to save the girl. However, at this moment of dramatic crisis, Mrs. Phelps’ main concern is her boys, as she shouts after them that they might catch pneumonia and they should come back for their overcoats before thinking of saving the drowning Hester. Btw, according to reviews of the play at the time of its debut, this moment got big laughs from the audience in the ’20s, as did several of the other oddly juxtaposed points in the story when Mrs. Phelps says something strangely inappropriate. After rescuing the distraught girl, the mother blithely dismisses her pain with the remark to Robert that “I always suspected there was insanity in her family. She had a brother who was an aviator in the war.”
During this movie Frances Dee, who had once dated her on-screen fiancé, Eric Linden, and was practically engaged to a young Paramount writer named Joseph Mankiewicz at the time of the filming, met and fell in love with her co-star Joel McCrea on the set of this film. She swiftly married the young actor later in 1933, shocking Mankiewicz into a nervous collapse. While the womanizing Mankiewicz later said that Dee was “the love of his life,” perhaps his chagrin was deepened when he learned that the honeymoon journey through New England taken by the newlyweds was one that Dee and the writer had meticulously planned for their own future wedding trip. Producer David O. Selznick, in a puckish mood, claimed that Frances Dee confided to him that she chose the placid, steady McCrea over the creative, cerebral Mankiewicz “when she came to the realization that her attraction to Mankiewicz was purely physical, while McCrea appealed to her intellectually.” Regardless of the truth of such a waggish story, the marriage of Frances Dee and Joel McCrea was a union that lasted 57 years until his death in 1990. The betrothal also marked the end of Dee‘s serious career rise in favor of family life, though she would continue making memorable appearances sporadically in films, particularly in the noteworthy If I Were King (1938), So Ends Our Night (1941), The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) and Four Faces West (1948) (opposite her husband) until her last acting appearance on screen came two years after her death in the short As Far As the Eye Can See (2006).
Joel McCrea‘s David Phelps is a difficult character to play credibly since on the surface, he seems to be a man who should have the world on a plate. In reality, as his wife points out in a late night exchange, she finds that emotionally he “has dead, arid spots in him” where he remains beyond the reach of her love, especially when she tries to point out his mother’s manipulative behavior. Initially believing that eventually he would open himself more to her and to life, she realizes that those closed off parts of him are the areas where his mother’s invisible umbilical cord still strangles her son.
Angered and unsettled by his wife’s “taking sides”, he slips all too comfortably back into the emotionally incestuous relationship with his mother, dramatized by a very icky scene when Laura Hope Crews sits on the side of McCrea‘s bed with him, whispering lies about Christina’s intentions in his ear while she expresses the false hope that “we four”–meaning Dave, Robert, Mother and Christina–might find happiness together in their own little world. Startled by the unexpected arrival of her boy’s wife in the bedroom as she leans over Dave to kiss him goodnight, McCrea seems genuinely embarrassed as his mother insists that both she and his wife avert their eyes while hwave puts on his dressing gown. A gifted comic actor and an assured hand in later Westerns, the young Joel McCrea often seems at sea in this film, wavering between emotional childhood and maturity of his role, while his pregnant wife understandably comes to demand a commitment.
Well known for his modesty about his acting, McCrea used to say that “I have no regrets, except perhaps one: I should have tried harder to be a better actor.” He does try hard in this film, but unfortunately, his character is among the few in this small cast who cannot express himself in words as fluidly as the others. Joel McCrea, who normally had an enormous likable presence on screen, just couldn’t make this role more a flesh and blood person, given the schematic, generally passive role. As the film concludes in a discursive scene with Christina explaining her very sound reasons for breaking with her mother-in-law, Mrs. Phelps has one more rallying cry, finally mentioning her long dead husband after declaiming that she’d cut off her right hand and burn the sight from her eyes if it would save Dave Boy from Christina’s clutches! As Crews admits that “I’m only human” she wrings her hands, stating arrogantly that “my mistakes couldn’t have been very serious ones…since my two sons are proof” of her love, a love that she lavished on them after her older husband proved incapable of “romance.” Conveniently left a rich widow after five years of marriage, the then 25 year old Phelps felt that her life work should be her boys. When asked what Christina can offer her son that she can’t, Christina responds “a hard time…a chance to to stand on his own two feet…a chance to love a baby without any hint of romance…and the solace of my love.”
Finally leading the way toward sanity, accompanied by her husband, (who looks like a deflated football after a very rough game between two scrappy teams) and Hester, it is the lingering image of the bereft Robert Phelps that sticks with me. He has finally confronted his scheming mother, explaining that the disgusted doctor who came to the house to tend to Hester’s hypothermia told him that Mrs. Phelps doesn’t have a bum ticker as she always claimed and offering the opinion “it would take a stick of dynamite to kill” Mrs. Phelps. Despite Robert’s new self-knowledge, and a half-hearted momentary plea to Hester, asking if they could start again, Robert nevertheless stays behind, his head buried in Mummy’s welcoming bosom. The best line in the entire play may come from the most sympathetic character of Hester. When asked what her plans are for the future, she hesitates, then replies: “Marry an orphan!”
Conclusion: There’s too much talk, but it is delivered smoothly by Irene Dunne, who supports some great, iconoclastic fireworks from some real pros deserving of more attention, with three largely forgotten players in the spotlight–Laura Hope Crews, Eric Linden and especially Frances Dee. Even though the role that he plays does not especially highlight Joel McCrea‘s taciturn appeal, as the primary object of desire in this movie, he is more than adequate.
As you probably noticed the fuzziness of the screen caps that I’ve included with this post are lacking in resolution. My copy of The Silver Cord (1933) was taken from an old VHS tape recorded when the movie was broadcast years ago on AMC. As far as I know, there may be licensing issues that prohibit this fascinating artifact from being broadcast on cable at this time. You may be able to find a used VHS of the movie on the secondary market. I am hoping that a negative or decent print is stored in an archive somewhere and might find an audience again in the future.
Atkinson, J. Brooks, Craig’s Mother, The New York Times, December 21, 1926.
Geist, Kenneth L., Pictures Will Talk, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978.
Gewirtz, Arthur, Sidney Howard and Clare Eames: American Theater’s Perfect Couple of the 1920s, McFarland, 2004.
Howard, Sidney Coe, The Silver Cord: A Comedy in Three Acts, Charles Scribner’s Sons,1927.
Roberts, Barrie, Eric Linden: Too Much Youth, Classic Images, July, 1997.
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