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DVD Review

Joan Crawford: The Face That Launched a Thousand Close-Ups

Stuart Mitchner

Joan Crawford’s birthday was last Sunday, March 23. Though she was born in 1905, she later claimed 1908 as her birth year, so if you give her the benefit of her vanity, you could say that March 23, 2008, was her 100th birthday. She died alone in New York in 1977.

I wonder how many people under the age of 50 watch Turner Classic Movies, a television time machine offering daily excursions to anyone who wants to see the stars as they were in their prime. My guess is that the majority of TCM viewers are over 60 and that most people born after 1950 probably only know Crawford from sleazy shockers like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Strait-Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965), and Berzerk! (1967). A visit to YouTube suggests that her main claim to fame in our online culture is as the nightmare mother in her daughter’s tell-all memoir, Mommie Dearest (the film, with Faye Dunaway, is considered a camp classic), and through her feud with Bette Davis, who played the title role in Baby Jane.

TCM marked Crawford’s birthday Sunday with an 11-movie marathon. You can also get a good sense of her range in the recently released Joan Crawford Collection Volume 2 (Warner Bros/Turner $49.98), which includes five pictures she made between 1934 and 1953, soon to be separately available at the Princeton Public Library.

Can You Like Her?

The TCM documentary that began Sunday’s birthday marathon was called The Ultimate Movie Star, a title that seems especially fitting in Joan Crawford’s case because she made a full-time business of being a star (her own CEO), so much so that she was reportedly more devoted to her fans than she was to her adopted children (two of whom she disinherited). She’s the only female star I can think of who could make the m-word recently applied to Hillary Clinton look like an edgy fashion statement; she’d wear “monster” the way she wore her weird regalia in an almost terminally campy blackface number in Torch Song (1953), the most recent of the films in the new collection. Early Joan Crawford is downright scary. The first time I saw Grand Hotel (1932), it was hard to relate so vast and fabulous a face to the woman I knew as the tense, hard-edged, tightly wound middle-aged star of Mildred Pierce (1945) and Sudden Fear (1952). In the early talkie Montana Moon, the sheer mass of her face and those huge, insatiable eyes make each close-up as devastating as any mob scene Cecil B. deMille ever orchestrated. Face to face, up close, early Joan blows just about everyone but Garbo out of the water. But can you like her? It’s not easy, and it’s all but impossible to love her the way you do Barbara Stanwyck or any number of other more humanly endearing actresses.

Crawford rarely projects the sort of appeal that James Agee had in mind when referring to “the translucent face” of Teresa Wright and her “delicate and exciting talent … with something of a novelist’s perceptiveness behind the talent.” The excitement Crawford creates is seldom delicate. For the Ultimate Star, “star power” trumps subtlety. With certain exceptions, as when she’s being directed by a Frank Borzage or a George Cukor, she doesn’t show you the face behind the mask. It’s worth noting that one of her most obvious weaknesses — her voice — can become an asset when the emotional chips are down. There’s a vulnerable catch — a giving way — in her voice that figures in several of the most moving scenes in Borzage’s Strange Cargo (1940) and Cukor’s A Woman’s Face (1941), the two best films in this volume of the Crawford Collection.

Moments of Truth

Sadie McKee (1934), the earliest picture in the newly issued set, has some radiant moments, but it’s eventually pulled down by a far-fetched, morally incoherent plot and a drawn-out denouement. For all the shallow, small-minded, commercially compromised movies that flowed across the screens of the nation in the 1930s, there are hundreds of moments where something true and touching comes through, moments that brightened the lives of moviegoers all over the world, especially couples. Early in Sadie McKee, there’s a perfect little Manhattan melody, poetry for the eyes and ears, after Joan’s Sadie escapes the provinces with a mandolin-strumming Romeo played by Gene Raymond. They spend their first night in a tiny room rented to them by a craven, charmless landlady who sneers at their pretense of marriage. They have only the one bed, a chair, and a dresser. Since they plan to get married the next day, kisses have to be cut short; the resulting tension creates an appealingly awkward mutual restraint, every move understated, every nuance natural and right, the familiar situation illuminated by the couple’s shy respect for the limits and by the subtle intermingling of intimacy and decorum. He will sleep in the chair, she in the bed. While she’s down the hall getting into her pajamas in the communal bathroom, he begins strumming his mandolin and softly singing “All I Do is Dream of You.” I’ve never been a Gene Raymond fan (and this is a song Gene Kelly “owns”), but he makes the moment beautiful and real, his singing gently respecting the fact that the hour is late and other people may be trying to sleep. The lullaby continues as Joan gets under the covers, the camera moving in close as she listens, bringing all of us (and our parents and grandparents) with it. Such close-ups as this one of a young woman listening to her lover’s lullaby on her first night away from home are the stuff of movie dreams, the moments where audiences bond with actors, the star is everyone, and the shabby little room is everywhere.

The Final Four

Of the four films that complete the collection, Flamingo Road (1949), which shows middle-period Crawford at her triumphant-victim best, would be worth watching if only for Ted McCord’s outstanding camera work. In Torch Song, which has to be seen to be disbelieved, Joan is the embittered, misanthropic, love-starved, indomitable dominatrix (the m-word again), the fulfillment of every drag queen’s wildest dream. In A Woman’s Face, where she transcends herself as the disfigured anti-heroine, she’s Saint Joan weaving and wavering on the borderline between good and evil, and doing it so well (at least before the plastic surgery), you almost want to take back the noises you made while sitting through the all but serial mediocrity of her previous M-G-M performances. As the title implies, this is an essential document for close readers of Crawford looking to analyse and define the persona behind the mask. A Woman’s Face also coincides nicely with the implications of the “Two-Faced Woman” number in Torch Song.

Borzage and God

Strange Cargo doesn’t belong here; it belongs in a set TCM should have put together called The Frank Borzage Collection, along with Three Comrades (1938), The Mortal Storm (1940), and two others starring Joan Crawford, Mannequin (1937), and The Shining Hour (1938). The last two films explain the “all but” with which I qualified “mediocrity” in the context of Crawford’s previous work at M-G-M. Borzage is an actor’s dream; even the lamest of the lame thrive under his enlightened guidance. He can turn perennial heavies into moist-eyed priests, can make Bible-quoting gentle souls of actors who usually play bellicose newspaper editors or rich tyrannical fathers. He can take one of my favorite character actors, Akim Tamiroff (a comic bright spot in Sadie McKee) and turn him into a cynical brain surgeon in Disputed Passage five years later. Borzage can even bring the dead back to life (in 7th Heaven) and redeem the seemingly unredeemable, but when the story contains intimations of Christianity, as it does in Strange Cargo, even the most perceptive and sympathetic viewers have trouble accepting the notion that a South African actor named Ian Hunter whose stock in trade is playing playboys could believably evoke the presence of the Lord in the body of a prisoner on Devil’s Island. Hunter does at least have some charismatic leaders on his resume, having played King Richard the Lion-Heart in Robin Hood, but never mind. People who come to Strange Cargo still shuddering from their encounters with Hollywood’s misadventures in the realm of religion simply can’t allow that a serious work about redemption could be made at M-G-M, home of angelic choirs and endless nauseating abominations conducted in the name of meretricious piety. And with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford as the redeemed lovers — please!

Apparently some sort of visceral button gets pushed every time there’s a straight-faced approach to divinity in the context of Hollywood. I mean, you just don’t do God in LaLa-Land and get away with it, right? Maybe the only way to turn people’s heads toward the filmic truth is to ask them to consider the dimensions of the challenge of making such a picture while remaining reasonably faithful to Richard Sale’s novel, Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep. You can bet no other director in Hollywood would have had the courage to come near it, not to mention the ability to endow the project with the necessary tact, sympathy, and restraint. But the fact that love between a couple can encompass qualities both sensual and divine was Borzage’s theme almost from the beginning of his incredible career (close to 100 movies made between 1915 and 1962). Without the male/female physicality and the definitively powerful performances of the two stars, the spiritual aspect of Strange Cargo might justify the ridicule Pauline Kael heaps on the idea of the Redeeming of Gable and Crawford. In fact, it was putting the sexual electricity between those two into a religious context that got the film in trouble on various fronts, including the Catholic church and the Legion of Decency, which “fully condemned” the movie as “an amalgam of religion and licentiousness.” The ads placed in trade papers not surprisingly stressed the sex (Joan Crawford’s bare legs, Gable’s leer); after all, the studio had a movie to sell. And in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, a wily theatre owner cashed in, using ads and radio spots to entice 40,000 customers who had been turned away when the stateside censors banned the movie.

When the Crawford Collection comes to the library, you can see for yourself whether or not I’m right to claim that Strange Cargo is a unique, courageous film in which the two stars do the very best work of their careers.

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