The Silver Cord from 1933 with Laura Hope Crews, Irene Dunn, Joel McCrea, Frances Dee and Eric Linden
God bless the precode movie and not because The Silver Cord has any naughty sex in it (it doesn't), but because it takes a brutally honest look at a selfish mother who wields her "love" like a club to beat her two adult sons into submission.
It's a stark honesty you won't see often in movies in only a few years because, after 1934, The Motion Picture Production Code was all but fully enforced and a lot of truth left the screen
In The Silver Cord, Joel McCrea plays an American architect who, living in Europe for a time, romances and marries another American, a biologist played by Irene Dunn.
They then return to the States planning to move to New York City where she has a position waiting for her at the Rockefeller Institute and he has an opportunity with a large architecture firm, but first they are going to visit his mother.
Bad move. The mother, played by Laura Hope Crews, is a manipulative control freak who has no interest in letting McCrea or her other adult son, played by Eric Linden, leave the nest.
Wealthy, widowed long ago and with, convenient for her, heart trouble, she raised her two boys to worship their "self-sacrificing" Mom, and they do.
Her plan for McCrae is for him to build houses on a nearby strip of land she owns so that he'll be both near her and grateful to her for the opportunity. Dunn, no fool, quickly sees the trap Mama Crews has set, but it takes her time to form a counter argument.
Linden, the other son, is engaged to a young girl played by (Joel McCrea's soon-to-be wife) Frances Dee. When McCrea and Dunn arrive at his Mother's big gloomy mansion, we see that Crews has already been beating the spirit out of Dee.
Mama Crews uses a combination of passive-aggressive behavior, overwhelming chatter and, when necessary, outright bullying to keep her sons emotionally blackmailed and their wives/fiances cowed.
The plot is pretty straightforward: Crews wants total control; the women want the sons to break free and the boys are pulled in both directions.
Most of the movie, of which ninety-five percent takes place in the mother's mansion, is watching Crews use every weapon in her arsenal to get her way as the wives initially flail and the boys equivocate.
Linden's character, it's implied in the subtext of the day, is closeted (maybe, even to himself) gay. It's explained that he didn't "fully" love Dee and he wants to be an interior decorator (era code for a gay man). This explains his struggle to break from his mother for Dee.
McCrea is a bit more independent, but it is Dunn who, eventually, goes toe-to-toe with Crews in the best exchanges of the movie, as the two women throw verbal haymakers at each other when the gloves come off toward the end.
There are a few key plot pivots including Dee having a hysterical breakdown when, at his mother's urging, Linden kinda sorta breaks their engagement. Another pivot happens when Dunn learns from the family doctor that there is nothing wrong with the mother's heart.
When Crews is confronted with this fact, though, she simply denies it and goes on lamenting her poor health and all she's sacrificed for her sons: the woman has no shame and an indomitable will.
The plot itself is really just here as a platform for the dialogue and family dynamic to play out in this very stagey movie, not surprisingly, based on a play. Still, the picture grabs hold of you from about ten minutes in and doesn't let go from there.
Sure it's contrived and obvious, but the story is also real and powerful as a common family dysfunction is painfully laid bare. You don't even want to think about why these adult sons kiss their mother on the mouth, ew.
Crews, Dunn and Dee give the strongest performances, in part, because they represent the antipodes of the argument and, eventually, fight with absolute conviction and emotion; whereas, McCrea and Linden waffle for most of the movie.
The Silver Cord today would be an HBO series about a powerful yet broken family, but in 1933, precode movies simply ripped through these stories with brutal honesty in just over an hour.
For modern audiences, these precode movies (1930-1934) are a valuable window into the true complexity of society back then as, once the code was enforced, most of this nuance and candor sadly left the silver screen for the next several decades.