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MovieProfessor

In The Shadow of Norma . . .

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Be on the lookout this week for a very interesting movie entitled, ?The Crash.? Produced in 1932, this motion picture is something of a typical ?studio showcase? for what was essentially a major star. In this case, ?The Crash? was one in a series of few films, starring an almost forgotten movie star, talented and exhilarating Ruth Chatterton. The story of her life and career would make for a novel or even a film in of itself! Chatterton, whose career is hardly ever talked about, let alone, has not been so clearly and deeply chronicled was one of those unique, once in a lifetime stories of Hollywood that for the most part has faded away amid more noted movie stars that managed to have a longevity that her film career never did. Like many girls starting out in show business, Chatterton made a huge impact on the live stage, becoming a sensation at age 20, in the highly popular comedy, ?Daddy Long Legs.? Her quick raise to fame and glory as an actress, at first didn?t transcend to Hollywood smoothly, due in part to Chatterton not being enthusiastic to work in silent-films. In 1928, she decided to take an offer from Paramount Pictures and began what she believed would be nothing more than a sideshow for her to consider. Fate had Chatterton make only one silent movie, ?Sins of the Fathers.? She then moved on to the new medium of talking-pictures! This was a very fascinating technical aspect in that Chatterton might be considered the very first, devoted, popular stage actress to have not had any long term career in silent movies! The medium of talking pictures would simply allow Chatterton the means to display her various skills that had made her famous; her emotional range as an actress was by that time considered one of the finest.

 

In no time, Chatterton was Paramount?s top dramatic star. After three successful early sound films, in 1929, she was lent to MGM, where she appeared in what many film buffs believe to be her greatest performance in the classic soap-opera ?Madam X.? This motion picture was one of the smash hits of the year, garnering for Chatterton an Academy Award nomination. At the time of this success, already there were mutterings that Chatterton was a reflection of MGM?s biggest dramatic star, mighty Norma Shearer. Yet, some film historians have countered to say that it was Shearer who actually patterned herself after Chatterton. The technical truth is that Shearer had a longer career in films than Chatterton ever did. Chatterton came late on the movie screen and it?s likely that Paramount had all along wanted to compete against MGM in this dramatic category. I myself tend to believe that Chatterton came to films based around the success of Shearer. The two women had personas that were strikingly similar, as well as their acting skills seem to compliment each other! Throughout the early 1930s, the two actresses were symbolic rivals for the admiration of the movie fans. It?s even been reported that Chatterton lost out to Shearer on receiving various roles. The most famous being ?A Free Soul,? that won Shearer an Academy Award.

 

The next series of films Chatterton made at Paramount were in typical melodramatic form of women who struggled to find love or emotional fulfillment. These types of films, pretty much made Chatterton incredibly popular with female audiences, who clamored for more of the same. By 1930 and in less than two years, Chatterton was a major dramatic movie star, right on the heels in popularity behind Norma Shearer. It was all too obvious that talking-pictures was key to making Chatterton a success, because unlike most actresses at the time, Chatterton understood the importance of good diction and a style of elegance that made her image on screen reap with a passion that transfixed most movie going audiences to admiring her skill as an actress. In no time, Chatteton was a highly paid movie star and the subject of everything that was fashionable to the women in America. She was making at least 3 major films a year, right up until the time she left her popular career at Paramount Pictures to sign on with Warner Brothers and First National Pictures. It was right after moving over to the new studio, she met her second husband in 1932, actor George Brent. Warner?s cleverly placed the newly married performers in a series of popular melodramas. Despite these films not being so worthy of Chatterton?s talents, they kept her career on top or at least signifying she was one of the big box-office draws of the early 1930s. During this early period working at Warner?s, Chatterton met and befriended a young aspiring actress, whom she took under her wing by the name of Bette Davis! Later on came another good friendship with another actress she influenced, Kay Francis. Chatterton gained a rather wonderful reputation of being forthright and kind to those she worked with that would be something of a trademark throughout her career in films. She never really felt threatened or have a need to be so animated, creating false imagery as a means of exploiting herself. This was one trait that undoubtedly Bette Davis learned from Chatterton.

 

During her marriage to actor Brent, Chatterton?s film career began to slow down, spending more time at home. By the middle of the decade, Chatterton seemed disinterested in continuing on with a steady or regularly scheduled career in movies. When her marriage to Brent ended in divorce and her box-office appeal slipped, she accepted the enviable point that time might be against her, in terms of the high fashionable style of imagery that was created for her movie star career. In 1936, she appeared in the highly praised dramatic film, ?Dodsworth? opposite Walter Huston that was her last great performance for a major Hollywood production. Chatterton would in later years feel that she became distracted by allowing Hollywood to focus more on a selling point of creating an image that didn?t necessarily have anything to do with what?s expected of a fine actress. Here again there had to be an influential connection that was passed on to Bette Davis. I?ve always believed that Bette having known and watched Chatterton those early years at Warner Brothers, she caught on to the pitfalls film stars face when a studio takes too much control of one?s artistic drive to succeed. Chatterton would once remark, ?A problem arises when you realize it?s more a business than a creative process.?

 

By the end of the 1930s, Chatterton was out of the Hollywood scene, having gone to England, making several films and then returning to America to reestablish a moderately good career on the Broadway stage. Then came ?live television? and within the new electronic medium she surprisingly did well, appearing in some highly praised dramatic productions. But, an even bigger surprise was Chatterton deciding on becoming a writer! She had several successful novels published, signifying a big unexpected career move that brought her back under the celebrity spotlight. Upon becoming a writer, she gave up completely on acting and she enjoyed a good third marriage. Chatterton proved that she wasn?t afraid to keep herself and love of the creative process alive and functioning at whatever extent there was to making it worthwhile. She was in so many regards a remarkable person, to have had a short, but glorified film career, accepted its changes and disappointments, only to see her reach out towards other endeavors and give her life a pleasure or even a second chance few ever get.

 

By the way, another factor to her life and times was that Chatterton was a good and close friend to aviator Amelia Earhart! Funny, that right now there is a major new film about the legendary aviator! Later on Chatterton became a flyer herself, making several solo flights across the country! The new film about Earhart makes no mention of Chatterton; I found this rather strange. Chatterton turned out to be a woman whose life simply knew no boundaries, thus she acquired a reputation as a fearless individual. She was in many ways a pioneer to women in general, who had a need to branch out beyond the daily confines set forth by the conventionalities of society. While Chatterton wasn?t the only actress in Hollywood to have a successful career, shrouded by a maverick image, she was undoubtedly one of the very first who represented this bold new way of celebrating her life as well as having for a short time a triumph to her endeavors. He died in 1961 at her home in Connecticut.

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This is a good example of what people with such long memories can contribute to these boards. Thanks to TCM, I've caught a few of her movies and, while Robert's commentary can be helpful, it's necessarily limited to a minute or two. Thanks for taking the time, Prof. Her status vis-a-vis Norma Shearer is particularly poignant, since qualified actresses have often had to compete, unfairly really, with actresses who are already established and whose names are more recogizable on a marquee. I can't remember exact details, but Myra Breckinridge (and who knows if this is original to Gore Vidal) had a theory about there being a Hollywood pantheon, with only one person fulfilling each archetype at a time. All others could only aspire. From what you're saying, it seems like Norma filled the slot, and Ruth had to compete as best she could. The sad part is that the theory doesn't take into account the individuals' relative level of talent. Anyway, I'll be watching "The Crash". Thanks again.

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That's a very interesting write up on Ruth Chatterton. Thanks for sharing that. *Dodsworth* is one of my favorite films. I also liked her in *Female* and would like too see more of her work show up on TCM.

 

Chatterton and Shearer worked at different studios of course, but from what I know about Shearer, she probably had a great respect for Chatterton. Having no stage background herself, Shearer was a great admirer of actresses who came over from the theater. Indeed, Shearer probably had a bit of an inferiority complex in that respect.

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MovieProf, thanks so much for that great write-up re: Ruth Chatterton! I simply totally fell in love with her after seeing her in the stunning and touching LILLY TURNER ( a flick I'd love to see again soon, please, TCM!!), and then sought after lots of her flicks! Really dig her!

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Wow, a great tribute to a fine actress. She's always been a favorite of mine simply because of "Dodsworth" which is one of my all time favorite movies. I think the chemistry between she and Huston is some of the best I've ever seen on-screen. Two powerhouse actors. It was a great production courtesy of Goldwyn and with a fine supporting cast that was on par with the brilliance of Chatterton and Huston.

 

Another great film of hers that I wish TCM would play is "Anybody's Woman". I saw it at the Museum of Modern Art a few years ago and it's a great pre-code. She tears up the screen in this story.

 

Another thing about Chatterton is that she was very attractive. She's never mentioned as any kind of a beauty of that period, but she was very sexy, and could hold her own against most of the beautiful actresses of the day. She also had a great voice and great diction, which was welcome and needed in the early talkies.

 

And just one correction regarding Norma. She didn't win the Academy Award for "A Free Soul" although she was nominated. She won it for "The Divorcee" made one year earlier.

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> moviejoe79 wrote:

> And just one correction regarding Norma. She didn't win the Academy Award for "A Free Soul" although she was nominated. She won it for "The Divorcee" made one year earlier.

 

I stand corrected moviejoe79! It was Norma's costar, the great Lionel Barrymore who won the "Oscar." Thanks for correcting my error . . . I had one of my usual senior moments.

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.......although A FREE SOUL is not considered one of L. Barrymore's greatest performances. It was his extended courtroom monologue that won him the Oscar.

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finance wrote:

> .......although A FREE SOUL is not considered one of L. Barrymore's greatest performances. It was his extended courtroom monologue that won him the Oscar.

 

I couldn't agree more with you . . . While L.B. was certainly one of the greatest actors around, his performance is a bit melodramatic. Even younger brother J.B. said that the famous monologue scene wouldn't have really happened in a real court room. J.B. sometimes joked that L.B. tried playing Shakespeare or that he was a modern "King Lear." I will say the scene was beautifully written, but again, L.B. sort of harped on an emotional level that at times comes across unrealistically speaking.

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I never thought of the connection before but they did have similarities. I cant say I'm a fan of either actress, though I probably favor Chatterton of the two as her vehicles were more in the WB style then the arch Metro drawing room vehicles of Shearer.......Chatterton always strikes me as too stage actressy and Shearer too arch/fake. Sorry to any fans here.......

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> Hibi wrote:

> I never thought of the connection before but they did have similarities. I cant say I'm a fan of either actress, though I probably favor Chatterton of the two as her vehicles were more in the WB style then the arch Metro drawing room vehicles of Shearer.......Chatterton always strikes me as too stage actressy and Shearer too arch/fake. Sorry to any fans here.......

 

This is another observation I totally agree with. I too would give the acting nod towards Ruth. Norma was at times lovely, but I don?t think she could ever get away from the sort of animated, pushy emotional range to her acting that at times appears mechanical. Naturally, there had to be something of a stagy routine to the way Ruth presented herself or acting style, due in large part to already establishing a successful career from the live stage. Norma simply never had the range of Ruth or overall acting experience. But, even more important to consider is that Ruth influenced a whole new generation of actresses on the way up and that list is most impressive. While Norma was more the bona fide film star, Ruth was the real solid actress. There?s an old feeling amid many in Hollywood that movie stars have a better time of it, than what might be considered a prestigious performer. The movie star usually gets the best, choice roles, while the prestigious performer has to wait around for the right time and place to get into a decent project or demand one that has a meaningful outlook. Ruth was instrumental in leading the way for actresses in Hollywood to take their careers more seriously. This is an issue that from a historical level, Norma was never able to achieve.

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