A Joan Crawford Picture: MGM vs. Warners

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Crawford plays the villainous Crystal Allen in The Women (1939).

Crawford at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924 – 1943)

Few could question the fact that movie legend Joan Crawford had a fabulous career, one that far outstripped many of her contemporaries. While Garbo and Shearer faded from view, Crawford moved, with sure foot, onward (and usually upward) gallantly trying on, and often dazzling in, new roles and genres of film.

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Joan impresses in her finest performance at Metro in A Woman’s Face.

Any perusal of Miss Crawford’s work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer uncovers quite a few excellent films and performances, including Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939) Susan and God (1940), Strange Cargo (1940) and A Woman’s Face (1941). In these, Joan expertly navigates from “little stenographer” to shopgirl to flippantly religious society matron, hooker and finally (and deliciously) the conniving home wrecker. But the standout among such star turns is the actresses’ worn-down yet bitter portrayal of thief and con artist Anna Holm whose face has been nearly destroyed by fire. Indeed, Face was Joan’s last “good” film at the “Tiffany of Studios.”

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The Bride Wore Red was one of Crawford’s less than impressive outings at MGM.

Despite these entries, many Crawford offerings churned out by Metro were shallow, repetitive and often silly. Examples of this fare include: Love on the Run (1936), The Last of Mrs. Cheney (1937), The Bride Wore Red (1937), and Ice Follies of 1939 to say nothing of the real clinkers Crawford was saddled with because the studio was trying to force her out such as Reunion in France (1942), and the all but incomprehensible Above Suspicion (1943). Despite the flimsiness of many Crawford vehicles manufactured in the the early through mid-1930’s, the actress never “phoned in” a performance but often seemed more like an actress “playing” a part than “becoming” a character.

At the risk of being roundly chastised by all of Joan’s religiously faithful fans for such blasphemy, this is not to say that these vehicles aren’t often thoroughly entertaining and that they sometimes gave the star a chance to exercise her acting chops, but Joan’s work at Warners was often more entertaining and dynamic, while allowing the mature leading lady to prove she could be a real actress (as apposed to movie star with a capital “S”) given the right material.

Crawford at Warners (1943 – 1952)

After being unceremoniously dropped by Metro, it took Crawford all of two days (or weeks depending on the source) to ink a new contract at Warner Brothers. While her price dropped at the less prestigious studio, the actress knew that if she made the right script choices she could not only get her career back on track but allow it to thrive. In fact, Joan was so determined that her first starring vehicle at Warners be the right one, she didn’t appear in front of a camera for the next two years, barring a couple of cameos. She even told Jack Warner to take her off salary rather than make a bad picture.

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Crawford gets her first chance to shine in her Oscar-winning performance in Warner’s classic film noir, Mildred Pierce.

Finally, Joan got her hands on the script for Mildred Pierce (1945). Even Bette Davis turned this one down because she didn’t want to the mother of a teenaged daughter. The noir offering gave Joan a chance to demonstrate abject maternal self-sacrifice complete with tears pooling in those enormous orbs she was so famous for. A sterling performance and some creative self-promotion insured a best actress Oscar for Joan. The win was also a direct result of Joan’s now being a valued (and supported) part of the Warner Brother’s stable of stars.

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Joan gives a stellar performance as the unstable Louise Howell in Warner’s Possessed.

Crawford went directly from Mildred to Humoresque (1946) in which she played the unstable alcoholic Helen Wright who ends her troubles by walking into the sea. Her riveting performance had all of Hollywood saying Academy Award and Crawford in the same breath for the second time in a year. Joan followed this on-screen triumph with another when she played Louise Howell, a nurse who becomes obsessed by the man she loves, and unhinged when she shoots him dead in a fit of jealousy. Joan gave what is arguably her finest performance in Possessed (1947). She walks the tightrope between madness and sanity, giving a beautifully layered portrayal that garnered the actress another Oscar nomination.

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Crawford sizzles in Warner’s Flamingo Road.

Although Joan wasn’t thrilled about playing carny girl Lane Belamy in Flamingo Road (1949), the role fit her like a glove and while not a masterpiece, Flamingo is an excellent noir that ends with Crawford gunning down the rotund Sydney Greenstreet (and there’s nothing better than that)! The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) rounds out Crawford’s winning streak at Warner Brothers. This vehicle isn’t great cinema either, but it is a really good story that moves at breakneck speed and Crawford is great in it. Damned opens with Joan as a household drudge who leaves her blue-collar husband for life in the big city. Within minutes, Crawford becomes a “dress model,” then a gangsters moll and finally, a society matron funded by the mob. To no one’s surprise, in the final reel, Joan gets shot for her pains. Clawing her way through this blistering melodrama from the first foot of film to the last, Damned is the ultimate Crawford vehicle.

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Joan dazzles in the ultimate Crawford vehicle in the Warner’s crime drama, The Damned Don’t Cry.

Joan was so good at playing these gritty, down-on-their-luck and troubled characters because they came close to who she really was under the skin. The young Lucille LeSueur was no stranger to hard times and taking desperate measures to survive in the world. Joan Crawford learned to use these experiences to influence her finest performances on screen. And some of the best of these came from the gritty and fast-paced world of Warner Brothers, not the hothouse environment at MGM.

Mildred Pierce: Noir or Not?

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When I read fellow blogger and New York Times Bestselling author Debbi Mack’s excellent review of Mildred Pierce, I got an idea. Ms. Mack’s “I Found It at the Movies Blog” asked (and answered) a series of questions about the film in order to figure out why the classic melodrama might be a noir or “black” film:

 Q:Was the picture a film noir because Mildred is a strong-minded, independent business woman whose success threatened the masculinity of the men in her life?

A: It could be, but probably not.

 Q:Was it because Mildred’s sweet younger daughter Kay  croaks while the conniving Veda not only lives but manages to thrive?

A: Nope.

 Q:Was Mildred a film noir because Veda is a bitch on wheels?

A:Perhaps.

Q:Because Mildred tries to take the fall when Veda snuffs out the life of her lover?

A:Questions, questions.

 Q:Then again, Mildred Pierce has a relatively happy ending (unusual in a film noir) in that Mildred and Bert get back together. Was this a factor in the film noir equation?

The results were inconclusive, but Mack highly recommended Mildred to her readers.

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While no expert on film noir, Mildred and its status in the category gelled for me after reading Debbi’s blog.

A little background:

Film noir began to surface after World War II because the candy-coated world presented by many pre-war films suddenly didn’t fit the perception that post-war Americans had of life. Americans had been through the horrors of world war. They now wanted to see films of a darker nature on their movie screens, films they felt were more apt to reflect their current reality.

The case for Mildred Pierce as a Film Noir:

Besides its murky lighting and often rain-slick streets, Mildred Pierce is a film noir because it reflects the general dissatisfaction and human restlessness which fuels all film noir. From the moment the picture opens Mildred expresses her resignation with her lot as a mother trapped in a bad marriage to a feckless husband. Mildred’s husband Bert is unhappy in his marriage and his life in general. While Mildred’s daughter Veda is pleased with herself, she is certainly miserable living a lower-middle-class existence.

Other dark themes threaded throughout the picture include over-weening selfishness, rampant greed and opportunism (Monte Beragon marries Mildred for her money and then betrays her by selling off his part ownership of her business. Wally Fay forces Mildred out of her own company. Veda is willing to murder Monte just because he throws her over and will do anything to live the high life).

While I believe that Mildred Pierce falls into the film noir category, it is a truly unusual example of the genre. It’s unique because a woman is at its center. In most film noir, this spot is occupied by a man. This man, while essentially decent, is flawed and in the thrall of a femme fatale. The same can be said of Mildred.

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At the eye of the storm that is a film noir is the femme fatale. Veda Pierce fits the bill perfectly. Like a well-oiled machine, she reaches out for everything she can get with both grasping hands, all the while heaping equal parts ridicule and tooth-decaying sweetness on her hapless mother, depending on what she needs from her at the moment.

The final piece of the noir puzzle falls into place when we examine the poison relationship between Mildred and Veda. Like most noir heroes (in this case heroine), Mildred is hopelessly caught in the intricate web of lies spun by her daughter.

Desperate to please her oldest child, Mildred places Veda’s needs above her own in situation after situation. While Mildred makes a dizzying success of her roast chicken restaurant chain, she probably would’ve remained a successful (and perhaps, contented) waitress if Veda hadn’t openly jeered at her mother’s profession and constantly pressed Mildred to give her everything money can buy. Mildred marries the “veddy” social leech Monte Beragon not only to lure Veda back into her life but to place her at the center of California society as well. Mildred even neglects her younger daughter in favor of the older.

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Mildred Pierce is a film noir, if an unusual example of the genre. Whatever its genre, it’s an excellent film for about a hundred other reasons, including a stellar cast. Joan Crawford nabbed herself an Academy Award for her work as Mildred, and the sixteen-year-old Ann Blyth gives a deliciously evil performance as Veda, not to mention the excellent work of Zachary Scott as the slimy Monte Beragon. It’s a cinematic experience I thoroughly enjoy over and over again and recommend that you do too.

I’d like to give special thanks to Debbi Mack for giving me permission to use our discussion of her blog as the inspiration for this one. You can visit Debbi’s blog at: debbimacktoo.wordpress.com.