Erica and I are utterly thrilled that Gwenda Young, the author of Clarence Brown: Hollywood’s Forgotten Master, has written a post for our Blogathon. Please direct all of your comments for this post to Gwenda by twitter or email at, @y_gwenda and firstname.lastname@example.org. So without further ado, here is Gwenda’s incredible post about Joan and Clarence Brown:
“Let’s leave the dishes in the sink and go see Joan Crawford” (Clarence Brown)
In many obituaries and histories of American film director Clarence Brown, he’s often recorded as being MGM’s most distinguished “starmaker” or nicknamed “Garbo’s Favorite Director”. It’s certainly true that Brown directed Garbo more times than any other director, but he also helped to shape the star persona and to direct the career of Garbo’s only real rival at MGM, Joan Crawford. He worked with her on no less than seven occasions (five credited), and the two had a productive and respectful working relationship.
Their first collaboration gave little indication that theirs would be an important and mutually career-enhancing partnership: in 1931 Brown was called upon to step in and salvage a Crawford vehicle, Girls Together, which she had shot with director Nick Grindé and which, when previewed in June 1931, had received a savaging from the savvy preview audiences. MGM beat a retreat, fired some of the cast—notably, the great Marjorie Rambeau, who had been playing the role of the mother of Crawford’s character, Valentine, but who was now replaced with the equally great Pauline Frederick—and assigned Brown to direct. The result was This Modern Age, newly renamed and another entry in the Crawford “young-woman-adrift-in-hedonistic-world” formula. As in some of her earlier films that depict inter-generational dynamics set against the backdrop of the extravagances of Jazz Age America (Our Dancing Daughters; Our Blushing Brides), Crawford’s Valentine is thrust into a frenetic world of excess and licentiousness, but the twist this time is that the “bad influence” isn’t a good-time girl or a young man with only one thing on his mind, but rather her own mother. Valentine, it quickly transpires, is all too happy to embrace new freedoms, having been estranged from her mother for most of her life, following her parents’ bitter divorce. Perhaps as a sop to Depression-era audiences, MGM set the story in the South of France and, of course, incorporated a few scenes in which Diane (played by Frederick) demonstrated her intense shame at being a ‘kept woman’, all the while hanging on to the luxurious perks (clothes, jewellery and, until the very end of the film, a stupendous Art Deco house). Admittedly, This Modern Age isn’t one of the great films of the Crawford-Brown collaboration: the story is formulaic, the direction by Brown (but possibly with quite a lot of Grindé’s scenes retained) is leaden in places, and the characters are paper-thin. Yet, it’s a film that is worth watching, if only for the presence of Crawford and Frederick.
When Rambeau was fired, MGM had drafted Frederick in, less because she had been a significant and compelling star of the silent era (especially in Brown’s Smouldering Fires), and more because she bore a strong resemblance to Crawford. The two had the same large, expressive eyes and finely-sculpted cheekbones, though for the role Crawford bleached her hair, thus slightly reducing her resemblance to Frederick who continued to sport the dark bob of her 1920s heyday.
In the spirit of the best Garbo films, This Modern Age builds up audience expectations about Crawford’s entrance, by having characters speak about her before she makes her first appearance. And when she does, she is charming: chic, self-assured, witty and quite unlike the mousy character we had come to expect (it’s explained that Valentine has been brought up by a puritanical father and her mother fears she will be as narrow and prudish as him). In costumes designed by Adrian, Crawford fulfils the ‘clothes-horse’ part of her contract, while her sparring with romantic interests (Neil Hamilton; Monroe Owsley) are only a prelude to the inevitable ending that will see this good-girl-gone-wild contained by a respectable marriage. However, it’s the dynamic between Valentine/Crawford and Diane/Frederick, that is of most interest. Reportedly, Crawford idolised Frederick and it seems that Frederick also found much to admire in her young doppelganger. A warm rapport off the set found its way into their performances: one can’t but notice that the two actresses, as they play out the dynamics of their characters’ relationship to each other, have terrific chemistry and it seems entirely real rather than manufactured. From the moment they are reintroduced, they can hardly keep from touching each other, whether it’s warm, intense embraces or the playful tousling of each other’s hair.
Watching Crawford and Frederick’s scenes reveals, not only their strong physical resemblance and chemistry, but also the divergence of their acting styles. Though she was an acclaimed actress, and is moving in many of the scenes here, Frederick is sometimes a little too emphatic, at times overly demonstrative in her performance of intense emotions. In contrast, Crawford effects a more natural style to depict Valentine’s confusion but then immersion into her mother’s wild, cynical crowd (though scenes that require Crawford to be truly “madcap” are less effective). By all accounts, Crawford was dismissive of the film (“hopelessly artificial”) and didn’t rate her performance as especially adept, but This Modern Age is not without its charms and it introduced her to Brown, with whom she quickly developed a quasi-paternal relationship.
Their next collaboration was more memorable, and did much to advance Crawford’s career. Possessed started life as “The Mirage”, a play written by Edgar Selwyn, who’d been churning them out since the 1910s. Despite Crawford’s suspicions that her career was never given the same attention or nurturing as Norma Shearer’s, in fact Irving Thalberg was just as anxious to groom Crawford and capitalise on her potential. Declaring that Crawford had “outgrown all those flapper roles”, he ordered screenwriter Lenore Coffee to shape the Selwyn property into something that would please her fans, who’d been raised on a diet of Crawford-as-flapper, but also earn her new audiences, especially in the now Depression-stricken America of 1931. Coffee’s initial draft was cynical and bitter, the character of Marian a jaded, thoroughly amoral gold-digger, but following consultation with Thalberg and Brown, the screenwriter softened her into a likable working-class woman.
The film opens as an exhausted Marian exits her factory job and makes her way home, to the house on the “wrong side of the tracks”. Though the film is at pains to emphasise Marian is an ‘ordinary’ girl, one of the masses that the factory belches out at the end of the working day, there’s no denying the demands of the glossy MGM style and the visible fact of Crawford’s own beauty and charisma. Take, for instance, this first scene, in which Brown’s camera tracks her as she walks home, “tired and beat”, with her dreary boyfriend (played by Wallace Ford). Though her character is dog tired, Crawford moves with grace and natural sexiness; it’s no surprise she stands out from the crowd, and later attracts the attention of a succession of rich playboys. Pretty quickly, in fact, she attracts the first of these when she has a chance encounter with a drunken playboy (played by Skeets Gallagher) whose train happens to be rumbling along Erie’s railroad tracks (on the other side of which live Marian and her downtrodden mother). He delivers his ironic patter about seducing her, and being a “city slicker tempting a country gal with liquor”, but is taken aback when she seems entirely enthusiastic at the prospect of being “wrong done by”. He’s even more surprised when she takes him up on his noncommittal offer to host her in the city: she duly arrives, spots his friend, Mark (played by Clark Gable) and fixes her sights on him… and his large pocketbook. Romance and wealth soon follow; it seems moral transgression does indeed pay…
1930s Hollywood had its fair share of beautiful actresses but few made it to the level of stardom that Crawford enjoyed. Possessed played a major role in advancing Crawford’s career and attracting an even greater, and more devoted, legion of fans. It was, in other words, much more than a showcase for her beauty—it also presented her as an ego-ideal for young women, and promotion of the role she played was bolstered by MGM publicity that emphasised Crawford’s humble origins and her ferocious work ethic. When the film was released, the censors may have been outraged, but this story of a woman who refuses to accept a predetermined future as wife and mother—growing ever more disillusioned and unfulfilled as the years roll by—proved inspirational to a generation of women that had been promised emancipation and equality but were now coming to realise that whatever ambitions they might have had would be crushed in the face of a society where men were accorded whatever (scant) opportunities out there. Crawford’s likeability, on screen and off, was helped by one of her most accomplished performances. It gave her the chance to draw on her own experiences as a girl raised on the wrong side of the tracks, who took a morally flexible approach when it came to taking advantage of opportunities that enhanced her career. It also pushed her as an actress. Ostensibly, her character seems to adhere to the formula, but Crawford ably fleshes it out, making Marian’s trajectory, however ‘contrived’, seem somehow real and appealing. She hints at her character’s inner life, and her vulnerability, in one memorable scene in which the now rich Marian, clad in sleek Adrian gowns, her wrists veritable display stands for an array of diamonds, is faced with the reality of her precarious position. A friend of Mark’s brings a streetwalker to their dinner party but instead of rejecting the “common” woman (brilliantly played by Marjorie White), Marian shows only warmth and empathy. And just as in This Modern Age, it’s this innate sisterliness/female camaraderie that surely endeared her to fans. Possessed is also one of her best performances because there’s little recourse to what became Crawford mannerisms (which F. Scott Fitzgerald later itemised, including the “cynical accepting smile” and “hammy gestures” to denote emotions).
Of course, the ending of Possessed, in which Marian is shown to be truly in love with her millionaire (not so difficult, given he’s played by Gable!), might be seen as being a sop to the censors, but actually it was much more a concession to Crawford’s loyal fans. In its (naïve, yes) way, the ending suggests that this woman can have it all: a passionate relationship with a (rich) man, but one that’s now publicly acknowledged and given a stamp of respectability (the promise of a marriage). In contrast to many films in which the millionaire target is a hapless fool, Possessed proposes a marriage of equals: equally charismatic; equally sexy and smart.
Brown and Crawford teamed up again for a film that, in time, became notorious. Letty Lynton was credited to a source novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes (who also wrote the novel upon which Hitchcock’s The Lodger was based), but in fact mainly drew from a play by Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes, the rights to which MGM had failed to secure. In time, that would prove disastrous but for the moment Brown and Crawford were content to be reunited, on another film that pushed the boundaries (and the patience) of the Hays office. Crawford was cast as Letty, a rich socialite who, in a bid to escape a severely dysfunctional relationship with her mother (played by May Robson), spends her life on the move, attending the wildest parties and consorting with disreputable men (chiefly, Emile, played by a slithery Nils Asther). In early scenes Crawford is jaded, flippant and cynical, but there is an undertone of sadness and melancholia (which, we soon learn, is due to an absence of maternal love). She is, as expected, still glamorous and beautiful, but also sympathetic to those on the margins of this entitled society (note her empathy for an exhausted and abused chauffeur). With typical Crawford determination, she resolves to make a change, to return to the US to finally sort out her life and her relationship with mother. On board the luxury cruise liner that brings her from an exotic Montevideo (depicted as a world of intrigue and carnality), she meets a “clean” all-American man (wealthy, of course), played by Robert Montgomery. Letty’s transformation is signalled by a bold change of costume: from the Deco designs of early outfits to an elaborate, ruffled dress of white chiffon that establishes her desire to reinvent herself (as a beautiful concoction, for both the audience and the object of her affection). The “Letty Lynton” dress has become famous: an off-the-peg copy was marketed by Macy’s, and the significance of the dress has been discussed by a host of cultural & fashion historians, such as Charlotte Herzog, Jane Gaines and Sarah Berry. Suffice to say it functions on many levels in the scenes in which she wears it: it is loaded with symbolic significance, both in terms of Crawford’s stardom and the self-conscious reinvention that her character embarks upon within the film. Letty appears in the dress just as she begins a courtship that seems to promise her another life, and she is still wearing it in “charming” scenes in which she and Jerry cavort on the ship’s decks, like kids in a playground, their love blossoming. The visual fact of the dress, along with Crawford’s shift in performance, from the jaded, brittle woman of early scenes to a seemingly open, revitalised girl-woman renewed by true love, lead the viewer into thinking that the rest of the film will simply detail the unfolding of her new relationship and the overcoming of obstacles in the path to contentment.
Instead, Letty Lynton takes a dark turn, as Emile makes his reappearance and Letty, with true Crawford grit, resolves to be rid of him. In some of the most intriguing scenes of her early career, Crawford is shown tussling with Emile, her “hatred” for him only just triumphing over her masochistic desire for him. Soon after, she offers him a cocktail laced with poison. Though in later scenes (and to the censor) her poisoning of the drink would be “explained” away as a “mistake”—i.e. she was preparing to the drink the poisoned drink herself, to “save” Jerry from the awful truth that his fiancée is “used goods”—Brown’s staging of the scene, and the brilliance of Crawford’s very subtle performance express something quite different, and far more subversive. As Emile reaches out to take the drink, Crawford’s Letty holds her gaze and the ghost of a satisfied smile plays around her lips. There’s no attempt to knock the drink from his hand or perform “regret” at her mistake. Instead, she is calm, chilly, and only erupts in emotion as Emile writhes in pain: but then it’s not the emotion of remorse or of anguish, but rather of vengeance (and, if the audience is in any doubt, Crawford delivers some pretty water-tight dialogue, “I’m glad I did it, you dirty, filthy, greasy mongrel”).
How Letty Lynton got away with its premise of our-heroine-as-poisoner, and an ending in which her mother and her fiancé, though they know she is guilty of premediated murder, concoct an alibi for her that rapidly satisfies a judge, remains something of a perplexing mystery, an example perhaps of a studio successfully exploiting the confusion then reigning in the Hays office.
In the end, however, MGM came to profoundly regret that they had ever made the film. Soon after its release they were sued by Sheldon and Barnes, in a landmark plagiarism suit that dragged on for almost a decade, and resulted in substantial losses for the studio and the withdrawal of all prints of Letty Lynton. While our hearts can’t really bleed for a corporation that, it’s pretty certain, knowingly embarked on a production that was based on a property to which they had no rights, the loss of the film for moviegoers, for Crawford fans and for historians exploring Hollywood’s Golden Age, is a source of enormous regret. Degraded prints of the film can be accessed and though the image is grainy and the soundtrack muddy, nevertheless, the charisma and the considerable acting talent of Crawford shine through.
Crawford and Brown went on to make four more films together, finishing up the partnership with a compromised historical drama (The Gorgeous Hussy, in which Crawford was gorgeous but regrettably not much of a hussy) and the slight but frothy Love on the Run (one of the biggest box-office successes of her later career at MGM). However, for chemistry, technical innovation, social content and purest expression of the Crawford star persona of the early 1930s, their Pre-Code collaborations remain timeless and compelling.
© Gwenda Young, 2019
Gwenda Young is the author of Clarence Brown: Hollywood’s Forgotten Master (UP of Kentucky, 2018. Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Clarence-Brown-Hollywoods-Forgotten-Classics/dp/081317595X/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1557516959&sr=8-1-fkmrnull)