"Their Own Desire" *** (out of ****)
I remember "Their Own Desire" (1929) being a bold film which challenged 1929 American values. Watching it again, I don't know that I would go that far, though, I wouldn't call it a cautionary tale either. If it is possible it falls somewhere in the middle.
The movie stars Norma Shearer as Lally, a young 20-something girl born into a rich family. In the opening scene we see Lally with her father (Lewis Stone) playing polo. Not exactly the game of the "every man". Lally though, we see from the scenes, is not a "delicate flower". She is a bit rough around the edges. She'll play tough if she has to and can take a hit. And like most young people has a bit of an acid tongue. Always quick with a wise-crack or sarcastic remark.
At this point Lally's life seems perfert. She is not in want of anything. Her family's wealth has provided her with all she could want. Her parents (Stone and Belle Bennett) appear to have a loving marriage. But then one day it is revealed her parents are getting a divorce. Her father has fallen in love with another woman, Mrs. Cheever (Helen Millard).
Naturally this devastates Lally's mother. And as Lally sees what her mother is going through, she also vows never to fall in love. No man will do to her what her father did to her mother. And this pleases her mother. You know the saying, misery loves company. The mother would like to use this as leverage to make sure her daughter never falls in love.
Lally and her mother take a trip to Europe, where the divorce will be made official. It is on this trip Lally meets Jack (Robert Montgomery). Much like Lally, Jack is also a child of wealthy. He leads a carefree life, no worries to speak of. For him it is love at first sight. The two hit it off but soon a secret is revealed.
Under normal circumstances this secret would end the relationship. In this movie the characters don't fully think out what the implications of their relationship would mean. The follow "their own desire" but there are consequences for doing that.
Now I say this isn't a cautionary tale and it isn't. In a cautionary tale the two young lovers would suffer a terrible fate. God or society, or both, must punish them for their wicked behavior. That doesn't happen here. At the same time however, it didn't strike me as a bold film. A film which dared to challenge social convention. I felt the movie is playing it both ways. Never taking a larger stance one way or the other. If the characters would acknowledge what this relationship means and then the young lovers still persist, I might have said it is a daring film. But that never happens.
Shearer was nominated for an Oscar for her performance here. It would be her first of six nominations. She would only win once, for her role in "The Divorcee" (1930). This time around it is she who gets the divorce. That is a much more daring film, up until the ending. Here though Shearer doesn't feel like she is giving a complete performance. It feel artificial. It is too theatrical at times. It doesn't seem like a worthy Oscar performance. Mary Pickford played a similar role in "Coquette" (1929, which I have reviewed), she won an Oscar for her performance and I feel it is much better. That one felt like a real person. Shearer doesn't.
Robert Montgomery I feel fares a little better. Though some of the dialogue written for him is too dated by today's standards. As soon as he sees Lally he tells her he is going to make her fall for him. He comes off very aggressive but playful, still the dialogue rings insincere.
The movie has moments which make it worth watching. I am someone that always encourages people to watch these classic Hollywood films. There is so much to be learned watching them. So much enjoyment to be had. They shouldn't be avoided. You should watch "Their Own Desire" even if I wouldn't call it one of the great ones. It is an interesting story which I simply felt doesn't take a definitive stand.