You are probably wondering where Professor Jonas has disappeared to. The self-proclaimed Talkie King is gallivanting around in exotic Thailand with his family, eating his way through the delicacies of the country and getting custom 1920's style suits fitted to his Swedish frame. Before he left, I promised Jonas that I would write a nice guest post for him to keep his blog active and so that he would have a nice little present waiting for him when he got back. Jonas recently sent me a copy of The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), starring my favorite actress Norma Shearer so I thought I'd write about this film, as it's an important part of early talkie history. And here it is! Enjoy.
Raquelle - Out of the Past ~ A Classic Film Blog
The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929)
When you think of early talkies, musicals immediately come to mind. What better way to celebrate the marriage of light and sound on screen, than to have music, singing and dancing? In February of 1929, MGM premiered it's first all-talking picture Broadway Melody (1929). It was an extravagant film that spawned a series of sequels as well as a host of other pre-code musicals. While most hardcore film buffs know about Broadway Melody, they may not be as familiar with MGM's first all-talking dramatic film, The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929) which was released in April of 1929.
Now what doesn't come to mind when you think of early talkies is courtroom drama. But why not? A Courtroom drama is one of the best ways to take advantage of the talking picture form. The action during a trial is strictly dialogue-driven. Lawyers, judges, witnesses, jurors and defendants are all talking their way to the story's climax and resolution. While courtroom dramas were not common in silent film format, they were perfect fodder for live theater. When talking pictures became all the rave, film makers had a wealth of material in the form of plays, many of which came with a security blanket of having their own history of success.
When Paul Bern suggested making The Trial of Mary Dugan into a film, MGM Producer Irving Thalberg didn't want to take any chances. While the play had been a Broadway hit, he proceeded cautiously and had a shortened version of the film with select scenes shown to a live audience to gauge their reaction before he went full steam ahead with the film. When the audience reaction proved to be favorable, Thalberg went searching for the perfect actress to play the title role of Mary Dugan. He didn't originally have his wife, Norma Shearer, in mind although it was pretty clear that she was hungry for the part. At first Shearer's arch rival Joan Crawford was considered, but director Bayard Veiller didn't think she would suit the character's delicate nature. Thalberg suggested Shearer to Veiller and Veiller had her try out some of the dialogue on one of MGM's new sound stages. Shearer was absolutely terrified and after rehearsing one quick scene, Veiller shooed her off set. While Shearer thought she had failed, her petrified and distraught audition was just what Veiller was looking for. Mary Dugan is on trial for a murder and depending on the outcome of the case, she could either have been executed or set free. Fear and panic in her voice would be absolutely necessary to convey this on screen. So Norma Shearer was chosen and filming began.
I can't continue on with this post without talking about the sound elements of the film. Professor Jonas would wring my neck if I neglected this. The Trial of Mary Dugan was one of the first films, legendary sound and recording engineer Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma Shearer) worked on in his long career at MGM and in Hollywood. The film was shot almost simultaneously with Broadway Melody. This was also one of the few MGM films recorded with sound on discs. Throughout the movie there are breaks in the sound which serve as signals for theaters to change the records. Also, because the new sound equipment was so expensive, the film had to be shot as economically as possible. Filming only took 19 days and there were lots of long takes, few camera tricks and most of the film is shot in one courtroom.
If you are lucky enough to watch this rare film, you'll notice that MGM really experiments with sound. In one scene, an empty courtroom is suddenly flooded with loud and boisterous people. They are all excited about watching a salacious trial unfold and nearly trip over themselves to get to their seats and fill the courtroom with chaotic and raucous sound. Then the scene switches drastically to stark silence as Mary Dugan sits quietly in her jail cell waiting to be beckoned to the courtroom.
Norma Shearer brings her dramatics from her silent picture days but is a visual and aural delight in talkies. Her voice, tinged with a slight twinge of a Canadian accent, worked beautifully in talkies. If anything, her career skyrocketed when she successfully transitioned to talkies. She achieved more success in talkie form than she did with all of her silent pictures combined. The Trial of Mary Dugan helped earn Norma Shearer the title The First Lady of the Talkies.
The story of The Trial of Mary Dugan seems rather irrelevant to the film as an entity. It's main draw, at least for me, is what the film represents at a critical moment in the history of film. It showcases how film studios had to drastically change their approach to films as silent movies quickly faded into the past. These studios had to radically alter everything they did and forge ahead into unknown territory. However, what they had was the potential to make serious money as audiences were hungry for talking pictures. At this point, they could really afford to experiment and to make mistakes, because even a poor quality film, would make money simply off it's novelty. However, the film industry was still a business and they knew that they couldn't just throw money to the wind and had to make serious and clear-headed decision on those early talkies. While The Trial of Mary Dugan made $400,000 profit to Broadway Melody's $1.5 million, it was still a success and it demonstrated that MGM had a bright future in making all talking dramatic pictures.
~Raquelle for Jonas~
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