Spotlight: Laughing Post-Code Crawford

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.

After three weeks of posts highlighting Joan Crawford’s sexy Pre-Code films, today’s post features two of her Post-Code comedies! Although, “Post-Code” is a bit misleading. These films were not produced after the Production Code was abandoned, rather these were simply made after the Code was enforced (on July 1, 1934 — a day that changed cinema history). In short: these moves were made under the Production Code.

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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.

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This blog has covered five Joan Crawford films so far, all of them made before the Production Code was enforced: Possessed (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Letty Lynton (1932), Dancing Lady (1933), and Sadie Mckee (1934). Today’s post features Forsaking All Others (1934) and Love On The Run (1936).

 

Forsaking All Others (1934)

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When Jeff, who has been in love with Mary his whole life, returns from Europe to declare his feelings for her, he discovers she’s about to marry their childhood friend, Dill. But Dill jilts Mary at the last minute and marries an old flame. Mary turns to Jeff for comfort, and Dill soon realizes he’s made a mistake…

Starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Charles Butterworth, Billie Burke, Frances Drake, and Rosalind Russell. Screenplay by Joseph Mankiewicz. Based on the play by Frank Morgan Cavett and Edward Barry Roberts. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke.

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This truly enjoyable film was based on a 1933 play that starred Tallulah Bankhead. Unfortunately, Forsaking All Others had the misfortune of being produced after the enforcement of the aforementioned Production Code, rendering many of the naughtier lines and situations unusable. This, of course, is a great detriment to the picture, which would be excellent without the evident castration done to the screenplay.

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It’s a classic rom-com setup: Crawford, Gable, and Montgomery are old childhood friends. Gable loves Crawford, but she loves Montgomery. At the start of the film, Gable returns from Spain, intent on proposing to Crawford. Unfortunately he learns that she’s to be married the next day to Montgomery. But when Montgomery elopes the night before the wedding with an old flame, Gable has to break the news to Crawford. After a getaway at Billie Burke’s rural cabin, Crawford gets an invitation to a party hosted by Montgomery and his new wife. She and Gable decide to attend, and sparks fly between the foursome. Days later, Gable is angry to discover that Crawford and Montgomery have begun casually seeing each other again, but when Billie Burke learns that the pair have gone up to her cabin for a holiday, she begs Gable to rush over and stop the tryst. But is it too late?

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This is a comedy, and as many of you Crawford fans know, Joan was not an exceptional comic actress. Fortunately for her, the picture never requires her to be funny. Her character merely responds to the surrounding characters and situations. In this arena, Crawford succeeds, adopting a much lighter presence, foreign in much of her other work. She’s refreshing, she’s fun, she’s beautiful. (Hard to picture Tallulah in the role of ingenue, but the play probably gave her wittier things to say.) Montgomery handles his part well, but Gable drives the picture, and there’s no doubt with whom Crawford will end up. Billie Burke, Charles Butterworth, and Rosalind Russell are also highlights, with the latter making the most of her scant screen time. MVP award, however, goes to Frances Drake as the woman that Montgomery jilts Crawford to be with. She’s deliciously catty but totally understandable in her two sequences, with the party scene being the film’s highlight.

Unfortunately, the Production Code ruins this picture by neutering Drake’s initial seduction of Montgomery on the night before his wedding. The tame version we have here isn’t enough to motivate Mongtomery’s jilting of Crawford. But the worst change involves the entire sequence with Montgomery and Crawford in the cabin. Not only do they NOT sleep together, but the replacing scene seems neither funny nor coherent with the rest of the picture. Though I have not had the pleasure of reading the play (the only copy I know of exists at the New York Public library), it seems like the story requires Crawford and Montgomery to have a physical dalliance. The sanitary garbage here make little sense for the characters and renders the whole film for naught. This would be an excellent film if not for these two particular alterations. Still, I recommend this film for its gay and charming Crawford, hunky Gable, and top-notch supporting cast.

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Love On The Run (1936)

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A newspaper man tries to one-up his friend by commandeering a plane with a wealthy runaway bride and selling the story to the press. Unfortunately the plane they hijack was intended for two international spies who are hot on their trail. Added to their hijinks is the rival reporter, still determined to get the better story.

Starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Reginald Owen, and Mona Barrie. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Manuel Seff, and Gladys Hurlbut. Based on the story by Alan Green and Julian Brodie. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.

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I wasn’t as keen about this film, which I’d read was supposed to be MGM’s answer to Paramount’s screwball masterpiece, It Happened One Night. Well, I can now confirm that the only thing this picture shares with It Happened One Night is Gable as a reporter. In fact, I wish the films were more alike, because then Love On The Run would actually be funny. Though it’s deliberately a lighter Crawford vehicle, Love On The Run is rarely humorous. Most if that has to do with a lackluster script, but Crawford certainly doesn’t help matters.

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The plot involves Tone (Crawford’s real-life husband at the time) and Gable as rival newspaper men. While Tone covers the story about an aviator baron and his wife, Gable covers the story about heiress Crawford’s wedding to a prince. When Crawford leaves the prince at the altar, Gable realizes he’s got the scoop of the year. Withholding his identity as a reporter, Gable and Crawford sneak away from the press by stealing the Baron and Baroness’s flying outfits and hijacking their plane. In midair, they learn that the Baron and Baroness are actually spies, and upon landing in France, go on the run with classified documents. Of course, the two fall in love while hiding out in a French palace, but things aren’t rosy for long. Not only does Tone catch up with the pair, revealing to Crawford that Gable has been selling her story to the press, but the spies catch up with Crawford, just after she has jilted Gable. Now Tone has the better story, but only if he can get Gable’s help in rescuing Crawford.

Even by the ’30s, comedies with spies seem overdone, and this one adds little to the mix. Though the story reads fine on paper, neither the plotting nor the dialogue delivers much in the way of laughs. What made It Happened One Night work was its brilliant use of characters and the way in which they related. The filmmakers here just put their stars in various situations — none of which are particularly funny — hoping the audiences will do the rest for themselves!  It seems as if the film just expects its audience to laugh because it’s Gable and Crawford hijacking planes and running from spies. But the writers make little effort in creating anything remotely laugh-worthy. The spies are particularly unfunny, but since the picture does little to make them menacing, I found myself feeling nothing but ambivalence for them. Meanwhile, the silliest part of the film has the pair meeting up with the senile caretaker of the palace, believing them both to be ghosts. Good for a smile maybe, but nothing of substance.

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Unfortunately, the lighter tone adopted by Crawford in It Happened One Night is absent here. Instead we have the usual Crawford performance, devoid of all irony and lacking any sense of humor. While that works well in her weepy Post-Code (and gritty Pre-Code) melodramas, it falls flat here — leaving her performance sadly vacant. Her normally excellent chemistry with Gable, who has a natural flair for comedy, is handicapped by Crawford’s inability to elevate the material. (Which desperately needs some major elevating!) She comes across as silly, and not in a humorous way. Meanwhile, Tone, whom I have enjoyed in most of the films I’ve seen him in, gets some adequate bits here with his rival Gable, and underdog that he is, manages to be quite likable. The two men are the film’s only saving grace, and unless you’re diehard fans of either one, I’m sorry to say this: you can skip this picture.

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That’s a wrap on my 50th post! Tune in next Friday for a new star and a new Film Friday post! And remember to return on Monday for another whole week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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