Joan Crawford has her pick between a troubled veteran (Henry Fonda) and a smug married man (Dana Andrews). Does she want the man who has good lines (‘The world’s dead and everybody in it’s dead but you’) or does she stay with the same old masculine lines (‘It won’t be over til we’re dead’)? Crawford looks good in the back street as well as the sunshine, thanks to the poetic photography of Leon Shamroy, who believed that every light had to be justified ‘like words in a sentence’.
Career gal Joan has a cute flat, the freedom to lose herself in work, and a great wardrobe by Charles LeMaire. I’m not sure why she wants a husband, but my interest in woman’s pictures is always seeing a woman who gets what she wants.
Catch up with podcast episode 85 on Daisy Kenyon (1947).
If you’re looking for more podcast episodes on Joan Crawford, step this way—>
In episode 60, I talk about Sadie McKee (1934) , the gold standard Crawford picture. It has everything I desire: Joan absorbs the slings and arrows of unworthy men, triumphs over their low opinion, has the support of a dear friend (Jean Dixon), and parades in exquisite designs by Adrian. And it has a scene set in the Automat, which is what I use to centre my best intentions each time when I sit down to write. Joan has a few coins in her pocket, but fortified by a smart wool topper and hat, she uses great style as a shield against pity and misfortune.
For episode 50, I talk about how Joan Crawford just wants to be left alone in her beach house. She foils the plot of a rough trade grifter and his backers, sidestepping the fate of women of a certain age.
In episode 36, Joan stars in a fabulous spy caper to defeat the Nazis.
Matt Harris, archivist and fellow Joan Crawford obsessive, joins me for episode 20 to talk about Joan in Flamingo Road (1949) and in episode 66 for Queen Bee (1955).
In episode 77, I admire the way Adrian develops his signature metallic look for Joan Crawford in No More Ladies (1935). The picture evades the usual tropes about a woman driven witless by a cheating husband. Joan turns the tables on Bob Montgomery until he sobs in her arms and begs forgiveness.
In episode 4, I talk about how watching Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953) as she tries to do nothing on a Sunday leaves me with white knuckles.
In 1928, Harry Cohn sent Frank Capra to replace Irwin Willat on the location shoot for Submarine. Although Capra was reluctant to take over for an experienced director who had the loyalty of cast and crew, he accepted the assignment once the studio head guaranteed that he could reshoot the entire picture. When Capra had reviewed Willat’s rushes, he recoiled at the way the leading men, Jack Holt and Ralph Graves, were made up. In his memoir, The Name Above the Title, Capra recalled how the actors were painted with a heavy hand, with overly drawn faces that lacked realism, which detracted from the story. Holt and Graves wore exaggerated eyeliner and lip rouge that would have been better suited on a vaudeville troupe, rather than face a camera close-up.
Capra argued with Holt that the fussy hairpiece he wore made him look worse and that went double for the face paint. Eventually Holt and Graves were convinced, but only after they viewed the footage Capra shot of them bare faced and with a natural hairline compared to their original makeup. Capra vowed to himself ‘as soon as I was important enough I would get rid of makeup, come actors, come cameramen, come all the Westmores’. He complains about makeup during several passages in his book.
Two years after the Navy picture, Capra directed Barbara Stanwyck in her star vehicle, Ladies ofLeisure, and held firm to his anti-greasepaint principle. In her study of Barbara Stanwyck’s career, Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ella Smith includes an interview with cinematographer Joseph Walker, who photographed Ladies of Leisure. Walker had been advised by studio boss Harry Cohn to make sure that Stanwyck looked glamorous, in line with what the major studios did when they shot the stars. Capra disagreed with how she should be photographed, and stressed his anti-makeup agenda with Walker:
‘Yes, she does look wonderful—but I feel we are losing something. I think she is potentially a great actress, a unique personality, but we are not getting it on the screen. I want to shoot the sequence over with no make-up, no glamorous portraits—just show her as she really is and I think she will be great’.
Whenever Capra shows Stanwyck wearing cosmetics in a scene during Ladies of Leisure, it’s not applied in a glamorous style. In her first scene, Stanwyck steps out of a row boat, with a torn dress strap and smudged mascara, suggesting a narrow escape from rowdy men.
In another scene, Ralph Graves peels off Stanwyck’s false lashes and wipes off her makeup, decades before James Mason washed makeup from Judy Garland in A Star isBorn (1954). The society artist Graves plays thinks Stanwyck’s makeup obscures her true essence, a quality of innocence and hope that he hopes to capture on canvas. Stanwyck’s character wonders why he wants her to look homely, because she equates makeup with the nature of femininity, but since he’s paying by the hour, she submits.
Only briefly did Capra indulge the pleasure of cosmetics during a great scene for Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), when Toshia Mori opens an ornate dressing table full of ornate bottles and jars to assist a woman in the seductive arts. Even then, Capra depicts makeup as a false masque she must assume to please the warlord character played by Nils Asther.
As Capra notes in his autobiography, during their first time working together, Stanwyck cringed at the sight of herself on a big screen when she had an emotional scene. Capra realised that after she watched the rushes, she adjusted her reactions to look more conventionally attractive on the screen. Stanwyck’s biographer Victoria Wilson, in Steel True, reports that Stanwyck didn’t like the way her mouth pulled to one side when she spoke quickly, nor did she enjoy seeing veins pop out on her throat, or the way her hands looked. Capra chose the most expedient solution and told Stanwyck to stay out of the screening room and avoid of the rushes.
Capra’s attitude about makeup is frustrating because it seems like a lack of vision from a man who was an innovator in many respects. Skilled makeup artists use a palette of shades just like a cinematographer uses light to paint a scene. The anti-makeup position that Capra takes sounds like arguments about female purity. The idea of a ‘pure’, natural, or unspoiled woman has all the hallmarks of a backward and regressive worldview. Capra’s aversion to face paint is so easily debunked with any number of Barbara Stanwyck pre-Code pictures where makeup enhances her performance.
Stanwyck once told an interviewer that Frank Capra taught her that acting is all about the eyes. The actor thinks and makes it real for the audience with their eyes. Often though, in the early part of her film career, Barbara Stanwyck shows us plenty with her mouth, and more so when she wears lipstick. The sound of her voice giving out to a man brings me pure joy, especially at a time when it’s easy to feel like life is nothing but chaos and injustice. Stanwyck referred to the moment in her pictures where she detonated onscreen as the ‘Get Outs’. For Stanwyck, the ‘Get Outs’ were the scenes where she shouted abuse at a man and showed him the door. In her pre-Code pictures, before Stanwyck absorbed lessons about studio acting, she was an emotive dynamo waiting to release pent-up frustration.
In her early films, Stanwyck didn’t care how she looked when she was angry. In a scene where she meets with lies, bully tactics, or the smug resolve of someone in a position of power (usually a man), her thermostat rises. When she reaches a boil, her mouth blasts open and contorts on the right side. During a ‘Get Out’, Barbara Stanwyck snarls a five-alarm tirade which always delivers a satisfying moment of truth. Whether she faces men who try to push women around or spoilt rich dames, Stanwyck puts them on notice with a fiery blast.
Pick any year out of a hat between 1929 and 1959, and you could draw an impressive list of films that put women at the centre of the narrative universe. The five pictures from 1949 selected for series 13 feature juicy plots, outstanding performances, and exquisite production values.
Megan McGurk introduces each film in the Brooks Hotel Cinema, Thursdays in January.
As fortune hunters go, you would be hard pressed to find a bigger swoon merchant than Montgomery Clift. Olivia de Havilland won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as Catherine Sloper, a woman who is psychologically battered by her father, played by Ralph Richardson. Dr Sloper believes his daughter plain and lacking grace, so he assumes that a dashing rogue with coxcomb hair only cares for her inheritance. Scene stealing minx Miriam Hopkins turns up to build the drama.
Bette’s character Rosa Molina wants her heart’s desire in hot sex with David Brian, rather than settle for a safe marriage to Joseph Cotten. During a scene meant to clarify ‘the problem with no name’, Bette delivers one of her most quotable lines: ‘What a dump.’ But the line has no exclamation mark. Bette’s discontent and fury are so palpable that some prefer to read it as camp. Make no mistake, Bette plays for keeps through withering glances and acid-laced retorts while she gathers kindling to launch a scorched-earth campaign for independence.
Adapted from J.D. Salinger’s ‘Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut’, from his collection Nine Stories. Julius and Philip Epstein improve upon the original story with dimension for Susan Hayward’s tragic dame. The Epstein brothers create empathy for a woman whose life went off the rails. How does a gal in the wrong dress meet the right guy at the wrong time? Susan Hayward received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a role which reminded audiences that women suffered and made sacrifices during the war—and they weren’t given medals or ticker tape parades.
Joan Crawford re-teams with Mildred Pierce (1945) director Michael Curtiz and co-star Zachary Scott to play a carnival cooch dancer who decides to put down roots in a quiet town. As the local political big wig, Sydney Greenstreet decides she isn’t fit to wait tables, and frames Joan for solicitation. Thirty days in the cooler give her plenty of time to figure out the next move. Joan Crawford looks every bit the business when she applies true grit to occupy a home in the best address—Flamingo Road.
A Letter to
Three Wives (1949)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed the picture that everyone went to see. He earned two Oscars for his efforts. The following year, Mankiewicz made Oscar history when he won the same awards for All About Eve. In his huge success in 1949, three husbands sing the unqualified praises of a suburban siren, Addie Ross. The ‘queen in a silver frame’ sends a letter addressed to three wives: Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell, and Jeanne Crain. Addie’s letter includes a bit of a shocker by way of farewell, when she confesses that she’s run off with one of their husbands. Thelma Ritter and Connie Gilchrist play two hardboiled sass mouth dames who steal every scene they’re given.
Please note the new refund policy: you can request a refund on your ticket up to noon on the day the picture screens. But after that, I don’t have enough time to re-sell the ticket, so it’s up to you to find a taker.
looks as comfortable wearing a power suit and glasses behind a desk as she does
performing water ballet in a turquoise pool. Esther plays a canny swimsuit
designer who balances performance with style for a competitive market. Aside
from the executive-level challenges, will she be able to keep her man-hungry
sister (Betty Garrett) out of trouble?
A Life of Her Own (1950)
Wednesday, 13 November
On her way up as a cover girl, Lana Turner takes advice from a former top model played by Ann Dvorak. At the cusp of forty, Dvorak’s character now only receives the brush-off from men who are always in search of the next fresh face. Lana remains wary around a bossy agent and men who try to get her into bed. She intends to halt her career trajectory for Ray Milland, but is he worth it?
I Can Get it For You Wholesale (1951)
Thursday, 21 November
Hayward works as a mannequin modelling frocks for department store buyers, she
builds a competitive portfolio of original dress designs. She poaches the best
tailor and the best salesman for her team and opens a budget dress brand. Once
their venture becomes successful, George Sanders enters the house like the
snake in the garden, whispering promises of her name on haute couture. Does she
jettison her partners for high fashion ambition?
It Started in Paradise (1952)
Thursday, 28 November
looks like a veritable candy striper devoted to good works compared to the
ruthless backstage machinations of a prestige fashion house in London. What happens
when Jane Hylton is keen to develop her own style, except the old-fashioned name
on the label expects her to produce more of the same? Drama in high fashion
runs on cycles much in the way of florals for spring. The new Elizabethan Age
fashion show is not to be missed.
In woman’s pictures, a reliable formula presents a cautionary tale of three women who seek to make their fortune. Set in a department store among women who work behind a counter, or model clothes as ‘mannequins,’ they pool resources in flat shares and skip lunches to afford clothes. Joan Crawford, Anita Page, and Dorothy Sebastian bide their time on stingy wages while they fend off a pack of society wolves. Joan Crawford tries to keep her friends from falling for the cheap lines pick up artists use. The picture includes fashion show sequences featuring swoonworthy designs by Adrian.
Safe in Hell(1931)
Next time you hear someone make a sarcastic comment about ‘Hollywood endings’, as a shortcut for saccharine fade outs, point them in the direction of Pre-Code Hollywood pictures like Safe in Hell. In one of the most notorious Pre-Codes, Dorothy Mackaill protects herself from a customer’s assault, and afterward, hides out in a Caribbean bolthole to avoid extradition. At first, she thinks boredom is her worst problem. When she accepts an invitation from the men who loiter in the hotel lounge, they compete for her as though she were a roast chicken at the end of forty day fast. William Wellman’s production reminds us that women are never safe when men are around.
Vanity Street (1932)
Helen Chandler, tired, hungry, and homeless, smashes a window so she can at least have three hots and a cot in prison. A police detective (Charles Bickford) takes pity on a woman down on her luck. He offers a meal and his sofa, and then gets her a job in a chorus line. The real star of this picture though is Mayo Methot, better known for being the third Mrs Bogart. Mayo Methot had a gift for playing characters who learn difficult truths about things like inconstant lovers and the fleeting nature of youth and fame. She lays bare the emotional contours of women who have been tossed aside. Not to be missed.
Ladies They Talk About (1933)
During a bank heist, Barbara Stanwyck gets pinched. She doesn’t squeal on her boyfriend’s criminal rackets. She hopes to gain the influence of a popular radio preacher she grew up with, and have the sentence suspended. The plan doesn’t work, so she joins the women’s prison as a ‘new fish’. Stanwyck proves a quick study for how to manage a dame looking for a fight. The scenes behind the walls resemble a sorority house more than the hoosegow. Despite a carceral effect, women on the inside mitigate their grim plight with decorative touches applied to their uniforms and jail cells. You can’t keep a good dame down, even when she’s behind bars.
Heat Lightning (1934)
Where do you go after you’ve had enough of men and life in a chorus line? If you’re Aline MacMahon, you get as far away as possible–the Mojave desert. She opens a filling station and café with her younger sister, played by Ann Dvorak. Wearing overalls, with her mermaid tresses tucked under a bandana, MacMahon limits her worries to heat, rattlesnakes, and keeping her sister out of trouble. Then one day an old flame (Preston Foster) shows up, on the run from the law. Suddenly the great big desert is too small. Cornered, with a siege mentality, a resourceful dame does what she must. To lighten the drama, Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly trade barbs. Director Mervyn LeRoy doesn’t waste a moment in this 63-minute gem.