BACK TO THE PERFUME COUNTER: JOAN CRAWFORD IN THE WOMEN (1939)

January 7, 2014

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It is Joan Crawford month at Turner Classic Movies, with sixty-two of her features airing on Thursday nights in January. Today I’ll be looking at one of her scene-stealing supporting turns, as the gold lamé digger Crystal Allen in The Women (1939, screening on 1/16 at 8PM on TCM). It was directed by George Cukor, recently the subject of a complete retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Cukor was canned from Gone With the Wind a month before shooting started on The Women, and it was a fortuitous re-assignment. The Women was based on the hit stage comedy by Clare Booth Luce, trumpeted as having ran for 666 performances at the Ethel Barrymore theater. Famed for having an all-female cast, Cukor’s movie claimed that even its animals were of the fairer sex. A sensitive director of actresses, Cukor elicits a wide range of performances from his volcanically talented cast. Norma Shearer is the nominal lead, projecting regal innocence as news of her husband’s infidelity is smeared over the tabloids. Rosalind Russell is her loudest friend, a motormouthed gossip buried under headscarves and microscopic hats. Cukor was fondest of Joan Fontaine, one of his discoveries, perfecting her shaking leaf naivete. But the one who hip-swivels away with the picture is Joan Crawford.

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Crawford had first worked with Cukor on No More Ladies (1935). The original director, Edward H. Griffith, took ill, and Cukor was brought in to finish the film, uncredited. Crawford was impressed with his work, telling Charlotte Chandler that he was “the director who, hands down, helped me the most. She went on to say that, “his words stayed with me always, so he was actually directing me later when I worked with lesser directors.” The character of Crystal is selfish, cruel, and rather irresistible. She gains a kind of integrity from being brutally honest about her intentions. Louis Mayer warned her against accepting the role, worried that playing such an “unsympathetic” character would upset her fans.  Cukor valued how Crawford “made no appeals to audience sympathy: she was not one of those actresses who have to keep popping out from behind their characters, signaling, ‘Look…it’s sweet lovable me, just pretending to be a tramp.” 

She is not introduced for a good thirty minutes, the name of “Crystal” thrown around as a particularly vile piece of trash. Her name begins as an idle piece of gossip passed along the routes of a Park Avenue spa, traversed by Cukor in a series of long tracking shots. It circulates from the loose lips of a manicurist to hyperactive social butterfly Syliva (Russell), who spreads her venom throughout town. Crystal, it appears, is a trampy perfume counter girl is breaking up the happy home of Mary (Shearer) and Stephen Haines. By the time Crawford appears as Crystal, she’s been given a buildup as fraught with anticipation as Orson Welles’ in The Third Man.

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She is first seen behind that counter, her face set in a mask of the bland affability of customer service. In this first shot Crystal is already performing a role, one she sloughs off immediately upon entering the back room, where the soft edges of her voice harden. Her voice is a flirtatious weapon, molded to the circumstance. In a flurry of movement she prepares for dinner with Stephen Haines, set to prove her bona fides as a good girl, or at least one that can make a decent meal. She sarcastically tells her co-worker that it’s time Stephen”found out I was a home girl.” Crawford laces the line with irony, bouncing on the balls of her feet while trilling her voice upward on “home girl”, indicating how much of it will be just another show. It’s that little bob, the slightest of movements, that reveals the density of her hard heart. It also shows why Cukor called her a “great movie personality.” He elaborates: “All she has to do is walk across the room, from one side to the other, and you notice that something very special is happening.”

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When she then gets Stephen on the phone, it’s a master class in manipulation. After issuing gruff orders to her maid to cook dinner (to pass off as her own), she receives the call. Her voice is sanded down into a gentle, rounded chirp, that of a submissive housewife. She successfully plays the victim, guilting him out of breaking their engagement. Her victory screech: “He almost stood me up for his wife!”. The scene ends with a pitched battle between Sylvia and Crystal. Sylvia throws loaded questions about the Haines family at Crystal, who swats them away with icy cold disinterest. The customer service mask cracks into one of condescending hatred. Then Crystal disappears for another twenty minutes, but her presence hangs over the proceedings like soap scum on a shower wall.

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One of the early climaxes of the film is the first encounter between Crystal and Mary Haines, who stare each other down inside a dressing room. The MGM publicity department positioned this as “the catfight of the century”, even though they never come to blows, by playing up the real life tension between Crawford and Norma Shearer. Crawford famously complained, “How can I compete with Norma when she’s sleeping with the boss?”. Shearer was married to MGM head Irving Thalberg. He had died before filming on The Women began, but she still retained enormous influence at the studio. Though exaggerated by publicity flacks, their feud added some extratextual flair to their boudoir fracas.

Shearer is wearing a swooping ball gown, and Crawford a short-skirted gold lamé contraption with a turban and excess bow ties (designed by the overworked Adrian). Crawford’s outfit looks like a reject from a Busby Berkeley harem routine, but she exudes arrogant charm anyways, owning that getup. After Mary orders her to cease her affair, Crystal purrs with Olympian disdain, “he seems to be satisfied with the arrangement.” She seems to be totally free of shame or insecurities, completely content with her destabilizing station in life. Crawford then smokes a cigarette with exasperation, as if dealing with a pesky child. Then she gives Mary the ultimate kiss-off with, “You noble wives and mother bore the brains out of me.”

Though she loses the game of musical husbands in the manic closer, she never loses her sense of self.  So when Crawford says, “back to the perfume counter for me”, it is not with regret or sadness but a matter-of-fact rationality. Money comes and goes, but there will always be rich men she can sucker with soft words and a firm touch.

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WARNER ARCHIVE ROUNDUP: LATE FILMS

October 18, 2011

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Every week the Warner Archive dusts off a bundle of forgotten studio productions onto DVD and hopes they find an audience. Recently they released a quartet of late films from veteran studio auteurs, and they all deserve to be seen. They are Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run (1971), George Cukor’s Travels With My Aunt (1972) and Blake Edwards’ The Carey Treatment(1972), all presented in handsome remastered editions. These are directors who had been weaned in the classical studio era, and who were now facing the reality of producer-brokered “package deals” and the escalating power of the lead actors. Many of these were fraught productions, and none will rank with the best of the respective director’s work, but they all, somehow, end up as solidly crafted entries on their brilliant resumes.

The Last Run was originally a project set up for John Boorman at MGM, who was to produce and direct. As the AFI Catalog reports, star George C. Scott requested that John Huston replace Boorman, as he had worked with Huston on The List of Adrian Messenger (’63). After three weeks of shooting, however, Huston quit the picture, “after arguments with Scott over rewrites”. Richard Fleischer became the third and final director on the project, and lead actress Tina Aumont was replaced by Trish Van Devere.  It is unknown if any of the footage Huston shot remains in the film.

It is clear that Scott exerted a lot of control, even marrying two of his female co-stars (he left wife Colleen Dewhurst for Van Devere after shooting), and yet Fleischer still imbues the film with the cool, clean lines that had highlighted his work since The Clay Pigeon and Follow Me Quietly (also in the Warner Archive) in 1949. He traced these lines along the well-worn track of the story, the starkly familiar tale of aging getaway driver Harry Garmes (Scott) accepting one more job, “to see if my nerves and brain are still connected.” He picks up escaped prisoner Paul Rickard (Tony Musante) and his girl Claudie (Van Devere), but it appears Paul was sprung in order to be assassinated. Harry has to decide whether to aid their escape, and risk his life, or return to his solitary life on the Portuguese coast. It’s an easy choice unless you are in an existential road movie, in which the death-drive trumps lazy afternoons in the gorgeous coastal city of Albufeira.

Scott was 43 at the time of filming, but he looks at least 60, with thinning gray hair, a prominent paunch and wrinkles carving up his sagging face. As Harry Garmes, you can see every indignity in his life manifest on his body. His son died at the age of 3, and then his wife up and left him alone with his car obsession. He is subsumed in feelings of loss, using work as an escape. The loveliest moment in the film occurs when Garmes is forced to sleep over in a room Claudie has just departed. Her bra, panties and pantyhose are sitting wet in the sink. With lugubrious patience he takes them out, unrolls them, and hangs them on the laundry line by the dresser. In his ashen face you can see the memories flickering by, of when this banal act was routine, of intimacy once taken for granted and now enshrined in an alien past.

Fleischer does an unobtrusive job in choreographing the love triangle, re-configuring the three jousting players around the frame as their power-relations shift and shudder. These cramped, sticky compositions are a stark contrast to the opening shots of Garmes on the road in his BMW, in which the edges of objects all point outside the frame, towards escape. Now the eye just circles inside low-lit hotel dives, the eye cycling around these three increasingly dour criminals, the only way out a bullet in the chest, to turn the triangle into a line.

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George Cukor was still a prestige name in Hollywood in 1972 (the trailer included on the DVD trumpets his name), although he didn’t have a hit since My Fair Lady (1962). So when the intended star of Travels With My Aunt, Katherine Hepburn, was “frustrated by budget cuts and demanded several script alterations”, per the AFI, the studio declined her requests, and she quit. Maggie Smith stepped in, and was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her efforts.

The film is a buoyant adaptation of the comic Graham Greene novel, about milquetoast Briton bank manager Henry (Alec McCowen) who is whisked away on an international adventure by his dotty Aunt Augusta (Smith). Augusta is trying to acquire $100,00o by any means necessary to ransom one of her ex-lovers, Visconti (Robert Stephens, Smith’s husband until ’74), away from his kidnappers. In order to get this money, she re-acquaints herself with her multitude of formerly amorous companions (including North African fortune-teller Wordsworth (Lou Gossett)), as well as engaging in some minor money laundering and art theft.

This international romp (mostly shot in Spain) gets a lot of mileage out of Maggie Smith’s fluttering bohemian routine, but Cukor also manages to invest her character with a tragic sense of time’s passing. Augusta, who sucks life to the marrow, is a creature of the present tense (“I’ve always preferred an occasional orgy to a nightly routine”), but she is granted a powerfully moving reminiscence at “Le Train Bleu”, the Belle Epoque restaurant at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. She is speaking to Henry about her youth, and then the camera pans right, and suddenly the years have worn away, and it is a young Visconti who is walking towards a window. Outside a teenaged Augusta, in a schoolgirl’s outfit, exchanges giddy glances with him. She ditches her class and races inside, into a swirl of noise and movement, until Visconti lifts her away into light-footed waltz. It was a time of endless possibility, which has now shrunken for Augusta into re-living her past flings and scrounging for cash. This is the melancholy that underlies all of the film’s high-flying farce.

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Director Blake Edwards  wanted his name taken off of The Carey Treatment (1972), an efficient medical thriller adapted from an early Michael Crichton novel (A Case of Need, by his pseudonym Jeffrey Hudson). Edwards was unhappy with the cuts MGM had made to the film, just as with Wild Rovers the year previously, but his name remained on the prints. I don’t know what was excised, but what remains is a solidly built contraption anchored by a smugly sexualized performance by James Coburn.

Coburn plays Dr. Peter Carey, a womanizing rogue taking up a new job as a pathologist in a Boston hospital. His adeptness at manipulating women becomes the recurring theme of the film, beginning when his erotic gaze is leveled Georgia Hightower (Jennifer O’ Neill), the clinic’s dietician. Carey’s seductive charm is later utilized in his independent investigation into the death of the hospital president’s daughter, after a botched illegal abortion. Carey’s friend David Tao (James Hong) is wrongfully tagged with the murder. Carey flirts his way through town, becoming more sexually aggressive until it turns to intimidating violence, as when he asks the victim’s old roommate if she is a virgin, and then nearly drives them into the ocean to scare her into talking. He discovers the killer through a bit of homo-erotic flirtation, receiving an aggressive deep-tissue massage from an intrigued meathead until he gets the information he was after.

It is difficult to locate Edwards’ personality, aside from the sardonic shot of a mouse stuck in a jar in the extreme right foreground, the faces that look into it distorted into gargoyles. It’s otherwise a workmanlike production, nothing more than a wonderfully acted episode of House, what with a harrumphing Pat Hingle and nervous Regis Toomey on board to support Coburn’s wildcat act.

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Still riding the late career renaissance brought on by the camp theatrics of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Robert Aldrich directed The Legend of Lylah Clare with even less consideration of good taste. A wild kitsch re-imagining of Vertigo, it invents tragic Hollywood star Lylah Clare (Kim Novak), who died before she was to marry her long-time director Lewis Zarkan (Peter Finch). 20 years later, Zarkan discovers an actress who looks strikingly like Lylah, the bespectacled Elsa Brinkmann (also Kim Novak). He decides to make a biopic of Lylah Clare’s life, with the unknown Elsa to star. Elsa, however, is prone to channeling Lylah’s husky tenor and mannerisms with disturbing accuracy, and Zarkan becomes entranced, his obsession leading him to make the same mistakes that led to Lylah’s death all those years ago…

Hallucinatory and ridiculous, Lylah Clare is an often uproarious send-up of Hollywood self-seriousness, with its menagerie of skulking gargoyle performances. Peter Finch is the head freak, a narcissistic blowhard who believes his genius trumps reality- he looks pretentious even after he shaves off his pointy devil goatee. He gets the best lines: “Stop poncing about like an oversexed dwarf!” and “You are moving like a deeply offended Tibetan yak!”Then there’s his brittle and viciously jealous assistant Rossella (Rossella Falk), the worm-like producer Bart (Milton Selzer),  Ernest Borgnine as the infectiously boorish studio chief Barney Sheehan, “I make movies, not films!”, and Coral Browne as battle-ax gossip columnist Molly Luther, plus a cameo by Dick Miller as a journalist!

Aldrich often freezes them inside Zarkan’s mausoleum of a house, standing rook still like slowly oxidizing statues. Unable to see life beyond the glories of years past, they try to recreate it with Elsa, who is too open to suggestion to withstand their entreaties. As her life dissolves into Lylah’s, the film gets more strident and less bitchy, ditching the satire for a dime store version of Vertigo’s doubled identities. The presence of Novak only highlights this film’s shortcomings at metaphysical speculations. While it’s not terribly deep, I still had great fun skimming along its sarcastic surfaces.