Monday, January 11, 2016

Now Showing: "We Were Dancing" (1942)

History has not been kind to We Were Dancing, nor Shearer's last few films.  While it's true that Her Cardboard Lover was an inferior film and a sad way to end such a successful and prolific career, We Were Dancing seems to have suffered guilt by association.

True, the film and its theme would have been more palatable to 1930s audiences.  By 1942, the world was at war and movie audiences were less tolerant of two opportunists looking for the easiest way to live very well off others.  The woman's picture and film noir were preparing to take over theaters, putting comedy into the backseat.  Watching We Were Dancing today, however, you can see the hidden gem that's been largely lost in the intervening years.

Based on a couple of one act plays by Noel Coward, Shearer plays Vicki, a Polish princess with little to her name but her title.  She meets Nicki, a Baron who makes his way much as she does, via his aristocratic title (and with a few poker games thrown in.)  They meet during Vicki's engagement party to Hubert, a stuffed shirt attorney, and she promptly throws Hubert over to elope with Nicki.  Neither realizes the other is poor until after they have exchanged vows and so decide to seek out rich people to hustle, becoming professional house guests.  This feels very much a foreign concept today but apparently it was the norm to have lengthy houseguests with titled folks and the wealthy.  Eventually Vicki tires of the somewhat nomadic lifestyle and expects Nicki to get a job.  The horrors.  This leads to Nicki being in a comprising situation with former fiancée Linda, Vicki suing for divorce and then becoming engaged once again to the ever patient Hubert.  Hijinks ensue (don't they always?) as Nicki asserts himself as a designer of sorts of their new home in order to win back Vicki.

This is definitely formulaic stuff.  Only in Hollywood's eyes can a couple meet, share one dance and marry, all within the hour.  Again, this storyline would have been acceptable and encouraged during the Depression-weary audiences of the 1930s but given that Nicki was not a solider on leave, the quick elopement here was probably met with sighs.  Does anyone doubt what the outcome will be?  Of course not.

Yet, even with the fluff attached to this project, it's delightful fun thanks primarily to the performances of Shearer and Douglas.  I'm a long time fan of Shearer's and while, like most of her later movies, this one misses the sex appeal and daring that energize her pre-Code films,  she is witty and appears to be having fun.  Her character could have been distasteful - - she is taking advantage of people, after all - -but with Shearer's input, she is quite likable.

Who can resist Melvyn Douglas?  (Not me.)
Melvyn Douglas was Melvyn Douglas . . . in other words, absolute perfection.  I adore him and feel he was one of the best actors of the generation and sadly underrated today.  He was terrific at comedy (see They All Kissed the Bride and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, to name but two) and ranks up there with William Powell as my ultimate dream man, Hollywood style.  He is Nicki in every sense and his declaration of love to Shearer during the courthouse scene is great.  Also great is Marjorie Main playing the lovestruck judge, susceptible to Douglas' charm and suave good looks.  

Gail Patrick plays Douglas' jilted fiancée Linda superbly.  She's an ice cold elegant beauty, allowing us to see why Nicki would be attracted to her and why he would throw her over for the much warmer Vicki.   Patrick did indeed play the other woman very well.

In all, despite hearing what a clunker We Were Dancing was for years, I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and the only cinematic pairing of Shearer and Douglas.  It can be appreciated for singular entertainment, for one of Shearer's final film roles, the debut of a lighter and fluffier hair style (yes, I'm shallow) and for Douglas being on film, period. 

If you are a fan of Shearer, Douglas, Patrick and/or director Robert Z. Leonard, this film should be in your viewing library.  It's a marvelous look at cinema in 1942, pre- War epics and women's films, and a final glimpse of Shearer before she retires. 

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