Her Cardboard Lover (1942): Cukor Directs Norma Shearer in her Last Film

Arguably one of George Cukor’s two or three worst films, Her Cardboard Lover proved as ill-starred as Cukor’s Two-Faced Woman the year before. The movie became the swan song for Norma Shearer in the same way that Two-Faced Woman had been for Garbo.

Grade: C- (* out of *****)

Her Cardboard Lover
Her-Cardboard-Lover-1942.jpg

Movie poster

 

The PremiseL Songwriter Terry Trindale is attracted to Consuelo Croyden, a woman he meets at a Palm Beach casino.  He finally works up the courage to approach her and express his feelings, but she rebuffs his advances.

When he later accrues a $3,200 gambling debt to her, Consuelo agrees to hire him as her secretary. One of Terry’s duties is to play the role of her fiance in order to discourage the insistent attention of Tony Barling, to whom Consuelo once was engaged, and to keep her from succumbing to her former beau’s charms.

An adaptation of a French farce, it was not a film that deeply engaged his interest. Cukor himself had directed Her Cardboard Lover as a stage vehicle for Laurette Taylor in the 1920s.

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The studio ignored Cukor’s warnings about the poor history of the source material–on stage and on screen. The Broadway production had been staged in 1927 with Jeanne Eagles and Leslie Howards in in the lead roles, but only ran for only 154 performances.

The film’s rights were then purchased by MGM for Marion Davies and a silent adaptation, The Cardboard Lover was released in 1928.

A 1928 London tour of the play starred Tallulah Bankhead and Leslie Howard reprising the role, was also unsuccessful, running for only 173 performances.

In 1932, the play reached the screen in two versions: The Passionate Plumber, directed by Edward Sedwick, and Le plombier amoureux, helmed by Claude Autant-Lara, both starring Buster Keaton.

Rumor has it that, for some reason, Shearer opted to do this movie over Mrs. Miniver, which became an Oscar winning film when directed by William Wyler, with Greer Garson in the titular part.

The movie was the last of a six-picture deal that Shearer, now at a crucial phase of her career, had signed with Metro after Thalberg’s death. Louis B. tried to persuade Shearer to do a more timely film, but the star was reportedly offended when he said, “this is 1942, not 1922.” For his part, Cukor was delighted that Shearer asked for his services–he desperately needed an assignment.

Cukor knew that comedy was not really Shearer’s specialty, but as in the past, the two got on extremely well. Cukor let Shearer come up with her “inspirations,” though he wouldn’t tolerate it a bit if he thought she was overacting. It was always easier for him to tone down an excessive performance than to ask for more. “Please Mr. Cukor, let’s call it a day,” Shearer suggested one day after hours of shooting. “One more scene,” said the indefatigable Cukor, “Remember, you’re supposed to be exhausted in this shot!”

But Cukor’s direction was a wasted effort, producing no great performances. Ruth Gordon tried to console Cukor–“You’re the one to boil out the good in an actress.” However, the critics’ verdict was that Shearer overacted and lacked any comic finesse; she herself dismissed the picture as one of her lesser efforts.

But Shearer gave full credit to Cukor for being “helpful and clever with ideas.” “He was a gentleman,” she said, “always talked things over with me first; never tried to push anything on me.”

Made on a budget of $1 million, Her Cardboard Lover failed to recoup its production’s expense,

The film’s failure signaled Shearer’s unexpected retirement from the big screen, though she had been thinking about quitting acting several years before. In order to avoid harsh press, Shearer claimed at the time that she merely was taking an extended vacation.

Working with MGM’s three grand movie queens, Garbo, Shearer, and Crawford, and producing three failures in a row, was not easy to digest even for a secure director with a track record like Cukor.

Credits:

Directed by George Cukor
Produced by J. Walter Ruben
Written by Jacques Deval, John Collier, Anthony Veiller. William H. Wright
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography Robert H. Planck, Harry Stradling
Edited by Robert J. Kern
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: July 16, 1942

Running time: 93 minutes

Cast
Norma Shearer as Consuelo Croyden
Robert Taylor as Terry Trindale
George Sanders as Tony Barling
Frank McHugh as Chappie Champagne
Elizabeth Patterson as Eva
Chill Wills as Judge