Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Silver Cord (1933): Come to Mama

Ah, motherhood. From Madame X to Stella Dallas, Marmee March to Mrs. Judge Hardy (her movie husband, Lewis Stone, even called her “Mother”), the institution of motherhood in Hollywood during the golden age could verge on the sanctimonious and saccharine. That, however, was just one end of the maternal meter. If one goes to the other extreme, they find silly, self serving women, Mommies Dearest to the nth degree. The cinematic grandmaMA to these characters (or even great-grandmaMA, as our subject is an early talkie) would have to be Mother Phelps in RKO’s The Silver Cord (1933).

Based on a play which had a successful run on Broadway in 1926, The Silver Cord is the story of a woman who, by all outward appearances, adores her two grown sons (Joel McCrea and Eric Linden). But as we begin to realize, barely before Mrs. Phelps (her first name is never mentioned) gets her coat off in her first scene, this woman is a manipulative, conniving, self centered barracuda, who, upon meeting her new daughter-in-law (Irene Dunne) for the first time, marks her line in the sand as to where her son’s loyalties should lie! Also present is her younger son’s fiancee (Frances Dee). Matriarch Phelps is ready to devour Dunne, limbs and all, as the main course and finish off Dee, as the lighter, easier to digest dessert, albeit under the guise of sugar-laden maternal concern for her ”big young things.” Dunne’s character, Christina, is a scientist; bright, modern and intelligent and has no intention of giving up her new husband (McCrea) to “another woman” as she calls his mother.

The Silver Cord is a Freudian film fantasy. There is no end to Mrs. Phelps’ mouth kissing both her sons, cleaving them to her ample bosom and having them lay their heads in her always waiting lap. She even admits romantic attachment for them (though verbally falling short of declaring lust) after she discovered her marriage to their father was a loveless one. No woman will ever be good enough for them because no woman is her.

The entire cast is spot on in their portrayal of various members or potential members of this very dysfunctional tribe, headed by Mama Smother Me Not performed with great relish by stage veteran Laura Hope Crews. Crews played the role in the stage version and was a natural when the story came to the screen. Best known as the fluttery spinster Aunt Pittypat Hamilton in the epic Gone with the Wind, Crews channels the same fidgety anxiousness displayed in her Pittypat for Mrs. Phelps, only tempering her flamboyance with a steely resolve to have her own way regarding her offspring.

The apples of her eye, David and Robert, are played by handsome up and comer Joel McCrea and Eric Linden, respectively. The major lack of continuity in character seems to lie with McCrea, whose David makes light of his mother’s fussy cuddling and (wo)man-handling him in the film’s first half, yet defends her against his bride (unfounded, of course) in the second. Linden’s Robert is a spineless “effete” rounder who has no problem being tied tightly with his mothers apron strings. These mama’s boys are whooped! The lovely Frances Dee is splendid as his fiancee, Hester, whose defiance of her would-be viper-in-law brings cheers from the audience. She has one of the best lines in the picture. When asked what she will do by Robert after they have broken their engagement, Dee replies: “Marry an orphan.“ She and McCrea (pictured together below) would become romantically involved off screen during the making of the film, marry and remain so for 57 years until McCrea’s death in 1990.

Star billing went to the sublime Irene Dunne. As Christina, she gives as good as she gets, better in most cases, when going rounds with the monstrous dowager. The role was considered for both Katharine Hepburn and Ann Harding before RKO cast Dunne. Not the mega star she would be later in the decade, Dunne’s grace and sophistication shone through in this pre-code soaper. She would have several collaborations with the film’s director John Cromwell including 1946’s Anna and the King of Siam.

The Silver Cord is very much a filmed play, with lengthy stretches of dialogue by both Hope Crews and Dunne, but it packs quite a wallop in its 74 minute time frame. It would make a great double feature with Craig’s Wife.


  1. I thought I had seen most of the available precodes, but I never heard of this one. It sounds delicious. Love the cast, the story sounds great, and I agree with Frances Dee's famous line -- it's better that way! I loved your line about (wo)man-handling! Good piece of writing! Really interesting and fun post, Rupert. Now to figure out how to find this little jewel.

  2. I taped this off of AMC years ago, and it remains one of my favorite films of all time. Each role is perfectly cast, and I especially enjoy the chance to see Eric Linden, an interesting but mostly forgotten young actor who belongs to no era but the 30's.

  3. I never heard of this movie Rupert. You got me on this one. Sometimes you pull one up that surprises me that I haven't seen yet but I at least heard of but I think only one other time you pulled one up that I never heard of. I really want to see this one now!!! Great Blog as always. I am going to see if I can find this somewhere right now! lol

  4. This is a very interesting movie, I really like it and the mother's character really steals the movie. My favorite actress Irene Dunne is in it too. Great that you talk about it.

  5. Rupert you do know how to pick them. I also recorded this years ago on AMC and it remains one of my favorite movies. I had no idea Hepburn and Harding were in the running for this movie before Dunne but I'm glad the magnificent Irene Dunne got the part. She has just the right balance between femininity and steel for it and she works very well with Joel MaCrea. Thanks for another illuminating look at a terrific movie that deserves more attention. Don't know why this movie does not seem to have appeared on TCM in recent years.


  6. Rupert, this sounds like one most interesting for its cast. Your description of the plot rang a bell with me because it sounds quite a bit like a Frank Borzage-directed Joan Crawford movie made a few years later I saw not long ago, "The Shining Hour." In that movie Crawford plays the new wife, Melvyn Douglas the husband, and Robert Young and Margaret Sullavan the brother and his wife. Rather than a domineering mother-in-law, it has a neurotic and domineering older sister (Fay Bainter) whose possessiveness borders on the incestuous. It's all rather overheated and a bit absurd and despite the MGM gloss doesn't sound any better than "Cord." Wonder if you or any of your readers have ever seen it.

    A very catchy opening paragraph by the way that immediately grabbed my attention. I sure agree with your description of Irene Dunne as "sublime"--she's one of my top 5 of the studio era. Glad to see you posting again after your hiatus.

  7. I'm yet another who watched this on AMC way back when. Great story! So glad Hepburn was not in it. Ann Harding would also have been good in the part, but I think Dunne was definitely the best choice for the part. IN pre-code days, Harding and Dunne played lots of strong women like this. Always a pleasure to watch.
    Thanks for posting. I hope others will read this an watch for the movie.

  8. One of my Top Ten! ~
    It is horribly fascinating and should be a necessary study in psych classes. And for it's time, it still pushes all the emotional buttons with a wallop!

    I search until I found someone who had taped it and bought it from them. I enjoy showing it to others whom have yet not had the uncomfortable delight.



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