Review: Robert Z. Leonard’s “We Were Dancing,” Starring Norma Shearer and Melvyn Douglas

Melvyn Douglas and Norma Shearer in
Melvyn Douglas and Norma Shearer in "We Were Dancing"

Based on two one-act plays by Noël Coward, We Were Dancing was an attempt by MGM and star Norma Shearer to reignite her fading career. Shearer, once one of the studio’s biggest stars, struggled ever since the death of her husband and MGM producer Irving Thalberg in 1936. One of her favorite roles had been in the 1931 adaptation of Coward’s play Private Lives, and so she was eager to return to the work of the acclaimed English playwright1. Unfortunately, Coward’s wit was tempered in the adaptation by Claudine West, Hans Rameau, and George Froeschel, resulting in a merely pleasant dud.

Polish princess “Vicki” Wilomirska (Shearer) must marry into money if she wants to maintain her lavish lifestyle, but to her great misfortune, she falls for Baron “Nikki” Prax (Melvyn Douglas). A kind of “professional guest,” he lives only on the generosity of the rich widows he entertains, and whatever money he manages to win at bridge. Yet the two freeloaders fall in love at first sight—or at least, first dance. Once married they attempt to freeload together, but quickly realize it may be easier to return to their wealthy former partners—for Vicki a lawyer (Lee Bowman) and for Nikki an interior decorator (Gail Patrick).

The story often hints at a screwball comedy, and indeed, some early sequences play out in an especially fun way. But that tone is soon abandoned for a more dramatic one, and the film often blunders inconsequentially back and forth between the two. Mostly, it simply lacks the charm present in better Coward adaptations—it needed the wit of Ernst Lubitsch (who adapted the Coward play Design for Living delightfully in 1933) or David Lean (who was about to start collaborating with Coward on In Which We Serve at the time), standards director Robert Z. Leonard was not remotely up to.

Shearer and Douglas do bring some of the charm missing in the screenplay, and they have a nice chemistry—but both are ludicrously old for their parts. Each in their early forties, they play characters whose ages are never specified, but who are clearly meant to be at least a decade younger. That typifies the nature of the hasty production, which lost MGM $409,000, more than any other production that season. The runner up? Shearer’s next attempt to save her career, Her Cardboard Lover. It would be her last film. But We Were Dancing deserves somewhat better than its reputation as a bomb that helped pushed Shearer over the edge. The film is an unremarkable trifle, certainly, but even within the same month of 1942 there are far worse films from the studio.

Where to Watch

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For More on We Were Dancing

Read the review in The New York Times

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Gavin Lambert, Norma Shearer: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 293.