Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our final series of posts on Film Friday! 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), Sadie McKee (1934). So far in this new series we’ve highlighted Paid (1930) and Laughing Sinners (1931). Today . . .
This Modern Age (1931)
A child of divorce raises eyebrows when she goes to Paris to live with her estranged mother. Starring Joan Crawford, Pauline Frederick, Neil Hamilton, and Monroe Owsley. Written by Frank Butler and Sylvia Thalberg. Story by Mildred Cram. Additional dialogue by John Meehan. Directed by Nicholas Grandé.
“When Diane Winters, an American socialite living in Paris, receives word that her estranged daughter Valentine, is coming from America to visit her, she is forced to cancel a trip. Diane is certain that Valentine, now nineteen, has been reared by her father to hate her, but after meeting her, she is surprised at how well they get along. On the day of her arrival, Valentine is courted by Tony, an alcoholic and a rake. Valentine, who is led to believe that the house and all its furnishings belong to her mother, quickly becomes accustomed to Diane’s chic lifestyle and the Paris “whoopee” set. When the drunken Tony takes Valentine for a drive, he crashes his car. Bob Blake, whose car was also involved in the accident, helps Valentine pull Tony from the wreckage. Bob and Valentine take Tony home, and Bob, a Harvard athlete from a conservative Boston family, falls in love with Valentine and proposes to her.
“After Valentine accepts Bob’s proposal, his parents forbid their son’s marriage. When Bob eavesdrops on a conversation between Diane and André de Graignon, he discovers that Diane is his mistress and that de Graignon is the real owner of the house. Bob then tries to rush their marriage plans so that he can take Valentine away from her mother’s deception without discovering the truth, however, Bob eventually does tell Valentine the truth about her mother and insists that she forget about Diane. Valentine is insulted by Bob’s demands and they break their engagement. Sensing that her daughter is upset, Diane asks her what Bob had said, and Valentine repeats his accusations. When confronted with the truth, Diane . . . ” (This summary, abbreviated to avoid spoilers, is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Without a doubt, this is the most disappointing Crawford Pre-Code that we’ve covered here on That’s Entertainment!, and much of the blame can be thrown to the lifeless script, which is predictable, trite, and completely insufficient in practically every regard. Admittedly, the premise upon which the screenplay is built will never be called unique or original, but its core theme — the clash between modern liberal thinking and old-word conservative values — has proved ripe time and time again for interesting and fresh exploration. In fact, the only reason that This Modern Age is notable (and why I chose to cover it here over the stodgy Today We Live, a 1933 film that’s set as a period piece, so not a great reflection of Pre-Code sensibilities) is that it is iconoclastic in its position on right and wrong, and is thus, definitively a Pre-Code picture. If the script presented the plot with the same complexity inherent within the theme (and some worthwhile stakes), the characters would therefore become more multi-dimensional, and as a result, more engrossing — and realistic — to the audience.
It’s a shame that the script is unequivocally less-than-mediocre, for the performers reveal themselves, in the modern and truthful deliveries of the otherwise average dialogue, as deserving of much better material. Crawford, not surprisingly, is the star, but mention must also be made of Pauline Frederick, who stepped into the role of our spotlighted starlet’s mother after Marjorie Rambeau was replaced. She underplays most of her scenes, but picks and chooses when to go emotionally theatrical (in a simultaneously restrained manner). Her scenes with Crawford narratively are the most rewarding, even if the script undermines any connection that the actors develop. The Blakes, meanwhile, suffer from that lack of dimensionality referenced above, and so all of their material, even the stuff between the lovers, is a disappointment; it’s only when Crawford’s character lashes out or rejects convention that the story thrives.
Crawford, meanwhile, is doing her best to have fun. She’s a good time modern lady in this one, not the cold working girl of some of her Pre-Code classics (like Grand Hotel and Possessed). She’s the Depression era version of the ’20s flapper, and that, by the nature of its existence, is an interesting character for modern audiences. Once again, credit must be given to Crawford’s wise decision to reject any potential for melodrama, and while we can see her performances getting more and more workmanlike and refined (that is, less raw and rough around the edges), there’s an easiness about her activity in this film that may surprise viewers who remember her most from her Post-Code roles. And because the film, for all its really deplorable flaws, remains a great showcase for Crawford (by virtue of the fact that she’s at the crux of the story), this picture is recommended (mildly) to her fans.
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!