Monday, January 31, 2011

Joan Enters the Asylum

After her wonderful role in Humoresque, Crawford got an equally interesting part in Warner Brother's Possessed.  Crawford plays private nurse Louise Howell, who has fallen passionately in love with David Sutton (Van Heflin).  David, as we grow to learn, is a total bounder - a "love 'em and leave 'em" cad who enjoys the chase, and is immediately bored once he wins his prey.  Bored now with Louise, he has informed her of his disinterest in commitment.  She however, has become obsessed with David, and is badly damaged by his rejection; damage that will eventually spiral her downwards into madness.

The opening scene of this picture is fascinating.  We see Crawford wandering alone down what is obviously Los Angeles city streets. First is the shock of actually seeing the city of Los Angeles (and not the WB back lot) in a picture.  Second is the surprise of seeing Crawford without a drop of makeup on her face! Actually, the beauty of her face is even more evident plain as it is.  She was a stunning woman, without the overdrawn lips and arched eyebrows!  And here, is that very scene:

The film begins after Louise has suffered a severe mental breakdown.  Her story is told in flashback, as her psychiatrist (Stanley Ridges) attempts to ferret out the reason for her illness.  
We found the character of David Sutton to be totally reprehensible.   It is hard to discuss, as I'm loathe to give away the ending of the picture for anyone who has not seen it (and we heartily suggest that you see it. You will not be disappointed), but David is not content with destroying Louise, he has another victim in his sights, and Louise is perhaps the only one who understands what he is about to do.  Van Heflin does an excellent job of making David loathsome, yet, we can still understand why women would be attracted to this snake-in-the-grass.  Raymond Massey's Dean Graham is also an interesting portrayal.  Graham, too, has been battered by life, but has an inate strength that will serve those around him well.

Most of the film is told from Louise's point-of-view. We are, after all, hearing her story as told to her doctor.  However, the POV work is fascinating, as we actually SEE her mind breaking down.  We see her hallucinations; as  a result, we are often not sure what is real and what is not.  Which makes for an even more interesting and intense story.  Crawford is wonderful in showing us the confusion in Louise; she makes us care about this woman and appreciate her pain.

Next time, more from Crawford's Warner Brother's years.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Joan Supports the Arts

Joan Crawford followed her Oscar win with another excellent film, 1947's Humoresque, in which she plays socialite Helen Wright, an unhappy woman who becomes fascinated with a violinist (played by John Garfield).  Though Crawford gets top billing here, this movie is really about Garfield's Paul Boray, following him from boyhood (as played by Bobby - or later Robert - Blake), when he receives his first violin, through his relationship with Helen.  

Boray is a man obsessed by music and with his career.  Helen is a woman whose life has been one unhappiness after another. Her current (third) husband is a kind, but ineffectual man, for whom Helen has no respect and little affection.  We learn that her prior marriages were appreciably worse: "One was a crybaby and the other was a caveman" she tells Boray.  

Crawford's subtle skills as an actress are in evident here: when Boray attempts to touch her, Crawford cringes, harkening back to her former"caveman" husband  - and perhaps explaining why she remains married to current husband, Victor (Paul Cavanagh)), a weakling with no desire to do more than watch his wife from afar. Helen's nearsightedness (and reluctance to wear glasses) become of symbol of Helen's narrowed life vision - again, Crawford plays it carefully, using Helen's glasses as a sign of her attempts to really SEE Boray for who he is.

Certainly, this is an almost painful movie - Helen's misery and Boray's need for success give little room for happiness.  However, we do have some relief from the pain of these two people trying to develop a relationship against their own personalities and the dismay of both their families.  It is from Oscar Levant's Sid Jeffers.  Playing Garfield's closest friend since boyhood and his pianist, Levant's irreverence provides some humor to a film otherwise filled with unhappiness.  Sid also provides a moral compass, alerting the viewer (and the protagonists) to the dangers of this relationship with seems to cause nothing but pain.

Regardless, this is an excellent film, with sterling performances.  Watch Crawford's telephone monologue towards the end should you have any doubts. It is a piece of brilliance. And, the delicate portrayals of Paul's parents (played by J. Carrol Naish and Peggy Knudson) are also lovely. Papa's reluctance to waste money on a violin, counter-posed with his pride of his son, when the boy sees the birthday present he has yearned for are quite nicely played.

Before we leave for this week, here is a trailer from Humoresque:

Next week, we continue with Ms. Crawford's Warner Brother's years. Please join us.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Joan Wins an Oscar

Let's just get it out of the way, Mildred Pierce (1945) is an essential film.  From the first moment that we see Mildred (Joan Crawford), as she contemplates a leap off a bridge, to the conclusion, this is a film that sucks you in with its performances, dialog, and images.  It is a quintessential film noir, and perhaps Ms. Crawford's finest performance. Mildred Pierce tells the story of the ultimate movie Mom.  Mildred wants the best for her two daughters, teenage Veda (Ann Blyth) and tomboy Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe).  Mildred's efforts to create a better world for her daughters, however, seems to have created a monster in Veda, a selfish, nasty, and snobbish young lady who looks down on her mother, and has no appreciation for Mildred's sacrifices.  After husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) loses his job, and seems uninterested in getting another, Mildred strikes off on her own, using her talent for cooking and her own personal determination to open a successful restaurant.  And that, of course, is when the problems really start for Mildred.  Her involvement with two men Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) and Wally Fay (Jack Carson) will only bring her more misfortune.  And Veda, now running with the wealthy crowd, is doing all in her power to make sure she remains in the upper classes.
The cast here is exceptional, most especially Eve Arden as Mildred's friend and partner Ida Corwin.  Ms. Arden is wonderful in everything she does, but here she brings a tone to the movie that it so desperately needs. Without her, the movie would have been a morass of sorrow. With her jibes and asides, Ida acts as both chorus and comic relief in this most serious of films. Much of our discussion focused on Jack Carson's Wally vs. Zachary Scott's Monte; which of the two men was the bigger creep.  The votes seemed to favor Monte, who is so selfish and craven.  But there was commentary on Wally's ability to betray his business partner, his ability to immediately attempt to seduce his wife, AND his willingness to turn on Mildred when it is advantageous for HIM.  And, when handing out the prizes for evil, we did not forget that most famous of movie bitches, Veda Pierce, truly a remarkably evil lady.

Oh, and the next time you watch the movie, take a look at the scene where Mildred and Monte go swimming.  The suit Mildred wears could have been loaned to Lana Turner for The Postman Always Rings Twice!  To those who felt Ms.Crawford had no sex appeal, take a look at her here.  We surely know why all the men are interested in her!  Here is a trailer:
If you haven't ever seen Mildred Pierce, run don't walk to your local library and borrow it (or put it on your Nexflix cue, or watch it the next time it airs on TCM). You won't be disappointed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Joan Fights the Nazis

Our film this time is the 1942 anti-Nazi film Reunion in France. Released in January of 1942, this would have been produced before the United States entered World War II, but while our hero Pat Talbot is flying for the RAF, he is clearly an American - played by John Wayne!  Here, Ms. Crawford plays Michele de la Becque, a spoiled aristocrat whose world turns upside down when the Nazis invade France.  Her family dispersed (we learn her parents have escaped to Lisbon), Michele struggles back to Paris, only to find that her fiance, Robert Cortot (Philip Dorn) is a Quisling.  Thus, Michele begins her own form of resistance, first by walking out on the promised easy life that Cortot would provide; then by helping downed flyer Talbot get back to his unit in England.

This is the only film in which Wayne and Crawford ever appeared.  They are actually quite good together.  Their unique acting styles come together nicely; but is it surprising that Crawford looks good next to a strong male co-star?  Billing-wise, Crawford came first in list, with Wayne and Dorn listed side-by-side under Ms. Crawford.  And while we might expect Wayne to be the romantic interest, he is, in fact, only a trigger to the action.  We won't say more than that, because this movie is more than just an anti-Nazi propaganda film, and more than a romance. It is an espionage film as well.  Who is working with the Nazis? Who is working for the Resistance? Watch the film - you will be pleasantly surprised by the way director Jules Dassin makes the action unfold.  

Some nice supporting work here as well - we were especially pleased to see Natalie Schafer as the snooty wife of a German officer, and John Carradine as a Gestapo official.  We very much enjoyed the scene in the dress shop, where Michele and the dress shop staff try to keep Frau Schroeder (Schafer) from discovering money hidden in a coat that Frau Schroeder covets.

This is an interesting movie, like some of the others we've viewed, rather underrated.  We think you might find this a good selection.  Here's a trailer: