Queens of Noir Series: Miss Joan Crawford

Film historian Charles Busch has called her “the ultimate movie star,” and to fans of classic film, Joan Crawford needs no introduction, but few might call the actress a queen of film noir. In fact, it wasn’t until she lost her eighteen-year berth at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, moving on to become a star at Warner Bros., that the actress began making these dark-themed tales so prevalent in post-World War America, and not until a reporter mentioned that Mildred Pierce belonged in this category had Joan even heard of film noir. It was a genre with which the actress would become intimately familiar, because, in the end, film noir pulled Crawford’s career from the bottom of the Hollywood heap to the dizzying heights of Mount Everest.

Like many of the down-on-their-luck-but-grasping dames who inhabit film noir, Joan Crawford came from nothing to get her hands on considerable wealth and power by dent of innate intelligence, boundless ambition, and considerable physical magnetism. Born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, to a mother who didn’t really want her and a father who abandoned her as an infant, Lucille learned early on that the only person she could truly depend on was herself. After being sent off to a couple of boarding schools to keep her away from her mother’s succession of deadbeat boyfriends and husbands, Joan found work in a department store and then as a dancer in the chorus of a Chicago nightclub, where she caught the eye of Broadway producer J.J. Shubert by ensuring that a drink landed in his lap when she danced by his table. Shubert was impressed enough by the “little fat girl with the big eyes” to give her a job in the chorus of a couple of his shows, and when MGM producer Harry Rapf saw Lucille dancing across the stage in Innocent Eyes, he thought she “had something.” By landing in his bed, the canny young woman landed herself a screen test and then a contract at the most prestigious movie factory in the world.

After almost two decades as one of Metro’s major stars, Joan began losing all the best female roles to the likes of Lana Turner and Greer Garson and was stunned when studio head L.B. Mayer agreed to let her out of her contract. But over at Warner Bros., mogul Jack Warner thought Crawford not only retained enough star power to light up movie screens for a few more years but also figured she could help him keep the troublesome Bette Davis under control, too. Joan signed a new contract at the more workman studio within days of losing her job at MGM, and after taking two years to search for just the right vehicle, nabbed the title role in Mildred Pierce, a part that would win her an Oscar and her first film noir role in a four-film cycle that would catapult her career into the Hollywood stratosphere more than once.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

“I felt as though I’d been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.”

—Mildred Pierce

True to its film noir label, Mildred Pierce opens as its leading man is being peppered with bullets. But at its center, Mildred is a “women’s film,” tracing its heroine’s rise as a single mother selling cakes and pies in order to feed and clothe her two daughters, to waitress, and finally to a successful restaurateur with a string of white tablecloth chicken dinner establishments to her name. Along the way, Mildred is plagued by her obsession with playboy homme fatale Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) and with her good-for-nothing daughter Veda (Ann Blythe), who turns out to be the femme fatale of the piece.

After her youngest daughter, Kay, dies, Mildred does everything in her power to give Veda the good life, including spending money she doesn’t have to buy and refurbish a mansion and marrying a man she doesn’t love, only to have Veda try to steal Monte from her and then ice him because he dares to reject her. Mildred tries unsuccessfully to take the rap for her daughter, of course, but when Veda ends up in the slammer anyway, Mildred, like most heroines of women’s pictures, decides to put her apron back on and remarry her first husband.

The key to her success in this role lies in the fact that Crawford is Mildred throughout much of the film. She becomes the self-sacrificing mother and entrepreneur—a feat the actress didn’t often achieve in many of her other vehicles.

Although there are some moments when she’s required to be tough and demanding, Mildred is one of the last films in which Crawford imbues her character with an almost overwhelming vulnerability—a vulnerability that serves the self-immolating motherhood she portrays very well. It isn’t until Veda confronts her mother about degrading the family by daring to support her daughters as a waitress that Joan allows the hard edges that would dominate her later films to appear for the first time. She lets Veda have it, declaring that she did the only thing she knew how to so that her daughters could “eat and have a place to sleep and some clothes on your backs.” Then, in a burst of creativity, Mildred comes up with an idea designed to placate her selfish daughter—she is only working as a waitress to learn about running a restaurant from the ground up with an eye to eventually owning one of her own!

Later, in a clash over Veda’s blackmailing her husband with a false pregnancy, Crawford gives in to her usual stony anger completely, ordering her conniving daughter to “get out before I kill you,” essaying only a thin veneer of the all-forgiving motherly love her character is supposed to feel for Veda—a definite hole in an essentially seamless performance.

In contrast, Mildred’s reaction to her youngest daughter’s death is oddly restrained. Crawford accurately portrays the shock any parent must feel over the death of a child, and her manner is quiet and tender when she explains to her ex-husband that she had to marry Monte Beragon for the social status he represents, in order to try and win Veda back. Her reunion with her wayward daughter is filled with forgiveness and warmth. Crawford says her daughter’s name just once when she sees her for the first time after months apart, and we hear all the love that she has been storing up for her child in her voice.

Possessed (1947)

“Something happens to a woman when she isn’t wanted—something dreadful.”

—Louise Howell

Possessed is a darkly intricate tale of obsession and madness that speaks to the then-moviegoing public’s fascination with the psychiatric goings-on in a fragile mind. Only getting her hands on the part of the mentally unstable Louise Howell because her Warner Bros. nemesis, Bette Davis, was out on maternity leave, Joan bites down on the role with obvious relish.

The film opens on a nearly catatonic Louise as she wanders through the early morning streets of Washington D.C., searching for someone named David. As she is wheeled into the psychopathic department of a local hospital and pulled out of her catatonic stupor by a miracle drug, Crawford’s Louise is incredibly fragile, much like a lost child.

Louise’s obsessive love story is told in flashbacks, beginning with her life as a nurse caring for the emotionally unsteady Pauline Graham. Louise is deeply in love with a less than enthusiastic rascal of an engineer named David Sutton (Van Heflin), and despite begging him to take her along, David blithely chooses to move to Canada alone. She is so unsettled by his rejection that when the suicidal Pauline Graham drowns herself in the lake on the family estate, Louise is sure she is responsible, until her boss, the sympathetic and wealthy Dean Graham (Raymond Massey), reminds her that she wasn’t even at the lake house when his wife killed herself.

With no charge to take care of, Louise is set to leave when Dean asks her to stay on as his son’s nanny and, later, to be Mrs. Graham. Feeling nothing much for Dean, Louise decides to say yes because she is lost and has no other place in the world, but the delicate balance of her precarious existence is thrown into disarray when David returns as an uninvited guest at her wedding, compounding his sin by coming on to Louise’s pretty stepdaughter, Carol (Geraldine Brooks).

Insanely jealous, Louise has hallucinations of pushing Carol down a flight of stairs to her death, and Dean decides to take his wife to the lake house for a rest. In Louise’s confused mind, the house is haunted by the ghost of the first Mrs. Graham, and Crawford’s terror at hearing Pauline Graham’s bell summoning her to the sickroom is something to behold. Her bloodcurdling screams rip through the murky house as the delusional Louise “sees” Pauline telling her to kill herself, just as she thinks she helped her mistress commit suicide two years ago.

Encountering the dead Pauline around every dark corner, Louise begs Dean to go back to town, where the two find David and Carol discussing matrimony. Because David is no good for Carol and, more accurately, will have nothing to do with Louise, she puts a gun in her purse and confronts the bastard, shooting him dead and then wandering the rain-wet streets looking for him. Thankfully, Dean promises to stand by his wife no matter what.

Joan’s portrayal of Louise is nearly flawless, garnering her an Oscar nomination for a performance that is more nuanced than Mildred. In an amazing display of encroaching instability, the actress scatters her words hesitantly like pebbles on a beach, cutting her eyes back and forth feverishly, hinting at the paranoid fantasies that have taken root in her brain. When Louise loses the slimy David, she’s heartbroken, and this is one time that Crawford’s tendency to sob uncontrollably serves the role well. As with many who experience mental illness, Louise’s moods swing from one pole to another, both laughing and crying at Dean Graham’s marriage proposal. She’s also plagued by visual and auditory hallucinations ingeniously displayed.

Crawford treats viewers to a stunningly manic diatribe about David and his secrets, letting her stepdaughter know that David is in love with her, not Carol. Joan fittingly ends the tour de force performance with the unhinged realization that her former lover is dead and she’s the one who killed him.

The Damned Dont Cry (1950)

“He’s promised me the world, Marty, and I have to have it.”

—Ethel Whitehead

As with many a film noir, The Damned Don’t Cry opens with the discovery of a dead body, and, in the initial scenes, Crawford manages to get out of her own way, truly embodying a worn-out, dead-tired Lorna Hansen Forbes on the run from the mob. As in Mildred Pierce, Joan plays another self-sacrificing mother, but this time when her child dies tragically, she has no other with which to be obsessed, becoming preoccupied with self-improvement and grasping the good things in life instead.

After the death of her little boy, Joan leaves her husband and parents and their bare-bones existence to move to California, initially becoming a dress model in a second-rate dress mill and then a gangster’s moll. Immediately, she is the Crawford we recognize—smartly, if inexpensively dressed, flirtatious, knowing and hard around the edges—that is, until a mountain of dirty cash and a high-society mentor smooth out her rough edges and turn Ethel Whitehead into Lorna Hansen Forbes, a “learned” lady.

When she finally makes her entrance as Mrs. Forbes, Joan is her usual Lady Bountiful self, her tones dulcet, as polished to high gloss as her nails, and haute coutured. Perfectly comfortable in her new role, she invites her guests into her beautifully appointed drawing room and orders her butler about as if she were to the manner born.

Unfortunately, Joan is up to her usual overemoting tricks and is far too arch in her as Lorna when she tries to seduce Steve Cochran’s Bugsy Siegel-like gangster in order to get dirt on him at the request of her lover, mob boss George Castleman (David Brian). But when she is beaten up by her jealous sugar daddy while pleading for Cochran’s life, her tears seem genuine.

In typical noir fashion, the story ends when Castleman shows up at Ethel’s parents home to gun her down, and she takes a bullet but survives to strive another day.

Sudden Fear (1952)

“Without you, I have nothing.”

—Myra Hudson

After getting axed from Warner Bros., Crawford found that her career was again hanging by a thread when an offer came to do a noir thriller called Sudden Fear for an independent production company. Joan jumped at the chance, and her choice proved a wise one because the film was a gigantic hit, handing the actress another Oscar nomination.

Sudden Fear is the story of wealthy playwright Myra Hudson and her unfortunate marriage to the strangely handsome but menacing actor she had fired from one of her plays. To get even, Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) seduces the initially wary older woman into marriage and then proceeds to plot her murder with the help of his beautiful girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame). The two decide to get rid of the much-older bride when they find out that Myra is leaving her husband a relative pittance in her new will, and they plan to off her before she can sign the offending document.

Fortunately for the beleaguered Myra, she finds out about her husband’s murderous plan, coming up with a scheme of her own, and in a convoluted plotline worthy of Hitchcock, she poses as an Irene look-alike with the intent of offing her husband and putting her competition solidly in the frame. But when push comes to shove, Myra can’t bring herself to shoot Lester. As Irene leaves Lester’s apartment after he’s a no-show for the meeting Myra arranged, Lester runs his girlfriend down on a rainy San Francisco street, mistaking her for his wife. The dastardly pair both die in the resulting crash, leaving Myra to face her brave new life alone.

Crawford attacks the role of Myra Hudson with her usual “actressy” intensity—overplaying when she should be underplaying—a sure sign that Miss Crawford’s wishes reigned supreme during filming, probably because she was an uncredited producer on the project.

Joan’s supporting cast couldn’t get any better than this one, including the hatchet-hewn handsomeness of Palance (who fairly oozes his particular brand of danger throughout), along with the ripely lovely but grasping Grahame. Betraying her advancing age, Joan’s lovely face sports the look of perpetual surprise often worn by actresses of a certain age who have just been under the surgeon’s knife.

Surgically treated or not, Crawford emotes all over the place—her huge eyes darting up and down and overflowing with tears she can’t hold back as she learns that the young husband she adores never loved her for a moment and that he and his sexy girlfriend are planning to do away with her. Overacting her sense of terror at the prospect and vowing to get even, Joan attacks the scene with all the subtlety of an opera diva on opening night.

The actress does a much better job portraying Myra trying to keep a lid on her fears while fooling her husband into believing that everything is fine. Crawford is particularly good a sequence in which she sees her face in the mirror at Irene’s apartment while she awaits Lester’s arrival—her gloved hand clutching a gun, her eyes reflecting her inner struggle beautifully. She overdoes the sobbing fear that fills her as Lester enters, but what follows is one of the finest cat-and-mouse sequences ever put on film, as Myra hides in a closet while watching her husband through the slits in its closed lattice doors. Lester looks directly at his wife without seeing her at one point, and the rawness of the terror in Joan’s eyes is chilling.

Despite their unevenness, Crawford’s collection of film noir offerings can be pointed to as some of her most solid performances in a long and often stellar career, with the veteran actress’s tendency to convey raw emotion and overact working in her favor in many of these dark, turgid tales.

Queens of Noir Series: Miss Claire Trevor

Warner Brothers Starlet Claire Trevor

She has been called the “granddam of noir” by none other than premier film noir historian Eddie Muller. The reason behind this designation is probably because Claire Trevor starred as the femme fatale in some of the best examples of the dark genre ever to come out of Hollywood.

Long before she earned this title, Claire Trevor (born Claire Wemlinger) grew up in New York City, the only child of a Fifth Avenue tailor and his wife. Always drawn to the arts, the young woman attended classes at Columbia and then spent half a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Claire landed a contract with Warner Bros. at the age of twenty, after working in repertory and stock theater for a couple of years. Throughout the 1930s, the young actress starred in shorts and played hard-luck ladies in a string of B pictures at the studio best known for yanking its subject matter straight from the day’s headlines.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that Claire became the depraved female centerpiece in a succession of some of the finest film noir offerings to be put on a strip of celluloid, and with each new picture, lucky fans got to watch the actress stretch her acting muscles with ever-increasing skill until she inhabited each heart-stopping role completely.

Street of Chance (1942)

“I’m not bad. I’m not a killer.”

—Ruth Dillon

Claire’s first foray into film noir was the rather run-of-the-mill crime drama Street of Chance. Burgess Meredith co-stars as amnesia victim Frank Thompson, who wakes up in the middle of a construction site on a street he doesn’t know, eventually locating a wife he hasn’t lived with for over a year. Determined to find out why he is being followed, Frank goes back to the street named Chance and is recognized by a beautiful blonde (Trevor) who tells him to get the hell inside—doesn’t he realize that he is wanted by the cops? After discovering that he is wanted for the murder of the very social Harry Diedrich, Frank decides to go to the Diedrich estate to try and clear his name.

Turns out that Ruth Dillon, the beautiful blonde, works as a maid for the Diedrich family and doesn’t want to return to the scene of the crime, pleading with Frank to run away with her instead. While trading barbs with the murder victim’s brother and his wife, Frank discovers that Grandma Diedrich, mute and unable to move, is trapped in a claustrophobic room upstairs but knows “who done it.” After hiding in the family’s greenhouse for a couple of days, Frank develops a way of communicating with old Mrs. Diedrich and learns that Ruth is the killer! Pulling a gun on her boyfriend, the maid coolly lets him know that she knifed Harry to death because he caught her stealing money for the couple’s marriage nest egg. Like a host of other femme fatales before her, Ruth dies in her lover’s arms after a struggle for the gun.

As if finding her way around the role of Ruth Dillon, Trevor completely underplays the laconic murderess. With little of the fire that she brings to her later noir roles, Trevor seems to sleepwalk through this picture, displaying only a glimmer of the diamond hardness she would soon become famous for.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

“I haven’t been good. Not halfway good, but I need your help.”

—Velma Valento/Helen Grayle

Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, this noir begins with detective Philip Marlowe’s search for a singing tootsie named Velma Valento. Signaling a successful career makeover for her co-star Dick Powell, Murder, My Sweet casts Claire as the thoroughly blonde Helen Grayle—a lady with a truly remarkable set of pins that go from “here” all the way into next week. Married to a wealthy and much older man, the icy Mrs. Grayle just happens to be the unlucky dame who claims that her priceless jade necklace was pinched, and Marlowe is hired to find it.

The always laconic Marlowe finds himself wading through dead bodies, hit over the head, drugged, and falling for Helen’s stepdaughter, Anne (earnestly portrayed by the pretty Anne Shirley). He soon uncovers a racket in which a likable but slithering psychic teams with thugs to separate well-heeled women from their jewels. To nobody’s surprise, Marlowe discovers that it’s the cool Mrs. Grayle who has been pulling the strings the whole time. Amthor, the psychic, has been blackmailing Helen Grayle, and she initially agrees to part with her necklace but ends up keeping it for herself, offing the guy who is supposed to retrieve it for her. After the man who has been searching for Helen accidentally kills her blackmailer, the resourceful lady pulls a gun on Marlowe because he knows too much, but ends up getting pumped full of led by her long-suffering husband instead. The ever-obliging Mr. Grayle knocks off his wife’s blackmailer only to get himself killed in a struggle for the gun. As sometimes happens in film noir, Anne and Marlowe ride off into the murky darkness.

To say that Trevor plays it cool in this one would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. One can almost hear the inner click of her steel-trap mind as she manipulates every man who is unfortunate enough to cross her path, but it is as the grasping Helen that Trevor comes into her own as a femme fatale. Unbelievably, the best was yet to come.

Born to Kill (1947)

“Most men are turnips.”

—Helen Brent

The cold-blooded Born to Kill is arguably one of the finest examples of film noir ever to hit the silver screen. In it, Trevor plays the always-knowing and rabidly selfish Helen Brent, a smart-as-a-whip dame who considers most men “turnips.” Her leading man for this outing is the high-strung bad boy Lawrence Tierney, who handles the role of the aptly named Sam Wilde as if he’s playing a schizophrenic game of Russian roulette.

After getting divorced in Reno, Helen discovers the mangled bodies of Sam’s girlfriend Laury (played ably in a marvelous star turn by character actress Isabel Jewell) and the boyfriend she’s been running around with just to make him jealous. Because reporting a double murder is always so messy, Helen wisely decides to leave town rather than inform the police. After meeting Sam on the train, Helen sees him as an “assured” man who knows what he wants—definitely not of the turnip variety, she reasons.

Unfortunately for Helen, her new love interest has a screw loose. Sam thinks it’s “feasible” to kill anyone who does him wrong for any reason. As a matter of fact, he’ll kill anyone who “makes a monkey” out of him. But the ever-resourceful Helen has a trick or two up her designer sleeve. She’s going to marry the owner of the Grover Steel Company. To this end, she returns to San Francisco and the comfort of her fiancé’s dependable arms.

Throwing a monkey wrench into her well-calculated existence, Wilde shows up on Helen’s doorstep, and she can only seethe while she watches Sam woo and then marry her wealthy stepsister, Georgia. Just to badger him, Helen accuses Sam of “having a secret.” Too late, the former Mrs. Brent realizes that Sam is the murderer of the couple in Reno and that she and Sam are kindred spirits.

Trevor attacks this role with all the steely aplomb of a Beverly Hills society matron planning a dinner party for a hundred. She is the ultimate cool customer when she meets with the dead Laury’s friend Mrs. Kraft in order to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions about Sam. “Perhaps you don’t realize,” Helen threatens icily, “it’s painful getting killed. A piece of metal sliding through your body…”

In order to save her bankbook and her soul, Helen runs back to her fiancé, Fred, but he’s had enough of her shenanigans and gives her the gate. Realizing that Sam doesn’t want her either, Helen coolly tries to get him to kill her stepsister, Georgia. But Sam turns on Helen when he figures out that she has squealed on him, and just to pay her back, he riddles her with bullets.

Raw Deal (1948)

“A girl can’t trust a guy—even when he’s locked up in the pen.”

—Pat Regan

Claire Trevor plays Pat Regan, a hard-luck dame who will do anything to keep her jailbird boyfriend in her arms, in RKO’s noir thriller Raw Deal, co-starring the incredibly likable Dennis O’Keefe, with pretty and sincere Marsha Hunt as the third point of their shaky love triangle.

While Pat assiduously works her underworld connections to get her man sprung from the big house, social worker Ann Martin (Hunt) is doing her best to get Joe Sullivan to cop to the error of his crooked ways and fly right. You see, Joe is in the slammer under false pretenses. He’s taking the rap for rotund mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), who is doing everything he can to see to it that Joe goes six feet under.

Unable to listen to Ann’s oh-so-eloquent pleas, but attracted to her sweet prettiness just the same, Joe follows Pat’s lead and escapes stir only to find that he’s on the run from not just the cops but his former boss as well. The usual “on the lam” scenario unfolds as Pat and Joe find themselves escaping with the hapless Ann in tow because they need her set of wheels. Pat finds Ann’s insipid begging for Joe to go straight nauseating, to say the least, and one gets the idea that Trevor’s version of the character would happily push her competition down a bottomless ravine in a heartbeat. Indeed, Trevor gives the impression that Pat is completely without sympathy for anybody but Joe. After all, hasn’t life given her a swift kick or two on her shapely backside more than once?

The hapless Ann gets herself kidnapped by Rick, but when Pat finds out, she doesn’t tell Joe. Instead, she boards a ship bound for the honeymoon she’s always dreamed of—a honeymoon with Joe. As doesn’t often happen in film noir, Pat is reformed by her love for Joe and cops to the truth about Ann. Joe moves in to rescue Ann of course, and the social worker ends up proving her love for him by shooting his attacker dead. After tangling with Rick and a fire, Joe dies in Ann’s arms while Pat looks on, her arm cuffed to a waiting policeman. All of the pain that her character is feeling in that moment is present in Claire Trevor’s eyes.

Key Largo (1948)

“Honey, have you been cryin’? Why? Has somebody been mean to you?”

—Gaye Dawn

A topflight production from the get-go, Key Largo stars none other than Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In their final pairing, the two are more than deftly supported by the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, and in a tour de force performance, Miss Claire Trevor as the hopelessly alcoholic gangster’s moll Gaye Dawn.

Directed by powerhouse John Huston, Largo is the tale of a hotel owner (Barrymore) and his widowed daughter (Bacall) who are trapped not only by a hurricane but also at gunpoint by Robinson and his gang of thugs. Johnny Rocco (Robinson) has just escaped from prison and plans on holding everyone prisoner in the hotel until the storm passes and he can sail away. Bogart is a guest who stumbles into the middle of this mess and finds that he is forced to be a reluctant hero in the face of the gangster’s unrelenting verbal abuse and violence—much of it directed at the hapless Miss Dawn. Indeed, one gets the idea that Rocco brought his former girlfriend along just so that he could have someone to kick around. Indeed, Rocco’s disgust with her alcoholism is palpable every second Claire is on the screen.

In a scene that likely led Miss Trevor to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the actress pleads for a drink with such pathetic vulnerability that it breaks your heart. Every emotion wandering around in Gaye Dawn’s head registers perfectly in Trevor’s eyes, and at one point, she looks at the alcohol swimming in her shot glass as if it will save her very life.

When Rocco offers to give his lover a drink only if she’ll warble “Moanin’ Low” for the assembled company, each note that escapes her scratched throat is an open wound, and we are invited to watch her self-destruct right before our eyes. Since Rocco snatches every shred of dignity from her without the slightest hint of remorse, it is completely fitting that it is Gaye—begging to escape with Rocco on the boat out of Key Largo in a gesture of utter self-immolation—who steals the gun that will kill him.

With a film noir lineup of parts like these, it is easy to see why Claire Trevor has been described as the queen of noir. She embodied the spirit of the femme fatale in all of its twisted glory in role after role on the big screen. It is for this reason alone that the actress deserves the title above few others.

The Queens of Noir Series: Miss Joan Bennett

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Joan Bennett and Walter Pidgeon defy the Nazis in Man Hunt

The daughter of an acting dynasty, Joan Bennett was the middle child of theatrical matinee idol Richard Bennett and the sister of 1930s movie diva and fashion icon Constance Bennett. Never believing she was much of an actress, Joan simply fell into the family business, like the daughter of a grocer landing behind the counter of the family store.

Her first roles were on stage with her temperamental father, but by the early 1920s the beautiful blond was appearing on screen in small parts and the 1930s ushered in stardom with several showcase vehicles including the part of Amy in Little Women (1933) and Kay Karigan in the mammoth Trade Winds (1938).

The star of over forty films before entering the next decade of her life, Joan was always incandescent on screen, but seemed to hold a part of herself back, never able to get past her finishing school manners and cut velvet voice.

Despite the success that came with being a “movie star,” Miss Bennett (now a gorgeous brunette) wanted to be seen as a real actress. The opportunity to stretch her acting muscles finally came with her third husband, independent producer Walter Wanger and their partnership with the German directing genius Fritz Lang. The trio was part of Joan’s independent production apparatus, Diana Productions, and their focus became film noir. The genre would change the trajectory of the actress’ career.

While many of Bennett’s past directors had allowed the beautiful actress to glide effortlessly through performances on her looks, Lang demanded that Joan bring the characters she was playing to life on screen. A detail-oriented, methodical film-maker, Lang put the actress through her paces by making her undergo take after take until she finally got it right. Sensing that the German director was getting a more honest and genuine performance out of her, Joan never complained about all the hard work, and the results are mesmerizing.

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Man Hunt:

The team’s first outing was Man Hunt (1941) in which Bennett starred as Jerry Stokes, a beautiful cockney prostitute/seamstress who rescues a hunter who tries to assassinate Hitler from the clutches of the Germans. Effortlessly essaying the hooker with the heart of fourteen carat gold, Bennett is luminous as the self-sacrificing Jerry who gives her own life to save the man she loves.

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Joan Bennett shines as Jerry Stokes in Man Hunt

Joan attacks her role with obvious relish. The pain fairly oozes from her every pore as she begs the rather cavalier Walter Pidgeon (as stalwart sharp-shooter Captain Allen Thorndike) to allow her to join him on the run from the Nazis who want to make him admit he tried to gun down Hitler. Her enormous eyes fill the screen, her each and every look begging Thorndike to love her. This was a Joan Bennett movie-goers had never seen before.

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Joan Bennett ensnares Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window:

In 1944, Wanger’s independent International Pictures featured Woman in the Window, a film noir thriller in which Bennett’s character Alice Reed pulls sedentary middle-aged college professor Richard Wanley (beautifully underplayed by frequent Bennett co-star Edward G. Robinson) into a dark whirlpool of deception and murder. When Robinson spies the real life model for the painting of the ravishing woman he’s been drooling over for weeks standing in front of a gallery window, he readily agrees to accompany her to her apartment to “see her sketches.” Once inside, Wanley finds himself mistaken for Miss Reed’s latest conquest by her current flame. Violence ensues as the professor stabs the intruder to death with a pair of scissors.

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Miss Bennett as the cool and calculating Alice Reed in The Woman in the Window

Window gave Joan what she really craved—the opportunity to submerge her off-screen personality almost completely in the character of the relentlessly cool Alice. Through dulcet tones, the actress delivers a gentle caress to her victim with every word. During the murder and its aftermath Bennett gets past herself enough to utter the breathless cries of a woman who is desperate to extricate herself from the situation, sliding quickly into brittle hardness when she convinces Wanley to get rid of the body of her lover.

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Scarlet Street:

1945 brought the riveting noir Scarlet Street. This Diana Productions offering gave Joan the opportunity to do some of the finest acting of her career. As the carelessly grasping Kitty March, Bennett owns the screen. We see none of Joan’s usual finishing school airs and graces here. Kitty is nothing more than a grifter and a tart and the actress pulls out all the stops to let us know. A silky whine slips from her red lips with all the self indulgence of a wronged street walker.

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Joan Bennett gives the performance of her career in the noir classic Scarlet Street

 

Robinson again plays Bennett’s victim in Street. A henpecked low-level clerk who’s a weekend painter, Christopher Cross falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Kitty while she calmly extracts every bit of dough she can from him, ultimately convincing him to bankroll a swank apartment for her and her rancid boyfriend (Dan Duryea) complete with a studio in which Cross can paint. After showing Christopher’s work to an art dealer, Kitty claims to be the artist when she finds out his paintings will bring her a pretty penny. The professor is pathetically happy to allow Kitty to take credit for his work, but when Chris finds Kitty in the arms of Duryea, he kills her in a fit of jealous rage.

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Miss Bennett seduces Edward G. Robinson as the grasping Kitty March in Scarlet Street

The Secret Beyond the Door:

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The final Bennett/Wanger/Lang production was the silly The Secret Beyond the Door (1947). This is a melodramatic tale of a clueless bride (Bennett) married to a murderous husband who hides the truth about his serial killer tendencies behind (you guessed it) a secret locked door in his dark and moody family castle. Diana Productions needn’t have bothered. This gothic vehicle was a complete wast of celluloid.

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Joan Bennett is up to her old acting tricks in the inane Secret Beyond the Door

Apparently aware that she was starring in a turkey, Joan falls back on her usual lady of the manor persona in portraying the breathlessly naïve Celia Lamphere. The actress is far better in the later Hollow Triumph (1948) and the Hitchcock-like Reckless Moment (1949).

The noir era of Miss Bennett’s career ended (most appropriately) with a gunshot. Her husband Walter Wanger shot the private parts of the actress’ agent Jennings Lang in a Beverly Hills parking lot. Apparently, the independent producer was sure his beautiful wife was having an affair with Lang. She claimed she wasn’t. Amazingly, Bennett came to her husband’s defense and refused to divorce him—that is until fourteen years later.

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Joan Bennett and her husband Walter Wanger on the set of the disastrous Secret Beyond the Door

Scandalous or not, Joan Bennett became an actress when she began to appear in film noir vehicles under the tutelage of Fritz Lang. The breathtaking star cemented her place in cinema history by being part of them.

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.