Welcome to a new Film Friday and the launch of our final series of posts! We’re returning to one of our earliest spotlighted stars, Joan Crawford (1904-1977), and featuring some of the remaining Pre-Codes we’ve yet to cover. Elsewhere on this blog, we’ve covered Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Possessed (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Letty Lynton (1932), Dancing Lady (1933), and Sadie McKee (1934). We’re starting this new series off today with . . .
A young innocent plots revenge after being sent to prison unjustly. Starring Joan Crawford, Robert Armstrong, Kent Douglas, Tyrrell Davis, Polly Moran, and Marie Prevost. Based on a play by Bayard Veiller. Adaptation by Lucien Hubbard and Charles MacArthur. Dialogue by Charles MacArthur. Directed by Sam Wood.
“Mary Turner, a shopgirl, is sentenced to a 3-year prison term for a crime she did not commit, and she declares in the courtroom that she will someday even the score for the way in which she has been treated by the law. After serving her term, she becomes associated with three criminals: Joe, Agnes, and Red, with whom she instigates numerous activities bordering on embezzlement, blackmail, and larceny, but which are always within the law. To gain revenge on her former employer, she marries his son, Bob. His father, Edward Gilder, attempts to have the marriage annulled, and failing in this, persuades Eddie Griggs to act as informer and aid Joe and Red in robbing Bob. But Mary learns of the scheme and exposes Eddie, causing Joe to kill him. The police do not believe her claim of self-defense, but Joe is ultimately captured and is forced to confess, thus freeing Mary to be happily reunited with Bob.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Often cited as the picture in which Crawford proved to audiences and studio executives that she was more than just a cutie pie flapper who could dance on tables and (attempt) to warble tunes, Paid is infused with the actress’ own determination, as the character’s desire for revenge is ethereally melded to Crawford’s desire to be a serious contender. Watching the film, it’s easy to see why Crawford achieved her purpose, for while MGM was giving their pictures the most polish of all major studios in 1930, the rudimentary early talky aesthetics hinder some of the storytelling capabilities, and in effect, the narrative’s power, thus Mary Turner’s arc becomes the only thing worthy of emotional investment. And Crawford, never one to hand a picture over to any other performer, seizes the opportunity — captivating the celluloid in every scene: every close-up, every two-shot, every long-shot. She’s radiant, but more importantly, she can act.
But surprise — there’s no melodrama! Most fans hear Joan Crawford’s name and think first of Mommie Dearest, and then of the big shoulder-padded, overly emotive diva that chewed scenery in plenty of camp-fests from the ’40s and ’50s. The impression is that acting to Crawford was a grand, larger-than-life practice, and something that she wanted her audiences to recognize occurring. And, even in the most restrained of performances, one has the feeling that Joan Crawford’s acting is about doing, not being (as some of the more naturalistic performers would have it). This is part of what makes her a fascinating watch, so when she has the good sense — or the good direction — to know when to pull it back, and shade her performance with simpler truths, the results are dynamic.
The rest of the cast, which includes a handful of recognizable character actors, are hit and miss, and although the text (based on a play, Within The Law, that was adapted again for the screen with that original title in 1939) does a fantastic job of giving voice to the characters, certain figures are more interesting than others. Yet, no mater how grand they are, Crawford is better. It really is all about her, and in this case, it’s not a detriment, for as mentioned above, her character is the picture. And to audiences, one can imagine the accompanying excitement — a moment of revelation! For in truth, Paid is the first time anyone ever saw this other “real actress” side of Crawford, and while polish will yield fruits both sweet and sour, the freshness of this new Joan Crawford, carefully crafted, but with utter finesses by Crawford herself, is a divine epiphany for all involved. As a result, Paid is highly recommended. It’s Crawford’s real screen debut.
Come back next Friday for another Crawford Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!