Tuesday 11 November 2014

Norma Shearer and Manic Pixie Dream Boys

Who’s that girl? It’s not Jess, it’s not even Norma, it’s the men Miss Shearer seemed to gather around her in almost every film role. In her Pre-code performances Shearer is not relegated to a supportive role nor is she doomed to a one-dimensional outlook or perpetually unalterable journey. In most cases she is in a constant struggle between a life of sexual and emotional liberation and an existence of a conventional wife and mother. Some might say in even a ‘soulful’ or ‘brooding’ manner. Her adventures through films from 1929 to 1934 are constantly peppered by the standard array of male leads. Unlike the screen heroes of the 1940’s and 50’s, these male counterparts display flowery, emotional qualities and seem to pander only to the wants of Shearer’s more domineering persona. They appear to mirror the characteristics of the typical subordinate, quirky female roles of the 21st Century, recently more controversially coined ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girls’ (MPDG).

A term created to label certain two-dimensional figures, such as, Kirsten Dunst from Elizabethtown (2005) and Natalie Portman from Garden State (2004), the MPDG was considered an only female apparition. However, the unusual power and masculinity of Shearer’s protagonists almost compels the creation of a weaker, eccentric and subservient stereotypes, the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Boy’ (MPDB). Usually embodied by her usual stock of husbands, boyfriends, lovers or male friends, such as, Robert Montgomery, Chester Morris, Leslie Howard or Clark Gable, the MPDB’s function solely for Shearer’s development and happiness.
The problem with assigning strict labels is of course what is a MPDG and, therefore, her male counterpart? Film critic Nathan Rabin originally invented the phrase as a tool for his comprehensive demolition of the film Elizabethtown in a 2007 review. Rabin encapsulated the figure beautifully as a, “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries.” Thus, she has four must-have qualities:
1) She is irresistibly attractive (mostly over and above the male lead);
2) She, in turn, finds her male lead irresistibly attractive;
3) She’s static, unchanging and completely devoted to her male lead; and finally,
4) She is, whether through her behaviour or style, completely crazy.
It seems inevitable that this perfect collection of characteristics has an even more rigid and obvious set of traits for the male protagonist. Rabin thankfully gave the MPDG’s classic love interest equal attention. Accordingly, these men are suitably troubled, unable to embrace life and generally gloomy or depressed. A person perfectly in need of some adventure and whimsy.   
This seems a perfect fit for almost every Zooey Deschannel and insert-older-male-actor off beat romantic comedy, but this isn’t the 1930’s. Or is it. The early 30’s films were a great era for a kind of gender swap. Women were running the show – relationships (in and out of marriage), businesses, money and most of all men. Their male counterparts were, in many cases, just along for the ride. Enter Norma Shearer, the queen of the dominating screen performance and MPDBs. Take her breakout talkie The Divorcee (1930), a film where Shearer – on discovering her husband (Chester Morris) has been unfaithful – decides to ‘settle their account’ by sleeping with his best friend (Robert Montgomery). This is the catalyst for Shearer to break away from an unfulfilling marriage into a culture of free sex, country-hoping and minimal clothing. In this movie it is Shearer who is ‘finding herself’ and seeking fun and freedom not Morris. He, as well as her long array of boyfriends and one-night-stands, are just present, assisting Shearer’s emotional development and always irrevocably in love/desire with her.                
Norma Shearer with her suitors in The Divorcee (1930)
Case Number 2 – A Free Soul (1931) with Shearer alongside veteran actor, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable and Leslie Howard, plays another sex-obsessed young woman with set ideas about love and marriage. Again, Shearer is torn between convention and adventure with a struggle between her perfect, conservative boyfriend and her ex-convict, gangster lover. Also, again Gable and Howard seem to be a backdrop for Shearer’s inner conflict and external exploits by following, almost unquestionably, with every one of her impulses. Her next picture, Private Lives (1931) brought a changeup from Shearer’s typical role. She plays a divorcee, who recently remarried is enjoying a lavish honeymoon on the French Rivera. Unbeknownst to Shearer, her former husband (Montgomery) also on his second honeymoon is staying in an adjourning suite. Private Lives is full of feisty physical fights and passionate makeups between Shearer and Montgomery. Although not completely in alignment with the other two films, it is completed dominated by the fluidly sexual yet controllingly and masculine, Shearer.

Fast-forward three years and Shearer is back to her old games. Riptide (1934) is very much in the same vein as her earlier two films. A few years into a marriage with a stuffy English Lord (Herbert Marshall), Shearer becomes tempted by an old flame (Montgomery). While her husband is away she enjoys nights of drinking, wild escapades and a night of wild sex before returning, at the close, to her contrite husband. The supposed metamorphous of Marshall into a more loving, present husband is overshadowed by Shearer’s extramarital adventures. Her actions are an attempt to revaluate her marriage and experience the liberty of a single woman. It is her journey and he is simply reacting to it.

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul
In this succession of four films, Shearer has created a profile for the MPDB and his irresistible mistress. She is troubled, wrestling between a desire for freedom and a need to stay within the parameters of society’s conventions. Her lovers provide a source of adventure through sex, free expression and lots of partying and alcohol. Likewise, the male co-stars seem to fit a more male exploration of the stock character made famous by Deschannel. They are extremely boyish or pixie-like, with their adolescent obsessions with Shearer. An example Montgomery and Nagel’s characters as her illicit lover’s in Divorcee, they follow after her like puppy dogs desperate for her attention and body. Check one. In most cases they are idyllically assembled; with perfectly fitted costumes, grooming, chiselled bodies and handsome faces. Clearly a physical ideal in the dreams of women. Check two. Although they do not display the obvious emotional mania, there is a clear moodiness about these almost identical characters. Most – evident in Gable’s character in A Free Soul – flit between uncontrollable desire to cold rejection towards Shearer as she grows and changes. A kind of side effect of their Peter Pan-like need to stay young. Not complete insanity but definite, mania. Check three. Lastly, there maleness is mostly undisputed. Check four.

Although, made before the creation of the controversial term MPDG, the small grouping of Norma Shearer films from 1929 to 1934 seem to be probably the only incarnation of the male counterpart at work. Rabin himself seemed to allude that because of the precise mixture of vulnerability, craziness and sprite-like traits, a male version in film was unlikely if not mythical. But Pre-code is not like any other era in movies and was a perfect breeding grown for the very real MPDB. 
Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer in Riptide

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis...for one thing, the early 1930s are another country to us now. It's inconceivable that puppy-dog pixie boys could be heterosexual in 2014, and for many years before. Also consider that Shearer is no longer written about as a sexual figure in her movies. She's been cleansed of desire and made into Hollywood royalty, appropriately enough for an era in which a powerful woman can be worshiped but never desired.

    Norma's portrayal in the precede days must have been delightfully gratifying to hubby Irving Thalberg, a bit of a manic pixie boy himself, but with a hard head for show biz. Here was a woman running the show onscreen - and here was he, slight, frail and cerebral, who had the girl AND ran the show offscreen. Nice goin', Irving.