Monday, May 5, 2014

Their Own Desire

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

When one looks at the earliest films in Oscar’s arsenal, one is apt to find films in which the plot seems to simply be bizarre by modern standards. Their Own Desire is a case in point. This is a weird little film, and I stress the word “little” because the running time barely scrapes past an hour. In a way, it reminds me of a film like Dodsworth in that it is an ultimate white people problems film, or at least a rich people problems film. Seriously, the thing starts with a polo match, and the players in the game are our main characters. I’ve not only never played polo, I don’t know anyone who has.

Anyway, Lucia “Lally” Marlett (Norma Shearer) has the sort of life that most people in 1929, pre- or post-crash would have loved to have. She and her family play polo and have more money than they can spend. Tragically, sadness has crept into the Marlett home. Lally’s father Henry (Lewis Stone) has been carrying on a year-long affair with a woman known to us only as Mrs. Cheever (Helene Millard). Lally discovers this as her parents have decided on a divorce. After a heated argument with her father, Lally heads off to summer with her mother (Belle Bennett).

It is while summering at a resort on Lake Michigan that Lally encounters Jack (Robert Montgomery). Jack is brash, introducing himself to Lally by watching her dive into a swimming pool and then diving in after her fully clothed. Their romance is the very definition of whirlwind, and it’s not long before Lally has fallen for his charms completely. And then the bombshell drops. Jack’s last name is Cheever. Yes, it’s the same Cheever. So, after cutting herself off from her father, Lally has subsequently fallen for the other woman’s son.

So, while this is very much a rich white people problems film, it’s also got shades of Jerry Springer. I wonder if a film like The Graduate would exist without one like Their Own Desire to pave the way into ugly family reunion territory. I’d love to say that there’s more to this movie than this weird little coincidental relationship, but there isn’t. Lally discovers who Jack actually is and drops him, but she can’t give him up and eventually the two plan to run off and get married, much to the distress of her mother.

And this is where Their Own Desire takes a serious dip into problem territory. Sure it’s white people problems and sure it’s an episode of Jerry Springer, but once mom finds out about Jack Cheever, it takes a turn for the melodramatic in the most severe way possible. Belle Bennett pulls out all the stops, and speaks as if in the center of a Greek tragedy. It quickly becomes so overwrought and manipulative. I’m sure that there are women (and men) who act like this in real life, but I can’t take them seriously, either.

Norma Shearer, who was nominated for this, is the main reason that this is worth seeing. She’s surprisingly modern in appearance and looks like she could be plucked out and dropped into something released this year.

I typically like to write quite a bit more than I have, but I’m not honestly sure that Their Own Desire warrants much more of your time or my effort. It is, at its core, a standard soap opera melodrama of the early talkie period. It’s emotionally overwrought and because of that it’s difficult to take it very seriously. I don’t doubt that plenty of people took it seriously enough in 1929, but try as I might, I can’t get past its emotional blackmail. That it even makes reference to the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is just reprehensible. The ending, where Jack and Lally are off in a canoe while a storm rages takes the film into dark territory, but even this is just more manipulation and melodrama.

Ultimately, I can’t say a lot for it.

Why to watch Their Own Desire: It’s a piece of Norma Shearer’s career.
Why not to watch: Problems it’s difficult to care about.


  1. Also from this era: The Rogue's Song features an Oscar nominated performance from Lawrence Tibbet from 1930. I know this is a "missing" film. I'm not sure how many other movies with Oscar nominated performances are missing. I only know about The Rogue's Song because it features supporting parts for Laurel and Hardy (Which I'm guessing is the main reason to see it, if you could) . I think there are parts of this available on YouTube, but not much.

    1. Pretty much the only parts I've seen are the Laurel and Hardy bits. I'm still trying to figure out what I'm going to do about those missing films.

  2. I think this overripe twaddle is a near perfect example of the bumpy transition from silents to sound. You can see all the actors struggling to adjust to the new technology whether they are veteran performers like Shearer and Belle Bennett or newbies like Montgomery was at the time. Norma is over emphatic, perhaps not to the extant of Bennett but she's playing to the back row nonetheless, whereas Bob Montgomery is practically on top of people when he speaks seeming more like he's on the attack than any sort of ardency. In fairness to him he's not the only one with a case of the snugglies so perhaps it was a requirement of the primitive sound equipment that the players had to be practically on top of one another, still it's distracting.

    There's other signs as well of the whole enterprise feeling its way from one era to another, the use of title cards for scene changes harks back to silent technique breaking whatever flow the picture managed to have. The smoothest scenes and effective moments are the ones that don't require dialog both in the set pieces and the actor's performances.

    I couldn't believe this was one of Shearer's nominations, this being one of those weird years where she beat herself, I thought she was fine in her speechless moments but they were too few and far between interlaced with much clutching of pearls. I haven't seen all her competitors but both Garbo in either of her films and Swanson in The Trespasser were better than she in either of her competing pictures.

    Despite the shortness of its running time I barely made it through and it's definitely one film that I would never put myself through watching again.

    1. Agree completely. One of the most interesting things about films from 1929 and 1930 is that transition from silent to sound. Sometimes it was made seamlessly, and other times, as here, it was a bumpy transition, indeed.

      It took most people a couple of years to figure out that they weren't really on stage and that they could be a lot more subtle. Of course, some actors didn't figure that out until the 1940s...

      I've yet to see Trespasser and Anna Christie. In fact, I've yet to see Shearer's winning performance in The Divorcee. Good to know they're worth looking forward to.

      Sadly, of the others from this year I've seen, Garbo's Romance is the leading contender. This, believe it or not, was better than both The Devil's Holiday and Sarah and Son, or at least on the same level.