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 second 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.
Last week we covered the adult-minded Possessed (1931) and the entertaining Sadie McKee (1934). The two Pre-Code films we’ll be covering today are Letty Lynton (1932) and Dancing Lady (1933).
Letty Lynton (1932)
Wealthy socialite Letty Lynton is returning to New York, abandoning one-tine lover Emile Renaul in South America, when she strikes up a shipboard romance with Jerry Darrow. Renault is waiting for her in New York and will not leave her alone, so she poisons him.
Starring Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, Nils Asther, and May Robson. Based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Adaptation by Wanda Tuchock. Written by John Meehan. Directed by Clarence Brown.
This is a film you’ve probably never seen. Why? Well, in 1936, the Supreme Court ruled that MGM had infringed on the copyright of a play entitled Dishonored Lady. In actuality, both Dishonored Lady and Letty Lynton, Lowndes’ novel, were inspired by a real life murder case in 19th century Scotland. MGM had once considered producing Dishonored Lady, but the Hays Code rejected it. So they purchased the rights to the Lowndes novel instead. But because the stories were so similar, the Court ordered MGM to pay damages. As the result of a later ruling, Letty Lynton was disbarred from rerelease and has rarely been seen since. (Tracking this film can be difficult, but I have a mediocre copy that I screened here.)
The few contemporary reviews of this film praise the brazen Pre-Codeness of the story. Joan Crawford leaves South America to get away from a possessive lover. On shipboard, she falls in love with Robert Montgomery and accepts his marriage proposal. But when she returns to New York, the lover is waiting for her. He blackmails her into seeing him, threatening to reveal their scandalous past to her new fiancee. She goes to his place with a vial of poison, planning on using it for herself if he refuses to let her go. But her lover drinks the poison by mistake and dies. I won’t spoil the rest of the plot — except to say: this is a Pre-Code film, and ladies who kill don’t often receive punishment. An interesting subplot involves Joan’s reconciliation with her cold and estranged mother. The story is indeed thrillingly daring for the ’30s, but the execution is only moderately successful — with a few parts of the film bordering on boredom.
I like both Crawford and Montgomery, and though they have chemistry, their interactions are not even a fraction as interesting as Crawford’s scenes with Asther, who plays Emile Renual. The danger, the heat, the tension… It’s a climactic relief when she kills him — and we’re totally on her side. The scene between Crawford and Robson as her mother is powerful and revealing. This film offered a chance for some brilliant acting, and I think Crawford was uniformly excellent except for one important scene. Unfortunately, though she would later claim this was one of her favorite films, saying, “If there is ever a Joan Crawford retrospective, I hope they show this one…,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the infamous Fitzgerald quote: “She can’t change her emotions in the middle of a scene without going through a sort of Jekyll and Hyde contortion of the face…” The moment I’m talking about in particular is Renual’s death — which literally seems like a strange Jeckyll/Hyde moment as she demonically tells him she’s glad. More of a build in this moment would have made more sense. But perhaps I’m being too nitpicky. She’s great throughout the rest of the film.
Incidentally, this film became widely known for the introduction of a fashion trend: big shoulder pads. The Letty Lynton dress became a well-known phenomenon, while the film itself faded into obscurity. (Some consider the dress to be the most famous Hollywood costume of all time!) But with a fascinating story and some truly hot scenes, I’d recommend this picture for Pre-Code lovers everywhere. It’s rare, there’s Joan, and she’s bad. If you get the chance to see this film, take it.
Dancing Lady (1933)
An attractive dancer is rescued from jail by a rich man, who helps her to have her first big opportunity at a musical play on Broadway. But now she’s torn between the millionaire playboy and her fiery director.
Starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone. Based on the book by James Warner Bellah. Screenplay by Allen Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.
This is a much lighter film than Letty, re-teaming Crawford in her fourth picture with Gable. She also works for the second time with Franchot Tone, the actor who was soon to become the next Mr. Joan Crawford. In one of the last films where she plays a free-spirited dancer (a persona established in the 1928 silent, Our Dancing Daughters), Joan sings, dances, and acts her way through this light-hearted story of a dancer, dreaming of Broadway success, but caught between two men.
The plot is middling. Crawford is arrested when a burlesque show is raided. She is bailed out by Tone, a smitten millionaire who gives her fifty dollars and helps her get a part in a new musical. The director is Clark Gable, and while Joan grows closer to Tone, her attraction to Gable also mounts. After Tone makes known his intentions to marry her, Gable makes Crawford the star of the show. But fearing he might lose her to Broadway success, Tone uses his financial pull to close the show before it opens. Gable and Crawford learn this and team up to produce the show out-of-pocket. Of course, it’s a smash and Gable and Crawford wind up in each others’ arms. Nelson Eddy, Fred Astaire, and the Three Stooges all make cameos as themselves in rehearsals for the show.
Dancing Lady is a fluffy picture with some pleasing, but undistinguished musical numbers. Actually the story is more engrossing than the songs, with a logical trajectory that manages to remain entertaining. Of course, we know Gable will get Crawford, but I still rooted for Tone, wishing the two men could somehow be on even footing. Crawford has great chemistry with both men, and because nothing in the material is too heavy, she excels in her role. Truthfully, she’s no more than a good dancer, but she pulls it off with energy and confidence. The cameos are fun, but as a whole, the “show” stuff doesn’t work. There’s no continuity — the musical’s script is supposedly changed (to the chagrin of writer Sterling Holloway), but we see really no evidence of this — and the songs are not catchy. I’ve heard this was MGM’s response to Warner Brother’s hugely successful 42nd Street. But I can tell you honestly: Dancing Lady is not even in the same league as 42nd Street.
But it’s a good picture, if you take Dancing Lady for what it is: mindless entertainment with mildly amusing numbers, a pleasant story, and a couple of great actors. If you’re in the mood for an easy watch, Crawford, Gable, and Tone are usually a good choice.