Director: John Cromwell
Starring: Irene Dunne, Laura Hope Crews, Joel McCrea, Eric Linden, Frances Dee, Gustav von Seyffertitz
Screenplay: Jane Murfin, based upon the play by Sidney Howard
Damaging mothers were everywhere in the American drama of the 1920s, but it was Sidney Coe Howard’s play, The Silver Cord, that coalesced every unflattering implication into one monstrous package. John Cromwell’s filming of Howard’s play is a very literal adaptation, one featuring a great deal of talk and very little action; but it nevertheless retains a certain discomforting power, as well as a measure of sick humour. (For what it’s worth, Howard himself deemed his play a comedy.)
Less than eighteen hours pass between the new Mrs Phelps’ entry into her mother-in-law’s house and her departure from it, in company with the girl who hoped to be her sister-in-law. The objects of contention are the Phelps brothers, David and Robert. Robert, the younger and weaker, gives up the struggle and allows himself to be engulfed by his mother; David, the elder, survives by building brick walls within his consciousness. This deliberate blindness may protect David from losing himself as his brother does, but as David’s dismayed bride comes to realise, it also prevents his becoming a complete, functional human being. It is Christina Phelps’ battle to wake her husband to the truth about his mother that comprises the bulk of the film’s drama.
The Silver Cord opens in Heidelberg, where Christina Phelps (Irene Dunne) is a graduate student in a biological research laboratory. Her husband of five months, David (Joel McCrea), an aspiring architect, tells her that he has had a feeler from an important firm in New York.
(Reading around this review solved for me what was always the film’s greatest mystery: how on earth did David escape to Europe in the first place? The answer is that play was set some years earlier than it was written, with David and Christina meeting in post-war Paris. We understand that it would, of course, take a World War to separate David from his mother.)
Christina in turn reveals that she has had a job offer from the Rockefeller Institute. The two set out for their new home, diverting for a visit with David’s mother (Laura Hope Crews), his brother, Robert (Eric Linden), and Robert’s fiancée, Hester (Frances Dee). The result is an emotional bloodbath, with Mrs Phelps succeeding in separating Robert and Hester, but finding her new daughter-in-law a much tougher proposition.
In the face of Mrs Phelps’ overwrought pleas that she not take her “big boy” away from her, Christina is at first willing enough at first to believe that she herself is at fault, that she has unwittingly done something to give her mother-in-law a false idea of herself and her intentions. However, Christina soon grows dismayed, and then frightened, by Mrs Phelps’ sugar-coated hostility, recognising it for the powerful weapon it is. The question is whether she can tear down the psychological barriers that David has erected in order to maintain some semblance of self, or whether in even making the attempt, she will destroy her husband, and her marriage, too.
It is exceedingly doubtful that The Silver Cord would or could have been filmed a year later, once the Legion Of Decency-backed Production Code, with its emphasis upon “family values”, was enforced. Mothers like Mrs Phelps would have been beyond the pale, particularly in view of the screenplay’s frankness about the nature of her attachment to her boys. In the final showdown between Mrs Phelps and Christina, we are told of the former’s crushing disappointment in her marriage – “disillusioned after a week” – and her channelling of her romantic yearnings into her role as mother.
That these yearnings were a little more than merely “romantic” is made clear enough, although the film does not dare use the S-word. Take, for example, Mrs Phelps’ sleeping arrangements for her son and daughter-in-law, in which Christina is banished to the far end of the corridor, while David is given his old room – which opens from his mother’s. Contemporary audiences might find the film’s purple melodramatics and its rampant Freudianism amusing rather than powerful, but there is no doubt that some startling touches remain. It is hard not to react with exactly the same degree of shock as Christina does, when she walks into her husband’s bedroom to find his mother, who has literally just tucked him in, perched on the edge of his bed and kissing her son full on the mouth.
At the same time, certain other touches in the play were out of the question even in the pre-Code era, such as its dubious suggestion that Mrs Phelps is deliberately “making” her younger son a homosexual, so that she will never lose him to another woman. (That she might subsequently lose him to someone else is evidently never considered, however.) All that remains of this subplot are a few oblique remarks in passing, such as Christina’s summation of Robert as “an effete weakling”, and David’s jeering reference to his brother’s possible future career as that most beloved of dramatic signifiers, an interior decorator, who will spend his time, “Painting rosebuds on bathtubs.”
To its credit, The Silver Cord refrains from making its central battle a simple matter of career woman versus homemaker; the dynamic is far more complicated than that. The inclusion of Hester adds another perspective to the conflict, a young woman whose declared intent is to, “Have as many babies as possible”, and who almost hopes her husband will be poor, so that she may, “Cook, and scrub floors” for him.
(We get one of the film’s intentionally funny moments here as Rob, beginning his attempt to break his engagement, reacts to Hester’s plans by grumbling, “Babies don’t exactly help a man’s career.” Hester gives her nightclubbing, cocktail-swilling, living-off-mother fiancé a bemused look. “Oh, are you going to have a career, then?”)
One might think Hester a daughter-in-law after Mrs Phelps’ own heart, but the girl’s frank references to babies – and, by inference, that which precedes babies – seals her doom. Moreover, Hester’s view of motherhood – easily the sanest on display: “Have ’em, love ’em, and leave ’em alone!” – is taken by Mrs Phelps as a personal insult.
In the guise of motherly concern, Mrs Phelps sets to work on her spineless younger son, offering up in rapid succession a barrage of criticisms of Hester – that she doesn’t really love Rob, that he doesn’t really love her, that she is damaged goods, that she only wants Rob in order to have children, that she is of insufficient breeding – then sits back to see which darts stick. Robert, automaton-like, obeys his mother’s indirect commands, parroting her words in a sickening display of cowardice and cruelty. Hester is only too well aware of the true source from which all this is issuing, but is unable to find any effective countermeasure. Her subsequent hysterics pull Christina and David into the conflict, Christina drawn to the girl as much by fellow-feeling as by simple compassion, while David…does nothing…except counsel his wife not to take sides.
While Sidney Howard fairly offered up two alternatives to Mrs Phelps in Christina and Hester and their various points of view, there is no doubt that he considered Christina, as a career woman, to be a stronger character, a more psychologically complete individual, than Hester. We have seen enough of Christina to understand her devotion to her work, which runs in parallel with her devotion to her husband. The Silver Cord is startlingly progressive in this respect. Christina has continued on with her career in spite of her marriage, and similarly intends to do so in spite of her pregnancy. This attitude is particularly heartening when compared to that of so many later films, which have their career women toss away years of work and struggle and ambition with barely a second thought, once L-O-V-E walks in the door.
Christina’s German supervisor fears precisely this. “She has a rare gift…and she throws it away for love!” he huffs, only to be cheered by his “prize pupil”’s declaration that she has no such intention, and by David’s assurance that he means to encourage Christina in her plans. “You are one of those who can have both, a husband and a job,” the Professor insists. “Some women cannot, but you, you can.”
Of course, it is not long before Christina is brought to doubt this, but it is not her career that is under threat. Both Christina and Hester are forced to look on as their mother-in-law, real and prospective, poisons her sons’ minds against them; but it is only Christina who has the capacity to fight back. Even so, for much of the film it seems that Mrs Phelps will triumph; yet we do not fear for Christina as we do for Hester (while probably concluding that both women are well rid of a bad bargain, if only they could see it). When it seems as if her marriage must fail, we know that Christina has a whole other life to fall back upon. Hester, conversely, when her engagement is broken, has nowhere else to go; and we are not particularly surprised when she becomes one of 1930s melodrama’s legion of young women who respond to a failed love affair with a suicide attempt.
Christina, who starts out declaring that she would never attempt to come between David and his mother, ends by doing exactly that, insisting that a choice must be made and the remaining ties severed. The Silver Cord’s final big set-piece has Christina packing her bags and planning to leave with the shattered Hester, but first confronting her mother-in-law in front of David and Robert, in one last attempt to force them to face and admit the truth. In this, Christina announces herself to be, “A kind of scientific nemesis”, before launching into a devastating psychological deconstruction of Mrs Phelps.
When David does leave with Christina and Hester at the end of the film, Christina’s victory feels rather hollow. David’s actions have less to do with his recognition of his mother’s sickness, and his own culpability, it seems, than with simple biology: the departure of his pregnant wife is a pull on David that even Mrs Phelps cannot overcome.
But it is entirely fitting that biology should triumph, since that is in large measure what the story is about. 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.
“Science is hardly a profession, is it? It’s more of a hobby,” sniffs Mrs Phelps when she and Christina are first left alone together, in between misnaming her daughter-in-law’s field as “theology” and “geology”. Christina, politely ignoring the deliberate rudeness under the fluttery incomprehension, significantly defines her career as “the study of life”. It is, of course, Sidney Howard’s choice of a career for his heroine that brings The Silver Cord within the purview of this website; and while the early scenes of Christina at work in her laboratory are quite delightful, it was certainly a choice made with symbolism rather than practicality in mind. I don’t object to that, however; on the contrary, it is precisely “science” being used in such an affirmative way that endears this film to me.
The play The Silver Cord was written in 1926, a year before Fritz Lang gave us cinema’s first real foray into “mad science”, in Metropolis; and even when the play was filmed in 1933, “mad science” was only just beginning to take a firm hold on the screen; while the word “scientist” had not yet become an abbreviation for whatever neuroses and psychoses a screenwriter might care to invent.
Sidney Howard, then, in choosing a career for the woman who would combat his smothering, devouring, professional mother, was able to make her a biologist, and mean nothing but what was positive. After decades of cinematic abuse and ridicule, to see The Silver Cord associating “science” with someone as eminently well-balanced as Christina Phelps, using it as shorthand for her mental strength and emotional stability, is rare and refreshing indeed.
Footnote: The Silver Cord also gave us one of Hollywood’s most enduring examples of the “diagonal romance”. Frances Dee and Eric Linden had been briefly involved some time before the making of this film, but on the set it was Dee and Joel McCrea who fell in love. They were married only weeks later, a relationship that lasted until McCrea’s death, on the day of their fifty-seventh wedding anniversary.
Irene does science.