Thursday, July 30, 2009

Guest Blogger Raquelle ~ The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929)

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~


Terence Towles Canote said...

I have never seen The Trial of Mary Dugan, although being interested in early talkies I have always wanted to. Your post has only made me want to see it more. I've always found the technology of the early talkies fascinating--particularly the differences between films shot for use with sound on disc as opposed to sound on film.

Terence Towles Canote said...

A very good post, Raquelle. The Trial of Mary Dugan is one of those early talkies I have yet to see and I have always wanted to. I have always found it interesting how films whose sound depended upon the sound on disc technology differ from the films which used sound on film.

Raquel Stecher said...

Yay! Thank you so much for allowing me to do a guest post for you Jonas. I hope it meets your standards.

NoirGirl said...

Happy Vacation to Jonas - see what a good job Raquelle has done for you? :)

Such a fascinating post, Raquelle! I've never heard of this film, but am always happy to learn. I can just imagine how happy Norma was to land the lead over Joan Crawford.

It's so interesting to hear about the sound breaks in the audio track. You're just a goldmine of amazing facts! Is it like preparatory breaks, to signal the attendant to get ready?

The 19 day shoot is phenomenal. I can't imagine how hard they must have worked. Such dedication! It must have been so inspiring to work with people so dedicated to their chosen profession.

Wonderful post! I'm going to post the link on Twitter. :)

Raquel Stecher said...

Mercurie - Thank you. This film really is a treat if you are fascinated with early talkies like I am. Hope you get a chance to see it soon.

NoirGirl - Jonas told me about the audio breaks and I got the rest of the info from the library. Jonas is a wealth of information and I couldn't write a non-informative piece. It wouldn't suit his site. Thanks for the RT!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'm still waiting to see this one, too. Great post, interesting info about the sound elements.

Jonas Nordin said...

Thank you so much for "watering my plant" while I was away on location!

Mary Dugan is indeed a very interesting picture in many ways, mostly for technical reasons though as the plot is rather simple. I think MGM really went out on a limb making something that differed a lot from their silent movies of the time. I don't know if it's the first court room drama ever made but in any case it's a very dialogue driven film that wouldn't work in silent form.

It is also worth to mention that Mary Dugan was sound engineer Douglas Shearer's first go at making a talking picture. I think he does a very good job right from the start trying to use sound creatively. The contrasting noise of the crowd versus the silence in the cell is brilliant in all its simplicity. Broadway Melody was shot back to back with Dugan using the same sound stage so I guess Douglas had a really busy time learning his trade.

Another interesting thing is how late in the movie Norma gets to talk properly. Apart from the initial sobbing she seems to be the last one to talk in it. I think this was something that was done on purpose as everyone was eager to hear what she sounded like. Very effectively done, and a trick Orson Welles were going to perfect over the years.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the German version of trial of Mary Dugan.Starring Nora Mcgregor in Norma s place.I got it from was made in Hollywood in 1931.Nora and the other actors were required to impersonate the American actors performance.This movie shows you how the American version was.Dugan does not speak for half of the trial.This indicated may be Thalberg wanted to surprise the audience with Normas talking.Mcgregors did not over act.This indicated that Normas performance was good.But the real star in this film version is really Herman Bing as the court reporter.He upstages everyone

CLC1905 said...

I've been on the hunt for this movie for ages but I can't find it any where. Raquelle or Jonas, do either of you have any suggestions on how/where to find this? Norma is TCM's star of the month (Nov.2015) but they aren't showing it. Help??

Jonas Nordin said...

Dear CLC1905,
Thank you for reading my blog!
I have a nice copy of the film on DVD. It could easily find Its way to you. Drop me an e-mail on and we'll work something out.

Related Posts with Thumbnails