Sudden Joan

16 May

May 10 marked thirty-five years since Hollywood’s legendary Joan Crawford passed away, which means it’s time to reflect…

To paraphrase the character Joan Crawford plays in Humoresque, the world is divided into two camps: those who are Bette Davis fans and those who are Joan Crawford fans. Oh sure, it’s possible to admire–and even love–individual performances and films of both actresses, but I have a hunch that if any of us fans of old Hollywood were faced with the possibility of having to choose a favorite between the two, we wouldn’t hesitate. Myself, I’m more of a Bette fan, and I have been ever since I first saw her in The Bride Came C.O.D., co-starring James Cagney, with my grandma on the old Dialing for Dollars afternoon movie back in the day. This many years later, I’d be hard-pressed to list an absolute favorite among Davis’s films, but All About Eve (1950), The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes (1941) are certainly worthy picks. (Btw: I’m not a die-hard fan of the actresses’ celebrated 1962 ghoulish-campfest, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?)

Everything came together just right for Joan Crawford with 1945’s Mildred Pierce, one of the quintessential, indelible performances in the history of American cinema. According to Anthony Holden, author of Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards, Crawford set an Oscar precedent by hiring her own press agent during awards season. and before it was all over, the film’s producer, Jerry Wald, was working the campaign as well [1].

Even though my heart belongs to Bette, I know that Joan is more than capable of delivering the goods. Of course, she won a well earned Oscar for 1945’s Mildred Pierce, a dazzler that one. I don’t necessarily know if it is/was an honest-to-goodness great feat of acting that rivals, say, Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, but there is something singular about it. Maybe the role of the enterprising, but long-suffering, woman with a hateful minx of a daughter was simply the right part for Joan at just the right time, but whatever it is, it works, so much so that I can’t imagine watching Kate Winslet’s made for TV remake.  Mildred Pierce was a particular triumph for Crawford, an unimpeachable comeback, carrying the Warner Bros. banner after more or less being dismissed as “box-office poison” at MGM just a few years earlier. Also, Crawford reportedly set a new precedent by hiring her own Oscar season publicist that year, but I think her performance in Michael Curtiz’s impeccably directed production is so perfectly realized that she could have won with half as much self-promotion.

By all accounts, Crawford desperately wanted to win the Best Actress Oscar for 1945’s Mildred Pierce, but nerves got the best of her, and she missed the ceremony due to “the flu.” Her director, the esteemed Michael Curtiz, showed up with the trophy afterwards, the press in tow, and the resulting pix legendarily made Joan the focus of the morning-after newspaper coverage.

Again, I’m not a Joan Crawford expert, but I’ll also give her props for making a favorably strong impression as the lively stenographer in Grand Hotel, 1932’s Best Picture winner. I also especially enjoy watching her play the heck out of gold-digging Crystal Allen in the star-studded original screen adaptation of Clare Booth Luce’s  The Women (1939).  Of course, the script is engineered for the audience to root for Norma Shearer’s jilted, morally sacrosanct Mary (aka Mrs. Stephen Haines), who loses her husband to Crawford,  but Shearer seems so concerned with evincing goodness that she forgets to shape the character or make her interesting. Shearer’s performance is full–too full–of sweetness and light, all  “Our Great and Virtuous Lady of the Manor Born” affectations–and a woefully unflattering hairdo on top of  all that. Well, that’s how I see it. Crawford, on the other hand, is fully alert and percolating in every scene. One particularly righteous bit occurs when Crawford’s Crystal tries to softsoap her latest romantic conquest over the phone while tying up some loose ends and dodging the catty banter of her co-workers in the stock room of the department store perfume counter where she works. It’s a nifty scene, and  Crawford plays it like a master, switching gears with split-second timing. Look closely at her eyes–all that fire–during this scene the next time you happen to be watching The Women. Beautiful. She’s just as effective throughout the rest of the film though, of course, there was no Oscar for her that year–not even a nomination.

Well, 1939 was a tough one. Almost no actress would have been able to pry a victory from the grasp of Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara, though the competition was considerable:  Bette Davis (Dark Victory), Irene Dunne (Love Affair),  Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), and newcomer Greer Gars0n (Goodbye Mr. Chips). Indeed, in a year that saw the releases of all these films, plus The Wizard of OzStagecoach, Of Mice and MenMr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, and many, many, others. 1939 is regarded by many film scholars as the greatest year in Hollywood history. As such, there simply wasn’t any room at Oscar’s table for everyone.  The Women and Destry Rides Again are just two 1939 films that were shut out of that year’s race.

Madonna clearly borrowed from Joan Crawford’s classic walk along the beach in Humoresque for her 1998 “The Power of Goodbye” video. Rather than post videos for a side by side comparison, I found this cool collage on Photobucket. I don’t know who actually created it, but it was posted by “safy 20.”

Mildred Pierce was Crawford’s first nomination, but it wasn’t her last. She received a nod for 1947’s Possessed, but that one, with Joan desperately in love with the wrong man, has not aged as well as other Crawford vehicles. Her final nomination was for 1952’s Sudden Fear, and we’ll get to that one shortly [2]. She’s beautiful in Humoresque, her followup to Mildred Pierce, but that arty little  bauble is more a vehicle for John Garfield’s talents than Crawford’s though Madonna clearly found inspiration in it for her “The Power of Goodbye” video (that and the original Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway version of The Thomas Crown Affair), but I digress.

Crawford has many fans, and they all have their favorites, so I’ll let them make their own cases for the best of the best; however, there are two Crawford movies that are always a lot of fun, and I feel I must write about them: The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) and Sudden Fear (1952). The former is a Warner’s fast-paced, rat-a-tat-tat, diamond-hard gem loosely based on the exploits of Virginia Hill, the one-time Hollywood hopeful who caught the eye of gangster Bugsy Siegel. This one is like a great big Crawford party platter: in the beginning, she’s a long suffering mom, not unlike Mildred Pierce; a few short scenes later, she’s playing shopgirl, similar to the characters from her MGM days. By the end of the movie, she’s full-on glam, per Humoresque, but she’s also working the noir angle, operating as the two-timing moll of a powerful underworld businessman (played by David Brian, for whom a dear relative was named).  Boom, boom, boom. What a wild ride.  After a suitably intriguing intro, the movie jumps back in time to the Texas oil fields, then zooms straight ahead to New York, skips over to Europe and back, and then sends Ms. Crawford out west. All of this in 103 minutes. The movie isn’t full-on camp; Joan’s not chewing the scenery, exactly, though in one scene, she  chews gum, drinks water from a paper cup, and smokes a cigarette, all pretty much simultaneously–and all while wearing only a black slip and a smock. Well, let’s just say she’s committed, and though the movie might not be as widely remembered as some of her other vehicles, it was a hit in its own time. I happened upon it years ago and was hooked in about two scenes. If you get a chance, you should give it a look-see. If nothing else, the movie proves that in spite of her well-documented love of shoulder-pads, the dear girl was not lacking in the shoulder department. Look closely the first time she spins around for a potential buyer in the showroom scene.  I’ve seen drag queens and football players with less to prove.

Joan Crawford received her third and final Oscar nomination for 1952’s Sudden Fear. Look closely: can you tell she’s scared?

Even better  than The Damned Don’t Cry is the stylish and aforementioned Sudden Fear, for which Crawford earned her third and final Oscar nomination. In this one,  directed by David Miller [3], Joan plays an heiress-playwright—that’s right, an heiress and a fantastically successful playwright—who exercises a clause in her deal to have an actor fired from her latest production. That actor, btw, is played by Jack Palance. Crawford’s Myra Hudson doesn’t believe audiences will buy Palance as a romantic leading man. Oh sure, she sees that Palance’s Lester Blaine is a fine actor, but to Hudson’s dismay, Blaine just isn’t right physically. (Well, no one ever accused Palance of being a pretty boy, right?) Soon, Blaine will prove Miss Hudson wrong by showing her that he does have the goods necessary to attract a woman and make her fall in love with him instantly; he even uses her own words in the process. He’s also a better actor than Hudson can possibly imagine. Of course, he wants to kill her. Right? I mean the movie isn’t called Sudden Fear because Easter Parade and In the Good Ole Summertime were already taken.  On the other hand, Crawford is Crawford, and she has a thing or two up her sleeve as well. I must say that this is another Crawford vehicle that I came to appreciate rather late in my moviegoing career though it wasn’t for a lack of trying. (It isn’t always easy to find on DVD.) At any rate, I was surprised at just how darn suspenseful it was (is) when I first saw it. Of course, we all know that today’s films are much more graphic in their depictions of violence and/or terror, and I guess there’s a place for that, but there’s also something to be said for the power of suggestion. There’s also a kind of fiendish satisfaction and/or anticipation for the viewer as roles are repeatedly reversed all the way up to the nail biting finish. Sudden fear, indeed.

Of course, Crawford is front and center, and she acts at a fever pitch. Sometimes, she’s required to hold the screen and emote sans words, so she just goes for “big,”  mainly full-throttle, wide-eyed  panic and trem-trem-trembling lips. It’s perhaps not the most imaginative choice, but it’s pure Joan, and it’s hard not to get caught up in her bold abandon. She’s a star goddammit, and she’s going to bloody well deliver for her fans. All kidding aside, it’s quite effective. Furthermore, close your eyes during the talkie expository scenes, and you’ll swear this was the performance that Faye Dunaway must have been channeling during the bombast-free bits of 1981’s Crawford biopic, Mommie Dearest. Listen closely: the diction is a shade too cultivated; the tone a tad too self-possessed. Just because she’s a woman-in-jep, there’s no reason to not comport herself like mid-century Hollywood royalty.

Crawford competed for the 1952 Best Actress Oscar against her alleged nemesis, Bette Davis in The Star. Davis’s film, a fast-paced black and white yarn about an aging actress in decline, is famous for a scene in which the character takes her own Oscar on a drunken joyride. Rumors abound that the film’s writers based “Margaret Elliott” on Crawford while Davis often said her resulting performance was indeed Crawford inspired. Like Sudden Fear, The Star was independently produced though it was distributed by a major studio, 20th Century Fox.

I don’t have any real data about how much money Sudden Fear made when it was first released, but it must have been a solid performer, judging by its four Oscar nominations (along with its Laurel award for Crawford as well as her inclusion at the Golden Globes). Among the cast, Palance scored a nod for Best Supporting Actor [4], and good for him: he finesses the twists and turns with just the right amount of smirky sincerity. The movie also garnered nominations for its black and white cinematography (the great Charles Lang [5]) and black and white costume design (Sheila O’Brien) To clarify: this was back in the days when these two categories, along with Best Art Direction, were split into color and black and white races.  At any rate, kudos to cinematographer Lang for pulling out every trick in his arsenal: thrilling camera movement, in-your-face close-ups, unusual angles, and  intricate lighting effects, including deep, heavy shadows, and a couple of sequences in which practically the only things being illuminated are Crawford’s terror-filled eyes.

Furthermore, Gloria Grahame, who won that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful, also has a key role in Sudden Fear, so that’s something interesting to ponder.  You know what else is interesting?  Sudden Fear was and is actually considered an independent film. Yep, you read that correctly. It was produced by Joseph Kaufman through his own company and then distributed by RKO. Those of you who think that indie films began with Quentin Tarantino in the 90s, Steve Soderbergh in the 80s, or even John Cassavetes in the 70s, might be surprised to find that indie films were becoming more common in the 1950s, which was the beginning of the end of the big studio era.  1952 also saw the release of a handful of high profile award worthy films that were produced outside the mainstream Hollywood studio system, including High Noon, for which Gary Cooper won Best Actor, and The Quiet Man, which earned John Ford his  record breaking fourth Oscar for Best Director, behind those for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and 1941’s How Green was My Valley.  Of course, the latter also won Best Picture, and many film aficionados believe it robbed top Oscars from Citizen Kane, but that’s a blog entry for another day. This one’s for Joan.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Holden, Anthony. Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards. New York: Plume-Penguin, 1994 (172-177).

[2] Crawford lost the 1947 Oscar to Loretta Young (The Farmer’s Daughter); the 1952 Best Actress Oscar went to Shirley Booth (Come Back Little Sheba).

[3] The film was written by Lenore Coffee and Robert Smith, based on the novel by Edna Sherry; the thrilling score is by the celebrated Elmer Bernstein. Bonus trivia: Mike Connors, famous for playing TV’s Mannix in the 1960s and ’70s, shows up–credited as Touch Conners–for a few scenes in a minor role.

[4] Palance lost to Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!); the next year, Palance was nominated in the same category for Shane (again, as the bad guy). He lost to Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Palance waited thirty-eight years for his next Oscar nomination. He finally won for playing a gruff, withered cowboy in 1991’s good-natured fish-out-of-water comedy City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal.

[5] In his incredible career, Lang was Oscar nominated an astonishing 18 times, winning only for the 1932 version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper.  His nominated films include another Crawford collaborations (Queen Bee, 1955), as well as Sabrina (1954), Separate Tables (1958), Some Like It Hot (1959) and How the West was Won (1962). His non-Oscar nominated efforts include 1963’s Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

[6] The Bad and the Beautiful‘s 5 Oscars are a record of sort: the most Oscars ever won by a movie that was not also in the running for Best Picture.

safy20 collage @ photobucket:


2 Responses to “Sudden Joan”

  1. vinnieh 11 September 2012 at 8:57 am #

    Great post, love the part about Humoresque and the Madonna video.

    • listen2uraunt 11 September 2012 at 5:46 pm #

      Thanks! I can see from looking at your blog that you’re a huge Madonna fan. Good to know. ; )

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