Joan Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

By: Megan McGurk

From the pages of dialogue you could extract from Joan Crawford’s pictures to parallel her own biography, perhaps the closest match occurs in a scene from The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), when Joan’s character, Ethel Whitehead, secures a lucrative side deal for the mealy-mouthed bookkeeper played by Kent Smith. He insists that she accept a percentage of the take, since she initiated the negotiation.

I wouldn’t have the nerve.

Joan replies: You don’t need it. I’ve got enough for both of us.

Crawford’s resolute grit surpassed the designs of husbands and leading men—except Clark Gable. Gable was her true equal. Once she placed a chiselled shoulder behind a project, she mustered a singular focus honed from observing an early crossroads marked with arrows leading toward either agency or oblivion. If not for Crawford’s ambition and fortitude, she would have languished in her mother’s laundry service. From various incarnations as chorine, flapper, WAMPAS baby star, Pre-Code sass mouth, queen of the box office, fashion maven, glamour puss, grand lady, box office poison, Oscar-winner, come-back queen, Crawford had backbone in spades.

Crawford’s moxie flouted the industry trend of diminished romantic leading roles for women of a certain age, as she ripened in her forties and delivered a string of juicy performances with verve and style. She’s surefooted, confident and wholly in command of the craft for Harriet Craig (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), This Woman is Dangerous (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954), Queen Bee (1955), Female on the Beach (1955) and Autumn Leaves (1956). Even in a bit part as Amanda Farrow in The Best of Everything (1959), Joan appears so vital she could turn the cheap imprint into a Penguin-level publishing house, if men with cask-soaked noggins occupied with little more than clumsy overtures toward girls in the typing pool, such as former co-star Brian Aherne, here as Mr Shalimar, would only kindly exit the building. Crawford reaches the height of her acting prowess for The Damned Don’t Cry, where she built upon the industry’s validation with an Oscar win four years earlier for Mildred Pierce.

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Ginger Rogers: Venus on a Clam Shell in Primrose Path (1940)

By: Megan McGurk

In Gregory La Cava’s sensitive coming of age picture, Ginger Rogers watches Joel McCrea demonstrate how to find clams. It works out to be a bid for romance, one more swoon-inducing than a moonlit walk in a rose garden. Among flirtatious scenes, woman’s pictures found new ways to reinvent girl-meets-boy. Their beach encounter occasions Ginger’s sexual awakening. Delivered by way of clam shell, like a modern-day Venus, she decides to abandon a childish disguise and embrace womanhood. What better time to grow up than to receive more kisses from Joel McCrea?

La Cava selects a bit of shoreline adjacent to a dusty California road for the scene and anchors his picture in a grubby realism that resists flashy aesthetics to stage character growth. My favourite director pares down costume and scenery to underscore an earnest response. La Cava may indulge his version of working class virtue as unadorned, in shabby backgrounds punctuated by scripted double negatives and inelegant syntax in a story that presents sexy poses (for women) and university education (for men) as routes down a less than ideal path, but those objections seem begrudging in an otherwise heartfelt film.

McCrea’s Ed Wallace coaxes Ginger Rogers’ Ellie May Adams through the basics of clam digging. McCrea doesn’t know that she’s scrounging a hangover cure for her resigned alcoholic father, but he admires her pluck. He schools her in foraging arts as a compliment to her wit, which always signals a man above the crowd. They meet for the second time on the beach. The first time they met, in the previous scene, she was a hitchhiker eating a free meal at his lunch counter.

Unlike the ‘Porta-gee’ girls (the script’s colloquialism for Portuguese girls working in the local sardine cannery) who giggle at his behind the counter repertoire (McCrea pronounces it rep-ar-tee), Ellie criticises his banter with customers. In a startling rejection of age-old courtship advice that compels women to laugh at any man’s jokes, Ellie refuses to feign passive delight with Ed’s humour and blisters his cornpone lines one by one. She challenges his cock ‘o the café status and in doing so, she highlights their dynamic with word play and alternate punchlines from the first moment. He may have repertoire, but Ellie turns his solo act into an improvisational duo. As she steals the spotlight with wisecracks, she positions herself as an equal partner before they have traded names. While Ellie waits for Gramp (Henry Travers) to make her a sandwich, she critiques his stale routine. No wonder McCrea’s head snaps around in a reaction shot. Barely a minute at the counter and this so-called kid he had joked about playing truant bests him at his own game. Gramp pushes a plate in front of Ellie, suggesting she ignore Ed’s jokes:

Gramp: Don’t pay attention to him. His mind wanders.

Ellie Mae: Maybe it never came back.

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Susan Hayward’s Frock in My Foolish Heart (’49)

By: Megan McGurk

Woman’s pictures elevate the significance of style details to an unwritten code that informs women’s lives. In a classic double bind, women negotiate sartorial choices that have both enormous importance and absolutely none at all. In woman’s pictures, viewers bask in plots that measure the thread and texture among layers of stylish import. Ask a woman what she wore when she met the love of her life and odds favour her total recall.

If she pays no attention to matters of style, she’s a rube, such as Jeanne Crain in her mail order dress in A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Wearing a tatty chiffon monstrosity with too many tiers and improbably placed floral appliques, she makes her social debut outfitted as a hick among soigné country club wives. A woman’s lack of style presents social embarrassment, it renders her a ‘Christmas tree’, as snotty teenagers brand over-embellished Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937), whose lack of taste authorises her stuck up daughter to leave and pretend her mother never existed. Style deficiency paints a woman as a gate crasher from the unfortunate side of the tracks, as Lana Turner’s taxi dancer appears to be among spoilt co-eds in These Glamour Girls (1939). A series of awkward, ill-fitted gowns prepare Olivia de Havilland for her father’s psychological abuse and the cruelties of a fortune hunter in The Heiress (1949).

If a woman pays too much attention to fashion, she’s a bubble-headed half-wit with nothing better to do, like Scarlett O’Hara before she must plow the earth to survive, before the war, when women did little else than boast about the size of their waist. An obvious focus on style indicates an outrageous socialite with too much time on her hands, like Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939), who wears a shirtwaist dress with a bustle to a fashion show, where she declares with dramatic irony that ‘no one disputes how I wear clothes’. Or, if she devotes her life to fashion, like the designer Barbara Stanwyck plays in There’s Always Tomorrow (1955) when she makes a friendly overture to Joan Bennett by offering her a dress straight off the runway, Bennett’s character smugly dismisses the need for a stylish dress to stage a romantic evening with the husband played by Fred MacMurray. Busy wives and mothers don’t have time for such larks, she basically scoffs. Bennett relegates Stanwyck’s professional accomplishments to the trash heap with a single eviscerating comment.

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Irene Dunne’s Unfinished Business

By: Megan McGurk

Robert Montgomery usually trades upon breezy gin-marinated smarm in his romantic roles, such as the louse he plays in The Divorcee (1930), a man who takes advantage of Norma Shearer’s marriage trouble to wheedle sex, or the department shop heir who watches Joan Crawford undress after she appears in a fashion show in Our Blushing Brides from the same year. Rich boy with entitlement issues was his character pigeon-hole throughout the 1930s. He wore a groove in celluloid as louche playboys more comfortable handling a cocktail shaker than a leading lady. He’s a bit of a surprise in Gregory La Cava’s Unfinished Business (1941), because for the first time, he drops the detached bravado long enough to register empathy for a woman. Montgomery’s Tommy Duncan observes what escapes everyone else in the room: Irene Dunne’s humiliation. For a man who has enough privilege to buffer any acknowledgement of human suffering, he nonetheless catches Dunne’s emotional agony. And he applies a balm of comfort.

What leads Irene Dunne’s Nancy Andrews to table side humiliation begins when she joins the ranks of screen heroines who leave domestic obligations and claim a right to their own adventure. Garbo in Susan Lenox, Crawford in Possessed, Lombard in No Man of Her Own, Stanwyck in Baby Face, Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry, rank among a legion of women in film who exchange traditional family roles for independence.

Once Irene Dunne’s Nancy watches her younger sister marry, she’s free from her mothering role, and able to leap headlong into a plan to become ‘unsettled’. Although the newlyweds extend a room for her in their house, by way of compensation for her sacrificed youth, Nancy decides to become a professional singer in Manhattan. At 43 years-old, Irene Dunne looks at least ten years younger, so we understand her reluctance to occupy a rocking chair and sexless doom. Viewers may regard La Cava’s picture as an updated version of John Stahl’s Back Street (1932), where this time around, Irene Dunne’s character need not scurry around the margins of a man’s life for two decades.

On the train to New York, the likelihood of romance Nancy had wished for dissipates with the grim bargain struck between Preston Foster’s Steve Duncan and his friend Frank (played by Dick Foran) to find the prettiest girl on the train. Once they fan out at opposites ends to inspect the women to win the $100 stakes, there’s no possibility for human connection. Their pact somehow resists age or reason. You could stage the same exact wager between men today without losing a shred of plausibility. Yes, this is how some men pass the time, by hunting women, just short of bagging and tagging their prey.  La Cava underscores their creepiness, and spares us any degree of glossy boys-will-be-boys treacle.

Unabashed, the men indulge in bouts of howling catch calls, heads thrown back, yearning for cave fires and dragging women by the hair. Steve and Frank consider themselves heroic Casanovas, except they appear more recognisable for what they are–spoilt middle-aged lechers with an empathy deficit.

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