The Script for George Cukor’s ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ Leaves Much to Be Desired

There's really nothing wrong with the movie except the script, which has lots of firepower for something so tiresome.

Struggling evening-jacketed songwriter Terry (Robert Taylor) moons around Miami because he’s fallen in love at a distance with chic gossamer-caped Consuelo (Norma Shearer). When he loses $3,500 to her at chemin-de-fer, she hires him to run interference against unfaithful cad Tony (George Sanders), with whom she’s hopelessly in love. Terry will pretend to be Consuelo’s lover, and he’s to ignore all Consuelo’s later orders to the contrary.

Sound stupid? It plays that way too, with Terry coming off as ill-advised in his infatuation, and Consuelo foolish and not worth the trouble. They spend the whole movie arguing in ways that don’t belie the stage origins of this piece. We’re left looking at Shearer’s ever-sheerer gowns and MGM’s glamorous sets: the boudoir doors with central knobs, the spiral staircase in the middle of the foyer, the bric-a-brac, and the brilliantined shine on everything — starting with Taylor’s hair, which gleams as glossily as the silk pajamas he dons for the movie’s biggest laugh, or at least its oddest. Taylor’s fight with Sanders in the hotel basement isn’t bad either; at least they’re not yakking.

There’s really nothing wrong with the movie except the script, which has lots of firepower for something so tiresome. This was the third film of Jacques Deval’s French play, whose English version included revisions by P.G. Wodehouse. The screenplay includes two very fine writers, John Collier (great short stories) and Anthony Veiller (whose comedies include Stage Door and State of the Union ). Their elegance and wit strain against a premise that requires everyone to be silly. The technical contributions are excellent, and the supporting players are troupers Frank McHugh, Elizabeth Patterson, and Chill Wills. Nobody could direct MGM’s woman-centered projects better than George Cukor, and he’s responsible for it being watchable at all.

Even as wartime escapism into a neverland of brittle idiots, nobody seems to have liked the picture; Bosley Crowther of the New York Times picked it as one of the year’s ten worst. He later wrote the MGM history The Lion Roars, for which Shearer told him that on her last two films, “nobody but myself was trying to do me in”. (David Shipman quotes this in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years.) She turned down Mrs. Miniver in favor of this project, for which we should probably be grateful. She does seem to have been determined to finish her career, and indeed she promptly retired.

Several online sources (such as TCM’s website and Wikipedia) quote each other in claiming that Shearer also turned down Now, Voyager for this, even though that’s Warner Bros. and not MGM. The source seems to be a Charles Higham book about Bette Davis. But Shearer apparently didn’t say this to Crowther in her candor about which roles she turned down, and it seems likely to me that it’s a case of speculative publicity about a project in development, where producers may suggest this or that star, as opposed to a concrete proposal.

A good print of the film is now available on demand from Warner Archive.

RATING 3 / 10