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: BORN TO BE BAD

October 30, 2012

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The Warner Archive continues to release an enormous amount of the WB back catalog, at a rate impossible to keep up with. Here is my vain attempt to catch up, covering a group of four films made up of bad men and one very bad woman. The most famous title is Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950), a devious noir/woman’s picture in which Joan Fontaine uses her seductive wiles to marry the heir to a family fortune. Then there is a trio of manly ne’er do wells, with Peter Graves leading a mercenary force in the spaghetti western The Five Man Army (1969), Robert Mitchum doing the same in a priest’s habit in The Wrath of God (1972), and Rod Taylor carousing his way through Dublin in Young Cassidy (1965).

Nicholas Ray shot what was then titled Bed of Roses in 35 days, from June 20th to July 30th of 1949. It was a project that the head of RKO, Howard Hughes, had indefinitely postponed in 1948, one of the provocations that caused the production head Dore Schary to quit. It had gone through seven screenwriters and five directors before Ray took over, with Joan Fontaine in the lead role. Even Fontaine was wary, with her husband William Dozier writing to Hughes, “I’m afraid Joan’s enthusiasm for this project has not heightened any with the passage of time.” It was an adaptation of the 1928 novel All Kneeling by Anne Parrish, divulging the seedy story of Christabel Caine (Fontaine), a manipulative ladder-climber eager to seduce every man she meets and then marry the one with the most money. Her target is Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), the scion of a wealthy family already engaged to Donna (Joan Leslie), the whip-smart assistant to Christabel’s Uncle John, a publisher. Christabel also has the acidically funny Nick (Robert Ryan) on a string, who is one of John’s up and coming authors. Despite all the studio snags, Ray orchestrates a deliciously cynical melodrama of sexual power plays. It is a movie of lush upper class interiors, and Ryan has the characters constantly shifting in the frame, as seen in the bravura opening sequence, in which Donna is preparing a dinner party. Donna is a blur of preparatory focus, walking in and out of rooms while Ray returns to a fixed shot of the hallway. Eventually Donna is speedwalking toward the camera, and trips to the floor over a suitcase inconveniently placed in the hall. It is the introduction of Christabel, who is sitting patiently in a room to the right. In this clever bit of choreography, Christabel is visualized as a roadblock to Donna’s best-laid plans.

Ray is aided by richly layered performances from Fontaine and Ryan. Fontaine uses a girlish hair-flipping exterior to hide her designs, letting diabolical smiles slip out once the other characters leave the frame. Ryan is a wisecracking rogue who sees through Fontaine’s exterior, describing her dual personality to her face, and yet unable to tear himself away from her. In a damning kiss off at one of her ballroom parties, following her marriage to Curtis, Ryan tells her, “I love you so much I wish I liked you.” And yet a few scenes later he’s back in her arms, ready and willing to believe her latest bedside conversion.

If Born to be Bad exhibits the genius of the Hollywood studio system, then The Five Man Army is representative of that system’s decline. As the Paramount Decision dismantled the vertical integration of studios, they scrambled to find new ways to gain audiences. The spaghetti western was one such avenue, and as the success of these products became clear, studios cut in on the action. The Five Man Army is a U.S.-Italy co-production distributed by MGM. Although Don Taylor is credited with directing the film, various reports have producer Italo Zingarelli (the pseudonym of director Giulio Questi) and even the young co-screenwriter Dario Argento taking the reigns after Kelly had to depart early to take on a TV production. There is a marked difference between the early, dialogue heavy scenes and the epic, almost wordless train heist takes up nearly the entirety of the last half-hour of the film. I haven’t found any reliable sources on the matter, but whoever ended up sitting behind the camera, it’s an effective Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven style mercenary film, capped by a surging Ennio Morriconne score and that extraordinary finale. Peter Graves, then famous for his role on Mission Impossible, headed the international cast, which was made up of mountainous Neapolitan tough guy Bud Spencer, the stereotyped silent Japanese “Samurai” (Tetsuro Tanba), tiny Italian firecracker Nino Castelnuovo, and Midwestern American James Daly. This roughshod group follows Graves’ immaculate white helmet hair in his attempt to rob an army train filled with gold.

The Wrath of God (1972) is a similarly post-Paramount Decision product, filled with aging Hollywood stars and shot in Mexico. Robert Mitchum, in a nod to his seminal psycho in The Night of the Hunter, plays a lapsed priest, only this time he’s a robber during the Mexican Revolution, using his priestly garb as a passkey through the country. It also features Rita Hayworth in her final feature performance, playing the mournful mother to Frank Langella’s psychopathic son. Mitchum is rounded up by a local strongman to take out Langella, aided by a feuding Englishman and Irishman – Jennings (Victor Buono) and Emmet (Ken Hutchison). Mitchum is as laid back as ever, his laconic priest passively taking in the casual indignities and random slaughters imposed upon the Mexican people. But when he finally rouses himself into action, and flings a tommy gun from behind his robes, it’s a deliriously entertaining moment.

There is nothing so daring about Young Cassidy (1965)a rote bio-pic about the early years of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey (named John Cassidy in the movie – one of O’Casey’s pseudonyms). Originally developed by John Ford, he had quite the job when assailed by a strep throat (and his usual alcoholism), and DP Jack Cardiff stepped into the director’s chair. Ford biographer Joseph McBride suggests that Ford was unhappy with the script and casting, and that his ailments were intentionally self-inflicted to get him off the film. The producers denied his request to shoot in black and white and refused to let him shoot in the old-fashioned Limerick instead of the modernized Dublin. Sean Connery was originally cast in the O’Casey role, but had to back out when he had to fulfill his contract in the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964, released before Cassidy). So instead of the Scot, the Australian Rod Taylor took over the role. He manages a decent Irish accent, but gets lost in the episodic script, which is a succession of disconnected macho escapades. The pleasures of the film are exclusively provided by the actresses – a luminous, playful Julie Christie as a Dublin prostitute, and a furtive, hesitant Maggie Smith as O’Casey’s patient girlfriend, until that patience runs out.

As ever, the Warner Archive is an essential resource for the curious cinephile, whether you’re an auteurist or a genre aficionado. This post hopefully suggests that it’s more fun to be both.