Category Archives: Joan Crawford

Today We Live (1933)

“It’s worth a World War to get a uniform like that.”

today we live 1Today We Live is a weepy melodrama set in WWI–notable for its cast: Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young. Directed by Howard Hawks and based on a William Faulkner novel, it’s the story of four characters and one love triangle set against the backdrop of WWI bravado.

The film begins with an American, Bogard (Gary Cooper) arriving in Britain. It’s 1916 and it’s the middle of WWI, but Bogard declares himself “neutral.” He plans to rent a country home in Kent from a British family, and he travels to the house just as Diana (Joan Crawford) the daughter of the house discovers that her father, a British army captain, has been killed in action. Bogard moves in and Diana moves into the gardener’s cottage.

Diana’s brother, Ronnie (Franchot Tone) and their life-long friend, Claude (Robert Young) arrive with just a few hours to spare before shipping out. This interlude confirms Diana’s romance with Claude and she agrees to wait for him. That leaves her alone with Bogard, and they fall in love.

Today We Live is a peculiar film. For a start, three of the main characters: Diana (Joan Crawford), her brother Ronnie (Franchot Tone), and their childhood friend, Claude (Robert Young) are supposed to be British but of course, they are all American. This leaves Crawford hard-pressed to deliver the fake accent, and as a result, her voice seems to come from somewhere at the back of her throat, and the lines with their long vowels are accompanied by little facial expression (apart from tears)–it’s as though Crawford puts all of her effort into the accent.

While it’s supposed to be 1916, some of Crawford’s costumes (before she runs off to join the war) are much too ‘modern’–take the number she wears when she first meets Bogard. It looks like something Lt. Uhura would wear. But frankly, all these quibbles aside, it’s the horrible script that sinks this film.

Today We Live is a tearjerker based on the premise that war is noble, calls for great sacrifices and that the best way to approach the war is to pretend it isn’t happening. This works for some scenes but not others. For example, when Ronnie and Claude visit Diana for a few hours before they ship out, the atmosphere is deliberately gay and carefree. It works. But when Ronnie and Claude visit the WWI memorial to the dead, look at the names, and see Ronnie’s father’s name as the latest addition, they are positively glowing. 

Diana and Bogard fall in love–it seems–after a short bike ride–another problem. If a film is a tearjerker, it should allow the audience to wallow in it, and this film doesn’t. There’s another scene with Claude acting as a turret gunner and mouthing “sorry” as he shoots Germans down.

But ultimately it’s the film’s dialogue that drove me around the bend. In what seems to be an attempt to show suppressed emotion, the film’s clipped dialogue is absurd:

“Wasn’t killed. Mistake. Met him in the hospital.”

“Been waiting. Getting worried.”

“Can’t help it. Tried. Tried terribly.”

Now while perhaps we could argue that it’s a brother-sister language (and the film indicates that Ronnie drives the ‘no emotion’ stance), Claude speaks it too: 

“See. See better now. See lots of things.”

With dialogue like that, the characters begin to seem like foreigners who haven’t yet mastered things like pronouns and articles. Makes me think of those Hollywood films where they have Americans dressed up as Chinese, let’s say, and the authenticity is supposed to come from perfectly pronounced words that are delivered in clipped sentences.

On the positive side, Roscoe Karns as Bogard’s sidekick McGinnis steals the film. McGinnis is the only sensible character in the bunch. And it is great to see the dewy-eyed Crawford before she developed that hard look that carried her through Mildred Pierce. Crawford met Franchot Tone on the set of Today We Live and they later married in 1935. Tone, of course, had a real-life love triangle of his own involving Barbara Payton and Tom Neal.

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This Woman is Dangerous (1952)

“Never mind how much you’d give, how much would you take?”

This Woman is Dangerous stars Joan Crawford as Beth Austin, member of the notorious Jackson Gang and girlfriend to brutal gangster Matt Jackson (David Brian). When the film begins, Beth, who’s experiencing blinding headaches, is told she will lose her sight unless she undergoes a dangerous experimental operation at the Halleck Clinic in Indiana.

After pulling off a bold robbery at a gambling den, Beth heads off to Indiana for surgery, while the rest of the gang–brothers Matt and Will (Philip Carey) and Will’s wife, Ann (Mari Aldon) remain behind. Beth is the cool head and brains of the operation, and when she leaves, she admonishes her jealous volatile boyfriend to keep a low profile.

While Beth undergoes the long ordeal of surgery and recovery, Matt goes ballistic stuck in a trailer waiting for news. Meanwhile Beth falls in love with her handsome, compassionate Doctor (Dennis Morgan) and this has violent repercussions.

This Woman is Dangerous was the last film Joan Crawford made for Warner Bros. Studios, and it was a film Joan loathed. The film’s main problem is its portrayal of Beth. The plot unfortunately only alludes to Beth’s dark past, and so Beth appears as a wealthy socialite (complete with mink stole) who’s done a little slumming with gangsters. While the persona of wealthy society dame is necessary for the robberies conducted by the Jackson gang, we never see beyond this portrayal. Beth is a complicated character, but the film chooses to portray her rather simply. There should be two sides to Beth–the woman who wants home and hearth, and gun moll Beth, but here she’s 100% genteel–desperate for respectability and domesticity. Just look at the eagerness with which she ties on that apron. Scenes at a women’s prison hint at a tough past and experiences that continue to haunt Beth. While with some tough dames, the soft mushy past is all but forgotten, with Beth the tough veneer is brittle and the softhearted tender woman is visible underneath. This leaves a main character who’s not quite damsel in distress but not quite believable as a tough gun moll either. And since Beth is supposed to be a bit of both, the film loses its edge of dark crime and Beth is seen more as a woman who’s been hanging out with the wrong crowd who then becomes an accidental criminal. From director Felix E Feist.

Some great lines:
Never mind how much you’d give, how much would you take?
Put on your trunks and jump in the lake.
My terms are a lot different for a good-looking woman than for a jealous man.

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They All Kissed the Bride (1942)

“Maggie, don’t you ever have any clothes on?”

The screwball comedy They All Kissed the Bride stars the magnificent Joan Crawford as tough-as-nails businesswoman M.J Drew. Checking any hint that she’s female or human at the door, the indomitable M.J (Margaret J.) inherits the business from her father, and she runs it with an iron fist, leaving the Board of Directors and management trembling in her wake. Part of the Drew Empire is a trucking business, and M.J hires “spotters” to sneakily report whether or not the truck drivers respect the company regulations. The spotters look for infractions such as picking up hitchhikers and helping disabled motorists, and any trucker guilty of an infraction is subject to fines, suspension and dismissal.

M.J’s network of spotters is emblematic of how she runs her business empire–mercilessly, autocratically and with utmost attention paid to rules and regulations. She applies this didactic business acumen to her personal life too, and she treats her dingy mother (Billie Burke) and mushy younger sister Vivian (Helen Parrish) with inflexible unsentimentally.

MJ’s ordered world comes crashing down, however, when free-spirited journalist Michael Holmes (Melvyn Douglas) begins writing a series of exposes detailing M.J.’s authoritarian approach to business. M.J. immediately orders her spotters to be on the lookout for Holmes, “the ferret with the poisonous pen,” and gives orders to bring Holmes to her office when and if he’s found.

In one of the best scenes in the film, Holmes crashes Vivian’s society wedding, and makes a complete nuisance of himself. There’s mistaken identity, confused motives, and even Joan Crawford jitterbugging in this entertaining, light-hearted comedy. Holmes seems to run rings around M.J’s inflexible need for rules and regulations, and he appears to take great pleasure in flummoxing her by thwarting her orders, ignoring her dictates and casting aspersions on her femininity. With snappy dialog and even pacing, the entertaining film doesn’t miss a beat. From director Alexander Hall.

Carole Lombard was originally intended for the role, but after her death, Crawford took the part.

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When Ladies Meet (1941)

“Women are like eggs, my darling. When they’re good, they’re good. When they’re not….”

When Ladies Meet is a 1941 remake of the 1933 version of the film which starred Ann Harding, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy. This was originally a stage play, and that shows in many of this film’s light witty, comedic scenes. Joan Crawford plays popular romance author Mary ‘Minnie’ Howard. Her longtime beau, journalist Jimmy (Robert Taylor) returns from an assignment only to discover that he’s been supplanted in Mary’s affections by her new publisher, Rogers Woodruff (Herbert Marshall).

Woodruff is a married man, but his wife remains just a vague idea and an obstacle to Mary. She’s convinced that she loves Rogers and that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him. To her, they “live in a world apart.” If she ever stops to think about Rogers’ wife, Mary imagines that she must be a dull housewife, an intellectual inferior.

The film scenes have perfect timing, and this shows best in the sparkling scenes between Mary and Jimmy. Mary is busy working on her latest novel that revolves around a love triangle between a married man, his wife and his mistress. Mary and Rogers avidly discuss the novel and its happy ending, and while they are supposedly discussing characters in a book, it’s very obvious to everyone around them, that Rogers and Mary are discussing the possibility of a future together. Jimmy, a realist who sees Rogers as a weak roué, can’t stomach the sort of double talk alluding to a great romance that passes back and forth between Mary and Rogers. Robert Taylor really does well in this role, and Jimmy is seen as a straight shooter who is under gunned in the romance department, but who wins hands down when it comes to sincerity.

Like a great many love affairs, Mary’s is rooted in fantasy, and Jimmy manages to spoil these fantasies on more than one occasion with a few ill-timed visits. While Mary’s dingy friend, the addlepated Bridgie (Spring Byington) tries to provide Mary with an alibi for a weekend in the country, Jimmy manages to disrupt the great love affair when he arrives with Mrs. Woodruff, played by a very elegant Greer Garson. At first the two women, Mary, the mistress and Claire, the neglected wife are oblivious to each other’s identity and significance, but all that changes in a single weekend when everyone descends on Bridgie’s ostentatious country home which she shares with her designer gigolo housemate.

The main theme in When Ladies Meet is adultery and what happens when one very accomplished ‘other woman’ meets the very accomplished wife of her lover. The film takes a different look at an old situation, and Mary meets and likes Mrs. Woodruff before she knows that she’s met her rival. These two women appreciate each other, and in so doing, Woodruff emerges as the villain of the piece–a man who’s betrayed a number of women. This is a very different take on a familiar theme–we so often see the spouses fighting, and this is an almost passionless disintegration of a marriage that manages to be poignant.

Special mention here for Greer Garson’s elegant performance conducted with grace, dignity and subdued emotion. This is quite possibly one of the least passionate adultery films I’ve seen, but it’s quietly effective and surprisingly sweet. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.

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Harriet Craig (1950)

“No man was born for marriage. He has to be trained for it.”

In the opening scene of the film Harriet Craig a houseful of servants scurry around frantically as they help Harriet (Joan Crawford) prepare for a trip. While Harriet, at first, speaks politely to her cousin/maid Clare, the harried, frantic manner in which Clare attempts to meet Harriet’s every whim, is chilling. Harriet Craig is a domestic dragon. Her house is run like clockwork–nothing is to be moved out of place–everything is to remain spotless. This neatness fetish may not sound too daunting, but Harriet’s obsession with perfection runs deeper than a tidy house. Harriet is a domineering controller, and everyone who lives in her house must bend to her will in all situations.

Harriet Craig moves forward with precision. At first, Harriet’s fetish with neatness is slightly deranged, but within a few scenes, Harriet takes increasingly greater liberties with the lives of the people she’s supposed to care about. The incidents which reveal Harriet’s true nature build with steady momentum. As the film progresses, the buried depths of venom spew from her in rapid succession. Harriet is capable of layers of spite. She doesn’t worry, for example, about the social niceties with the servants, and with them, she doesn’t even bother to appear nice. With her husband, Harriet is at her most manipulative. One brilliant scene, in particular, (when she dissuades him from a game of golf), shows Harriet’s seductive power. By the time she’s finished with her husband, he thinks it’s his idea to miss the game and stay home, and he’s even happy about it! He is blissfully unaware of Harriet’s true nature, and he thinks he’s married some sort of domestic goddess who worries about the house too much. Harriet controls her husband with guided sweetness, but under that facade of sweetness, she will stop at nothing to keep him under her thumb. Things in Harriet’s house become decidedly out-of-control during a dinner party, and as Harriet moves back and forth between her servants and her social acquaintances, she switches back between viciousness and controlling masked by concern. Joan Crawford delivers a tour-de-force performance. It’s easy to see her as the perfect house-frau, cold, heartless, and cruel. She acts her heart out, and just as she appears to give the role everything she has, deeper layers of viciousness explode to the surface. Great stuff.

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Possessed (1947)

“Take her to Psycho.”

In Possessed Joan Crawford plays private nurse Louise Howell employed by the wealthy Graham family to nurse Mrs. Graham. There’s no indication what’s wrong with Mrs. Graham, but she’s holed up permanently in bed, and from this power position, she screams out accusations and orders. Louise has a brief affair with neighbour, engineer David Sutton (Van Heflin). The relationship is clearly intimate (in one scene, Louise changes after going for a swim with Sutton), and Louise seems to have the idea that all this intimacy and romance will lead to a wedding ring. Sutton counters all of Louise’s unsubtle suggestions about marriage abruptly, and he shakes her loose when she starts to talk about the future. Louise becomes more desperate, and Sutton can’t get away fast enough. This rejection drives the already unstable Louise to insanity.

There are two reasons why I love Possessed.

1) Gender roles: there are three main female characters: Louise, Mrs. Graham (you actually don’t see her), and daughter, Carol Graham. Louise is a neurotic mess. This is a role made for Joan Crawford, and she plays it to the hilt. Then there’s Mrs.Graham–she requires a permanent nurse, and even that isn’t enough to make her behave. Finally, there’s Carol Graham. She appears normal in her first scene, but in her second appearance, she’s obviously as potty as her mother, so she’s shipped off where can she do the least harm. Other female roles in the film portray subservient, submissive nurses who meekly take orders from their male superiors.

In contrast to the female roles, the men are cast as these poor beleaguered individuals who are forced by circumstance to navigate through the emotional minefields set by the berserker women in their lives. The men are calm when faced with hysterical scenes, and the women screech to a cruel indifferent world. Sutton mumbles about the stability of mathematics when faced with Louise’s hysteria, and Mr. Graham (Raymond Massey) doesn’t even ponder why he has two loony wives. The male doctors sit calmly while shaking their heads at Louise’s advanced condition, and one Doctor even manages to diagnose Louise instantly–with just one squeeze of the hand. All this extreme gender typing makes for some great campy scenes

2) A second reason Possessed fascinated me so much is the characterizations in the film. Each of the main characters develops in extraordinary ways as the plot plays out. For example, in the beginning, Sutton seems just disassociated–a confirmed bachelor–but by the end of the film, he really is portrayed as quite a rotter. And just what is Carol Graham’s little game? And then there’s Mr. Graham … just how much does he know about his first wife’s death?

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Autumn Leaves (1956)

 “Your filthy souls are too evil for hell itself.”

In Autumn Leaves Joan Crawford plays middle-aged spinster Millicent Wetherby. She types manuscripts at home in her tiny apartment and makes a modest living. She has a sense that life has passed her by, and when she’s given two tickets to a symphony, she goes alone. The outing however, triggers Millicent into the bold adventure of stepping into a restaurant. Here, she meets a man who is as lonely as she is. Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson) is at least a decade younger than Millie. He’s also desperate and persistent. A whirlwind romance leads to a quick wedding.

It soon becomes clear that there’s something not quite right about Burt. His stories don’t add up, and soon his lies are so obvious that even Millicent (love struck through she may be) can no longer ignore the facts. Then two people from Burt’s past reappear, and this unleashes Burt’s personal demons.

Joan Crawford really shines in this role. Somehow she always comes across as a person who is desperate for love. Joan glides gracefully from honeymoon bliss to distraught, devastated wife. Her besotted gooey adoration of her husband shifts into nightmarish fear, and she experiences grief at the knowledge that happiness has eluded her once again. Joan Crawford fans should be aware that Autumn Leaves is not camp–this film is a classic tearjerker, and Joan plays it for all she’s worth, but she plays it straight. The film does not contain an over the top performance of Joan’s unleashed nuttiness. This Joan is graceful, loving, and forgiving, and Joan Crawford’s outstanding performance makes Autumn Leaves a must-see for fans.

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Flamingo Road (1949)

“The moody kind always cause trouble.”

In Flamingo Road, carnival dancer, Lane Bellamy (Joan Crawford) finds herself stranded in a small town when she meets local deputy sheriff, Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott). He helps her find a job and a place to live, and they strike up a relationship. Carlisle, however, is the protege of the infinitely unpleasant Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet). Semple has plans–big plans–for Carlisle’s future, and Lane isn’t in the picture. Semple wants Carlisle to run for state senator, and in order to do that, he thinks Carlisle needs the proper society wife. He even has local spoilt girl, Annabelle (Virginia Huston) in mind for the job. Semple senses that Lane could spoil all his plans, so he has Lane framed on a trumped-up charge.

Of course, Joan Crawford fans know that she isn’t going to take a jail sentence meekly. She’s made of stronger stuff than that. Joan comes back and shows the whole town a thing or two, and Crawford fans should love every minute. Flamingo Road is the road in town where all the rich people live in their mansions, but the road’s name also takes on a figurative meaning symbolizing acceptance, security and success. Lane wants to live on Flamingo Road, but in reality, she wants the things that address symbolizes to her. She’s tired of being a nobody–an unemployed carnival dancer who gets kicked around and thrown in jail.

The first half of the film concentrates on developing the characters and the plot, but all of the main characters have hidden depths, which are revealed as the drama unfolds. It’s difficult to imagine a more sinister bulk of flesh than Sydney Greenstreet in his role as Sheriff Semple. He doesn’t actually have to lift a hand to strike his enemies (in fact, he spends most of his time sitting in front of a local hotel ordering around the employees). He sits like some sort of evil toad regarding everyone else coming and going while he pulls the strings of city corruption. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

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Sudden Fear (1952)

“I was just wondering what I’d done to deserve you.”

In Sudden Fear successful, wealthy playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) sacks actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) from rehearsals for her latest Broadway play. Myra just doesn’t see Lester as the great romantic lead she’s looking for, but on a train bound for San Francisco, Lester ‘coincidentally’ meets Myra and shows her just how romantic he can be …

Myra is a great character. She’s so used to writing scripts that she mentally writes one for her life as a newlywed. Even though Myra’s close associates regard free-loading Lance with suspicion, Myra only sees what she wants to see. She scripts herself as blissfully married to the most wonderful man on the planet, and that’s how it plays out. But then Lester’s girlfriend, the slightly sleazy, Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame) pops up in San Francisco, and Myra finds out the hard way that Lester is more interested in money than anything else. Myra handles the truth by writing another script in her mind, but carrying her plans out to their inevitable conclusion is a lot tougher in real life.

Joan Crawford is spectacular in the role of Myra. She seems to visibly age as events take their toll. Several scenes focus on her wild-eyed neurotic stares, and she manages to have a few hysterical scenes into the bargain. Gloria Grahame is one of my favourite film noir actress, so it was a treat for me to see her teamed with Crawford. And Jack Palance as Lester is impressive–there are scenes in which he’s so good, it’s possible to read his mind and gauge how he wants to murder Myra. Director David Miller’s style is evident, and quite reminiscent of Midnight Lace (another husband and wife drama). The 50s San Francisco scenes are phenomenal and accentuate the plot (you’ll see why).

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Berserk (1967)

“It’s a good thing you’re inhuman.”

In the tawdry thriller, Berserk Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford) owns the Great Rivers Circus. Business isn’t booming, but when circus performers start dropping like flies, the crowds start flocking in for a repeat performance. Soon Scotland Yard assigns a policeman, the dapper Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy) to question the circus employees, and stay on site until he’s solved the case.

Joan Crawford was in her mid 60s when she made Berserk, and she isn’t shy about slipping into her circus costume and showing off those terrific legs. Monica Rivers is a powerful, cold-hearted businesswoman, and while she has lovers amongst the circus crowd, she doesn’t let her dalliances interfere with the running of the circus. Business manager, Dorando (Michael Gough) is jealous of the strapping new trapeze artist, Frank Hawkins (Ty Hardin). Hawkins is quick to curry favour with Monica Rivers. While she isn’t averse to his hunky attentions, Monica still manages to keep Hawkins on a short leash. Monica’s mothering instinct is revealed when her daughter Angela (Judy Geeson) arrives after being expelled from her boarding school.

Berserk is cleverly sequenced. Horrible, grisly murders–with close ups of the victims’ faces–occur as various circus acts are rigged for disaster. With acts such as the high wire trapeze, knife throwers, lion tamers, etc, the opportunities for disaster are great. The tension runs high as the circus acts open, and harmless and charming acts take place (the Intelligent Poodles, for example). Then high-risk acts commence, and we wait for the next murder to occur. The circus audience (which has grown larger with the news of each death) waits with baited breath and anticipated ghoulish delight as each act opens. It’s a wicked, dark sense of humour indeed that creates grisly murder scenes within the magical anticipation of the circus

Berserk is very cheesy and has a moderate camp appeal. There’s a bearded lady at the circus, and the sexy Matilda (Diana Dors) gets into a girl fight with slaps exchanged and some great name-calling. On the negative side, the plot introduces a couple of red herrings that are never explained, and after the film’s sensationalistic conclusion, the red herrings remain unexplored. Also some of the circus act scenes drag on interminably. Joan Crawford fans won’t be able to resist, but Berserk is only moderately entertaining

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