The Silver Cord (1933) Review, with Irene Dunne, Joel McCrea and Frances Dee

Christina
Irene Dunne
David
Joel McCrea
Mother
Laura Hope Crews
Robert
Eric Linden
Hester
Frances Dee
The Doctor
Gustav von Seyffertitz
Released by RKO
Directed by John Cromwell
Run time: 74 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • Irene Dunne plays a lady scientist. Her mentor praises her, saying, “You are the kind that can have both– a husband, and a job!” However, it raises the ire of her mother-in-law, who condescends thusly:

“Now tell me about your job. I don’t like to say profession– that has a rather sinister sound for a woman. And after all, science is hardly a profession is it? It’s more of a hobby!”

  • This exchange meant something slightly differently back in the day, but bears noting:

“You’re a queer one.”
“How so?”
“As a lover.”

  • There are some hints (apparently more apparent in the stage play) that the mother in the film is trying to turn her younger son into a homosexual, pigeonholing him into a career as an interior designer and driving women away from him, so that she can better keep him for herself.
  • There are so very many implications about what’s demanded when maternal love goes wrong. It’s a trip.

Silver Cord: Mommy Dearest

“I broke with Hester because of an ideal. The ideal of womankind that mother gave both of us by being the woman that she is! I knew I couldn’t be with any woman who fell short of her.”

“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be trapped in a submarine after an accident?” muses Christina Phelps, shortly after meeting her mother-in-law. This question is not an exaggeration.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh… ya crazy.”

Christina (Dunne) is a biologist wanted across the world for her skill. She’s also the wife of David Phelps (McCrea), budding architect. David has just gotten a job offer in New York, and his wife is overjoyed– she had a job offer at the Rockefeller Institute on the table. Things couldn’t be going any better.

On their way to New York, they stop at the suburban mansion of the Phelps clan. Christina hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting her mother-in-law (Crews) before she’d married David, and they quickly find each other at very polite loggerheads. Mother, as she’s called, sees Christina and ambition  as a dangerous infection; women in her day were just happy with what they had. Mother immediately rushes to her own defense, explaining that her generation, “made a profession of motherhood.” But that’s just a smokescreen; her own posture towards motherhood is a far more manipulative. She doesn’t love her children. She’s in love with them.

Not weird at all.

Take her other son, Robert (Linden). He’s never picked out a career, though he’s managed to uncover a lovely fiance named Hester (Dee). But he’s weak, and all of his other girlfriends have also been systematically removed from the picture. Mother preys upon Robert’s insecurities– why would any woman want to be with you?– and then gives a look when Hester gleefully declares, “I intend to have as many babies as possible!” He’s there for breeding material and money and nothing more– mother demands you end your relationship now. And if he doesn’t, well, he’s disrespecting his mother.

Mother’s machinations know few bounds. She won’t let David and Christina share a room, instead insisting that David stay in his old room– attached to hers, of course. She twists her sons around her fingers in a marathon of passive-aggressive power plays that leave Christian reeling. Can she get her husband away from his mother before he becomes completely enveloped again?

More fun mother/son stuff.

The Silver Cord is a concerto of snappy writing, making Crews’ mother both monstrous and utterly believable as a woman whose feelings for her own sons has perverted. On top of that, Dunne’s Christina is a wonderful pre-Code creation, smarter than the rest of the cast by half and filled with empathy and wit. Rather than serve as the excuse for a disgraced man like so many other working women were forced to do in films of the time, Christina is clearly the best thing that’s happened to her husband, reaching deep and finding his ambition and intelligence.

Dunne gets one lengthy speech near the end of the film where she dissects how mother’s feelings have gone astray; it’s about as icky as things get, but clearheaded and wise, suggesting that the difference between ‘modern women’ and women of mother’s generation isn’t that the women have gone astray with hobbies, but have become more attuned to their own happiness and granted the freedom to attain it. This generational struggle is something we combat with today, too, as people try to reconcile their own disillusionment with the success and happiness of others.

The big difference here is that Mother has created her own happiness out of her bad situation in the worst way possible, manipulating and seizing on weakness to serve and reinforce her own life narrative again and again. Her story that she tells of herself is one of romantic triumph and devotion; Christina can see where it swerved off the path, with no one strong enough to course correct. Mother is a black hole, never satisfied, destroying everything in her path with her unnatural desires.

A different kind of American gothic.

Director John Cromwell (Ann Vickers, Double Harness) is one of the more unsung auteurs of the pre-Code era. Even this film, which is pretty obviously a transplant from the stage, is imbued with nice touches. Scenes where the other characters gaze out the window add to the claustrophobic feeling of the picture. One shot takes McCrea and Dunne from their bedroom door all the way down into the kitchen in an unbroken tracking shot. And his use of the closeup is masterful, carefully separating and peeling away the characters as they become trapped in mother’s web.

An excellent example of how the salacious content of pre-Code wasn’t just delivered via exposed thighs, The Silver Cord is fun little drama that foreshadows what more gonzo cinema of the 60s and 70s would do with the same material; shades of Psycho hover over a few scenes. The Silver Cord is well worth seeing.

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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links

  • The AFI notes for the movie mention that Crews was in the original stage play which Cromwell also directed. They also hint, “According to reviews, the film script toned down the more overtly sexual aspects of the play.”

Indubitably several of the very long speeches are too wordy for the screen, even though John Cromwell tries to help matters by swaying from medium “shots” to close-ups and so forth.

Christina’s pregnancy plays a triple role in the plot of The Silver Cord. It reassures the audience about David, whilst simultaneously delineating the nature of Mrs Phelps’ feeling for her sons, her instinctive revulsion at this evidence of David’s desire for Christina being hurriedly disguised under Victorian disapproval of the subject being mentioned at all. However, the baby also represents the philosophical divide between Christina and Mrs Phelps. Mrs Phelps wants David to be “a big frog in a small pond”, to spend his life under her eye, building a housing estate on land that she owns (with Robert helping out with the “interior decoration”); Christina wants her husband out in the real world, struggling and growing as human being, whether or not he is ultimately a success. The baby is emblematic of the forward-striving life she envisages.

  • Joel McCrea and Frances Dee met while filming this movie. They would be married by the end of 1933, a marriage that would last until McCrea passed away in 1990. They would also appear together in the pre-Code One Man’s Journey.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

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