Monday, April 14, 2014

Joan Joins an Army

In 1931, a legendary film partnership began.  Joan Crawford and Clark Gable appeared together for the first time in Laughing Sinners, a pre-code romance.  We meet Ivy 'Bunny' Stevens (Crawford) in love - with Howard 'Howdy' Palmer (Neil Hamilton), a traveling salesman.  It's quite clear that the two are lovers, and that Howdy has promised to marry Ivy (or Bunny, as he calls her).  But while marriage IS on his mind, it's not marriage with her.  He has decided to marry the boss' daughter, and coward that he is, he runs away, leaving her a note about his intentions.  Some time later, Ivy tries to commit suicide, but is stopped by Carl Loomis (Clark Gable).  Carl, a Salvation Army worker, encourages her to leave her current life, and become a part of his world.  Giving to others, he feels, is what helped him to recover from the pains of a world that nearly destroyed him.  Within a short time, Ivy too has become part of the Salvation Army.  But then Howdy returns.

That this film is from the pre-code era is instantly apparent.  Ivy and Howdy are obviously having an affair; and a one-night stand is neither condoned nor condemned.  And all that is required for forgiveness to happen is honesty on the part of the parties involved, and a true attempt at repentance.  Because of Gable's forthrightness, Carl is shown as sympathetic and forgiving - not preachy.  He truly believes you can always restart your life, and his talks center on living  life squarely.  God is not brought into the equation.  Relatively speaking, the part of Carl is a small one, and we would have liked to have seen more of him.  Gable gets third billing in the film - behind Neil Hamilton, and Crawford (whose name is above the title). By the time he films Sporting Blood that same year, he has begun to be listed first; by the following year, his name is routinely above the title.

The Salvation Army is portrayed positively; and again, there is little emphasis on the religious aspects of the organization.  Rather, it is shown as a means of helping people get through difficult times in their lives. The Great Depression, which was still severely impacting the lives of Americans in 1931 is a major focus of the film.  Helping your fellow man is the means of both ending the Depression, and finding inner salvation.

As always, much of our conversation focused on Joan Crawford. She is so exquisitely  beautiful in this film, and her portrayal of Ivy is spot on.  Crawford manages to touch gently on the dilemma faced by her character, and to make her likeable and sympathetic.   Though her reformation requires that Ivy quit her job, she is never condemned for working in what appears to be a speakeasy. 
The portrait painted of the traveling salesmen in the film, however, shows them as carousing boozers.  Again, the pre-code aspects of the film are obvious - the purchase of alcohol is still illegal in 1931, yet the salesmen buy it with easy.  And since they seem to travel in bunches, they egg one another into bad behavior.

Laughing Sinners has a short, but tightly written script, based on Kenyon Nicholson's play, Torch Song, which opened on Broadway on 27 August 1930. Guy Kibbee here reprises the role of Cass Wheeler which he originated in that production, the only member of the cast to come over to the film (and Mayo Methot, who would become the wife of Humphrey Bogart, starred as Ivy).  Interestingly, Johnny Mack Brown was originally cast as Carl, but bad previews caused them to reshoot the part with Gable (for more information, see this TCM article).

As we depart, here is a trailer from the film: