The year that Mannequin had its nationwide release, Joan Crawford was featured on the list of actresses termed as “Box Office Poison”. It was a list that featured Katherine Hepburn, Kay Francis, Norma Shearer and John Barrymore, to name but a few. It was a list that is now largely seen as being inaccurate, or caused by factors that were not solely based on box office appeal. The fact that Mannequin made an almost $500 000 profit, proves this to be the case.
Mannequin tells the story of two people from working class backgrounds, Jessie Cassidy (played by Joan Crawford) and John L. Hennessey (played by Spencer Tracy), whose lives have taken very different turns, but whose paths diverge when they happen to be at the same restaurant. Jessie has recently married her long time boyfriend, Eddie Miller (played by Alan Curtis), who has aspirations of grandeur. Hennessey in comparison, actually has made a success of himself, and has established a successful shipping company. He falls in love with Jessie at first sight, although she does not reciprocate his feelings, and continues to believe that Eddie will make good despite him proving to be an untrustworthy conman for the most part. Jessie and Hennessey’s paths eventually cross again, but their future is uncertain as Eddie plans to enact the ultimate con.
Mannequin is the only film that Joan and Tracy starred in together, and I find this to be a real shame. Their chemistry in the film is not quite as explosive as Joan’s with Clark Gable, but it really is very endearing and natural. They play off each other incredibly well in terms of dialogue, my favourite part being when Hennessey tries his luck with Jessie and kisses her and she slaps him. Later on whilst sharing a cab home, Hennessey says that Jessie can’t really be all that mad at him, looking rather like a kicked puppy, and Jessie replies, “What did you think that slap was? A distinguished service cross?” Together, Joan and Tracy show their ability to enact comedy as well as drama, and to not overdo either of them. And most of all, they are convincing as a couple.
I must admit that I had my doubts about the pairing. I’ve never been a massive fan of Tracy’s, not because I don’t think he was a good actor, because he definitely was. Performances in films such as Inherit The Wind and his many films with Katherine Hepburn prove that. But I’ve never seen him as being in the same class as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart or some of his other leading man contemporaries. But in Mannequin, he shows that he actually was in the same class as them. Whilst Gable or Bogart could’ve played Hennessey, especially Gable, Tracy’s brand of impish charm and slight rough around the edges appeal, make him perfect for the role. He also manages to imbue his part with a lot of depth, despite his background only really being suggested through dialogue. He extends what the script offers, and creates a character who has real human foibles and faults, but who it is clear, cares about other people and genuinely loves Jessie. It’s clear from the start of the film who Jessie should be with, and it’s frustrating to see her not take notice of how good a match Hennessey is for her, but when they eventually do come together, it’s made all the better by Tracy’s performance.
Mannequin, in my opinion, along with Sadie McKee and Possessed (1931), are Joan’s best working girl films. Jessie’s blind devotion to her no good husband can be slightly wearing at times, but Joan’s sass and beauty in the role really do make it a film worth seeking out. As most of you who read my blog know, I am a huge fan of Joan’s, and I think that Mannequin shows that despite the fact that Joan was being offered similar roles throughout the decade, she never phoned in her performance. I love the end of the film when she tells Hennessey that he’s going to pick himself up, and carry on the way he always has, and how she becomes softer and kinder, and assures him that she’ll be there for him because she loves him. It’s a scene that shows both Joan and Tracy’s depth for incredibly natural, emotional acting, and it’s the reason that the film works.
Alan Curtis is also very good as the no good boyfriend turned husband, Eddie, who provides a very effective foil for Hennessey’s character. Curtis and Joan also have good chemistry, especially in the scenes where Jessie has realised that Eddie is no good. Eddie’s scheming is sick making, but such a performance is necessary in order to up the stakes in the film. In the end, when Eddie thinks that he’s won, and gloats over Hennessey and Jessie, Curtis shows that he can hold his own opposite these two iconic heavyweights.
My favourite part of the film is not actually a performance, however. It is the beautiful, wistful score composed by Edward Ward, who also composed music for Camille, Maytime and Saratoga, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards. The main song, “Always and Always”, which Jessie sings at her wedding reception, is one of the most lovely ballads I’ve heard in a film of the classic era. It encapsulates Jessie’s determination and spirit to hold her life together and make something of herself, and it eventually shows her love for Hennessey and his for her. The parts in the film that shows our two leads at their lowest, are perfectly accompanied by a score that shows the longing for happiness and peace that they have in those moments.
Mannequin is a film that is mostly overlooked in both Tracy and Joan’s biographies, which is a pity, because it’s one that shows the pair at their most appealing. Both of them were at the height of their careers, heavyweights at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, and on the precipitous of doing even greater things in the future.