Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation 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 highlighted Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Possessed (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Letty Lynton (1932), Dancing Lady (1933), and Sadie McKee (1934). So far in this new series we’ve covered Paid (1930). Today . . .
Laughing Sinners (1931)
A Salvation Army preacher saves a troubled girl from suicide. Starring Joan Crawford, Neil Hamilton, Clark Gable, Marjorie Rambeau, Guy Kibbee, Roscoe Karns, and Cliff Edwards. Based on a play by Kenyon Nicholsn. Continuity by Bess Meredyth. Additional dialogue by Edith Fitzgerald. Directed by Harry Beaumont.
“Nightclub performer Ivy Stevens, who has been the mistress of traveling salesman “Howdy” Palmer for two years, lives for their time together. On his most recent visit, he can’t bring himself to tell her that he plans to marry the boss’s daughter to further his career, so he leaves her a note while she is performing. She is shattered and attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge, but is stopped by Carl, a kind Salvation Army worker. Carl convinces Ivy that everyone follows the wrong path at some time, and she decides to look him up after reading about Howdy’s marriage in the newspaper. A year later, Howdy is bored with his continuing life on the road. When he sees Ivy singing with a Salvation Army band, he wants to start their relationship again, but she refuses.
“Carl assures her that her past doesn’t matter, but that evening, when she encounters Howdy at the same hotel where she is staying, they become lovers again. At dawn, Ivy regrets her decision, but feels too guilty to leave. Howdy is summoned to help his friend, Cass Wheeler, to calm a drunken girl, after which Cass goes to Ivy’s room. He offers her some whisky and she starts to dance, arousing the curiosity of others at the hotel, including Howdy and Carl. She is ashamed when she sees Carl, but his reassurances help her to reject Howdy for good and remain with Carl.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Based on a play called Torch Song (nothing to do with Crawford’s ’50s movie of the same title), this film was originally called Complete Surrender and produced with Johnny Mack Brown in the role of the Salvation Army worker who saves Joan from suicide. Reportedly, a preview of the picture proved so disastrous that Thalberg had a genius idea: replace Brown and reshoot his scenes with Clark Gable, with whom our spotlighted leading lady had palpable sparks in their first screen effort together, Dance, Fools, Dance, in which Gable had a smaller, but memorable role. (We covered that film in our Gable series of posts last year.) Once again, the presence of the King makes this picture exponentially more interesting than it would be without him, for although he’s cast in a role that seems like a strange fit — Salvation Arms worker, really? — we buy it, because Gable was so seldom prone to scenery chewing, and he’s thus able to sell the truth of any situation.
However, the script deserves more credit than many critics — of today and yesterday — seem wont to give, for Gable’s character, though a cheery good guy, has an edge, and furthermore, he has a past. And this moral complexity, or rather, multi-dimensionality, and the deliberate manipulation of how to define good and bad, is undeniably Pre-Code. This is great for Crawford, for she’s a great fit for these types of roles; however, despite the success of Paid, this film tries to reconcile her old flapper persona with the new one she’s establishing for herself (which will come to full fruition later in pictures like Possessed, her third with Gable, and Grand Hotel). So, while she’s a bit more of a modern ’30s woman, not all “youth and beauty and joy and happiness,” the script still makes her dance (no complaints here) and sing (some complaints here). Yet the real sin in the construction of the story is that she isn’t in control.
Unlike many Crawford roles, in which she grabs the story by its metaphorical horns and bends it to her (both the character’s and her own personal) will, this one has her functioning via the necessities of the story. In other words, we don’t understand what she’s doing; she does it because the story wants conflict. For instance, her character reunites with her crummy bum of a beau, making her appear a weak-willed sappy victim. The exploration of this could be interesting, if it wasn’t so anti-Crawford — even in her earlier fun-loving incarnation. I think this is why the film isn’t regarded as highly as her other Pre-Code ventures with Gable, and while this screenplay is written better than most argue, its design of Crawford’s character yields a faulty premise. Thus, I don’t recommend it to everyone — only film buffs, because Crawford and Gable are always magnetic (no one else matters, except maybe Kibbee, who does a fun drunk bit). So for them, it’s worth it.
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!