Welcome to another Film Friday! As I have mentioned in previous weeks, I’m not much for modern cinema; I’ve only seen two new movies in the past year — THE GREAT GATSBY (a mediocre Luhrmann special) and OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (a film completely lacking in humanity). I suppose I am a bit of a film snob. But I have to be honest with you: my preferences have always been television and theatre. Movies are a definite third. Most of my love for film stems from an appreciation for the wonderful actors and personalities that have shaped American cinema, and on a larger scale, the American culture.
Today’s post is the first in a series that highlights films from Joan Crawford’s Pre-Code talkie years (1929-1934).
Joan Crawford was born Lucille LeSueur on March 23rd (1904, 1905, or 1906) in San Antonio, Texas. After dancing in a Broadway chorus in 1924, LeSueur signed a contract with MGM and had her first role as Norma Shearer’s body double in Lady of the Night. In less than a year, LeSueur’s name was changed to Joan Crawford. After many silent film roles, Crawford rocketed to stardom with 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters, which solidified her image as a sexy, carefree flapper. In 1929, she married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and successfully made the transition to sound. Like Norma Shearer, Crawford reinvented herself from fun-loving flapper to tough working girl in films like Paid (1930) and Possessed (1931). Her career further broadened when she was added to the all-star cast of Grand Hotel (1932). She married Franchot Tone in 1935, but continued an affair with Clark Gable, who co-starred with her eight times during her MGM tenure. After splitting with Tone, Crawford adopted a baby girl she named Christina. Two years later, in 1942, Crawford married Phillip Terry and adopted a boy. After being canned by MGM in 1943, Joan found work at Warner Brothers, and earned her first Academy Award for her performance in Mildred Pierce (1945). As her career thrived once again, she divorced Terry and adopted two more children. Crawford continued to work all throughout the 1950s. In 1955, she married Al Steele, the President of Pepsi, and the marriage lasted until his death in 1959. Joan struck gold again when she teamed with her rival Bette Davis in 1962’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, earning them both Academy Award nominations. Crawford’s final film appearance was in 1970’s Trog, and she spent the last seven years of her life struggling with alcoholism in relative reclusiveness. In 1978, a year after her mother’s death, Christina Crawford presented an unflattering portrayal of her abusive mother in the best-selling book, Mommie Dearest. The book and subsequent film forever tarnished Joan’s legacy as an actress and star. But fortunately for us, Joan Crawford left behind an incredible body of work that speaks for itself. As we separate the personal from the professional, we can once again see why Ms. Crawford was and always will be a star.
The two Pre-Code films we’ll be covering today are Possessed (1931) and Sadie McKee (1934).
Ambitious factory Girl Marion Martin meets a handsome well-to-do, but he’s interested in her as a mistress, not a wife.
Starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Wallace Ford. Based on a play by Edgar Selwyn. Adapted by Lenore J. Coffee. Directed by Clarence Brown.
Many film scholars consider this to be one of the first movies in which Crawford gives a mature and solid performance. Furthermore, Possessed is considered to be perhaps her second film, after Paid (1930), of legitimate dramatic substance. While I can wholeheartedly attest to the claims about Ms. Crawford’s performance, I have to be direct and tell you that Possessed is a difficult film to love. There are a lot of things to love IN this film, but the plot seems to meander without structure, and I found it difficult, as a future storyteller, to appreciate the story the film was attempting to tell.
Joan Crawford works in a paper box factory, but leaves her boyfriend behind and moves to the big city after meeting a wealthy New Yorker on a passing train. Upon arriving in New York, the man gives her some advice: get a rich husband. She sets her sights on one of his lawyer friends, Clark Gable. Three years pass and Crawford is now glamorous, sophisticated, and living comfortably thanks to her relationship with Gable. Though they are both in love, Gable is reluctant to make her his wife, and so to avoid scandal, he has concocted a pseudonym for her: Mrs. Moreland, a wealthy divorcee. Joan’s ex-boyfriend returns, still in love with her, and hoping to snare a big job working for Gable. Meanwhile, Gable’s plans to run for political office are hindered by his relationship with Joan, so she dumps him and claims she is going to marry her ex. Then one of Gable’s rival candidates is determined to find out exactly who Mrs. Moreland is…
The dialogue is sharp and the sophisticated themes are invigorating. The first half of the film manages to be quite engrossing, but the second half with the arrival of Joan’s ex-boyfriend muddles up the story. The engrossing tale of unwed Crawford’s determination to be somebody (and her eventual love affair with Gable) is replaced with soapy romantic entanglements and an overly-dramatic political rally. For that reason, I can not rave about the story or it’s structure.
But, as I said above, there are many things to appreciate about this film. Crawford as a kept woman is the first. She looks radiant, she acts well, and she gets the audience totally onboard with what she’s doing, even if the story turns ridiculous. Gable is strong and matches Joan perfectly in this — their third film together. These are adults playing adult stories — and it’s magical. This film is highly recommended for fans of both Crawford and Gable. I would also recommend this picture for fans of Pre-Code cinema, because of the mature content.
Sadie McKee (1934)
A working girl suffers through three troubled relationships on her road to prosperity.
Starring Joan Crawford, Gene Raymond, Franchot Tone, and Edward Arnold. Based on a story by Vina Delmar. Screenplay by John Meehan. Directed by Clarence Brown.
This was Crawford’s last Pre-Code film, and the third to co-star her eventual husband, Franchot Tone. Also of note: a clip from this film was featured in a scene from Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? when Blanche is watching one of her old films on TV.
The story isn’t novel, but it’s handled superbly. Sadie McKee works as a maid for a wealthy family. But when the patriarch’s son insults Sadie’s boyfriend Tommy at a dinner, she quits and moves to New York with Tommy. They find a cheap boarding house and make plans to be married. But a neighbor seduces Tommy into joining her traveling club act, and he leaves Sadie flat. Dejected, she gets a job as a dancer. One evening, Sadie befriends a drunk gentlemen, who just happens to be the employer of Sadie’s former employer’s son. The son begs Sadie to come back and work for his family, but she declines. Instead she goes home with his boss, an alcoholic millionaire. They are soon married, though Sadie still thinks about Tommy, especially after she sees his act. But the millionaire’s health takes a turn for the worse and doctors tell Sadie that her husband will die if he doesn’t stop drinking. Sadie manages to sober him up, but after she learns that Tommy was dumped from the traveling music act, she decides to confess her feelings for Tommy to her husband. I won’t spoil the rest for you.
This film packs a fair amount of action into 90 minutes, but the story is so well-paced that you don’t notice it. There are several standout moments, though. Tommy’s song, “All I Do Is Dream Of You,” heard throughout the film, is stunning. But the film really kicks into high gear when Sadie tries to sober up her husband. Sadie’s confrontation with the hired help is satisfying, and the moment when she is slapped by her husband is exciting and raw. Furthermore, Sadie’s sharply-written scene with the woman who stole Tommy is also a highlight.
The film isn’t nearly as heavy as Possessed, nor is it as sophisticated. It’s an earnest film about a former maid who marries a millionaire. Sadie McKee’s triviality (despite a dramatic death near the end) is appealing, but for fans who want more meat and substance, Possessed is the stronger film.
Tune in next Friday as I cover two more Pre-Code Crawford films! And remember to return on Monday for a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!