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'The Last of Mrs. Cheyney' and 'The Law and the Lady' Do a Disservice to Their Shared Source

The subgenre of fanciful thieves stealing from the rich has seen much better iterations than these three takes on Fredrick Lonsdale's play The Last of Mrs. Cheyney.

A glamorous woman charms her way into high society and accepts an invitation to spend a weekend in the country. She's being courted by a old blowhard and a young cad, and she's surprisingly friendly with her butler. Soon the audience catches on that she's part of a gang that intends to steal a valuable pearl necklace, but when will everyone else find out? Such is the plot of Frederick Lonsdale's 1925 play The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, filmed thrice by MGM. All versions are now available on demand from Warner Archives.

DVD: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1927)

Film: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1927)

Director: Sidney Franklin

Cast: Norma Shearer, Basil Rathbone

Year: 1929

Rating: Not rated

US DVD release date: 2014-04-07

Distributor: Warner Archive

Rating: 3

Extras rating: N/A

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/thelastofmrscheyney1927_dvdblog_dvdart200.jpg

The 1929 version is the type of early talkie that gives this era the reputation of being stagey and static, and that's because Lonsdale's play is the type of rapidly-dating piece that requires people to stand around making arch comments, all cummerbunds and brilliantine. An escapist trifle set in a chic, high-ceilinged, evening-gowned world of British gentry who lounge around playing cards and making fatuous gossip, it might as well be set on the moon. The pacing isn't helped by the way the actors pause after every alleged witticism to give us time to titter.

Director Sidney Franklin, who often handled these kinds of glamorous "literary" projects for Norma Shearer, does what he can in the garden scene to dolly the camera seductively toward and around and away from her, but the plot remains all brittle talk, and the primitive recording quality makes the women harsh and tinny. Shearer keeps glancing around, opening her mouth, and patting her hair, and Basil Rathbone is very tall. He talks about women's underclothes made of linoleum, a line I haven't quite grasped.

DVD: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937)

Film: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937)

Director: Richard Boleslawski

Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, William Powell

Year: 1937

Rating: Not rated

US DVD release date: 2014-03-05

Distributor: Warner Archive

Rating: 5

Extras rating: N/A

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/lastofmrscheyney_dvdblog_dvdart200.jpg

The 1937 version boasts more star power and the full benefit of the fluid studio style, as helmed by Richard Boleslawski. Much of the dialogue remains the same, so the picture is still talky, but the first act is opened up by being set on a transatlantic ship, where the alleged widow (Joan Crawford) is discovered in a cabin belonging to an old bachelor (Frank Morgan). This time her butler is the dapper William Powell, and her young pursuer is Robert Montgomery.

Montgomery's the weak link, for although he's more amiable as a romantic foil than Rathbone, he doesn't even vaguely resemble the kind of English brat he's playing, and which Rathbone could play in his sleep. The Production Code requires an extra detail about the butler's arrest, although it's not clear what they could hold him for, unless there's an outstanding warrant. Both versions turn on Mrs. Cheyney being a rigidly "good woman" who's not willing to be blackmailed into sex.

DVD: The Law and the Lady

Film: The Law and the Lady

Director: Edwin H. Knopf

Cast: Greer Garson

Year: 1951

Rating: Not rated

US DVD release date: 2014-06-03

Distributor: Warner Archive

Rating: 3

Extras rating: N/A

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/lawandthelady_dvdblog_dvdart200.jpg

The title's not the only thing changed in 1951's The Law and the Lady, which re-imagines the whole piece to tell the "origin story" of a lady's maid (Greer Garson) and a dissolute English lord (Michael Wilding, also playing a respectable twin brother) who team up to fleece the rich. Instead of an American woman in England, this version has an English woman infiltrating American society in San Francisco. The wealthy matron they plan to rob has progressively become more lower-class in origin with each remake, and here she's played by Marjorie Main. The romancing cad is Fernando Lamas, who takes our heroine horse-riding and shows off his pig farm. The boring suitor isn't an old man but Hayden Rorke, best known for I Dream of Jeannie. Natalie Schafer's on hand too.

The most dramatic change is how the writers work out the lady thief's romantic choices. There's still a lot of talk, which at one point causes Main to cry out that she's sick of all this palaver. Even with all the extra plot detail and reinvention, this still feels like drawn-out drawing-room material, in this case with leads not very magnetic nor exuding chemistry. Another strike is that with its washed-out look and hissy soundtrack, this print is in the worst shape and cries out for a restoration that's not likely to happen.

The early '30s had been a rich period for the humble folk to enjoy classy fictions about romantic jewel thieves who steal from the rich, as witness the popularity of Raffles and such real classics as Trouble in Paradise. Lonsdale's play was a minor part of that wave. This subgenre's tide has come in with regularity ever since, and frankly, it's always yielded more sparkling diadems than this example.

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