Saturday, April 1, 2017

Gangsta Gal Joan Crawford is 'Damned' and 'Dangerous'

Warner Bros. workin' that Crawford formula: The age-old question for movie fans of the '40s and '50s!

Joan Crawford shot to stardom as the symbol of flaming youth in 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters. MGM set the standard for many Crawford movies by mixing her own hard luck story into the scripts: the working girl of humble origins that pulls herself up by the bootstraps, overcoming social and sexual bias, to get everything she wants.

When Joan re-booted her career at Warner Brothers, her first starring flick, Mildred Pierce, re-set the boilerplate: Crawford was now the mature working woman from humble origins, ultimately successful, but sidetracked by weak or double-crossing men.

Shady lady Crawford, a crook with a heart!
Near the end of her WB run, Crawford played the shady lady version of the working woman, still pulling herself up by the ankle strap shoes—but by any means necessary.

This brings us to The Damned Don’t Cry! and This Woman is Dangerous, released in 1950 and ’52, respectively. Compared to 1945’s Mildred Pierce, the Crawford formula demonstrated the Hollywood law of diminishing returns. Mildred was Joan’s mid-career triumph, her Oscar winner and biggest money-maker. Five years later, Damned grossed a third of Mildred’s box-office. Just two years later, This Woman is Dangerous made half of what The Damned Don’t Cry! did.

Damned and Dangerous offers about the same quotient of entertainment value compared to Mildred. Are they great films? No. Are they great fun? Yes and no. The Damned Don’t Cry! is a stylish though ridiculous noir. This Woman is Dangerous is strictly for Crawford fans.

A surprisingly de-glammed Joan, a working-class mom in 'The Damned Don't Cry!'
In both melodramas, Joan plays a gangsta gal. In The Damned Don’t Cry!, 40-something Joan is Ethel Whitehead, a housewife of an oil rig worker and mother of a small boy. Already dissatisfied with her lot in life—that name alone!—Ethel makes a quick exit after the boy is run over by a truck. Only in old movies does the star go from housewife to “model” to gangster girlfriend in ten minutes. And what would a latter day Joan Crawford vehicle be without men fussing and fighting over her? After leaving suspiciously younger oil rigger Richard Egan, Ethel enters into a convenient romance with wimpy accountant, WB dull boy Kent Smith. But just one round with a tough gangster, played as usual by David Brian, and Ethel is crazy about the kingpin. Joan is transformed from blah Ethel Whitehead to la-de-da Lorna Hansen Forbes. Brian then gets the bright idea to have Joan’s irresistible “lady” to romance a fellow gangster, WB stud Steven Cochran, to get the goods on him. Guess what? They hit it off! Pretty soon, Brian wants them both bumped off.

Joan & her less than stellar leading men. I chose this photo, because it's a rare shot
of onscreen sourpuss David Brian  (far right) smiling!
The downside for a dynamic movie diva like Joan Crawford is that you often must carry the movie yourself. At MGM, Joan starred opposite all of Metro’s leading men. But once Crawford hit middle age, her leading men were a mixed bag. At WB, Joan started off with John Garfield, Henry Fonda, and Dana Andrews. Then it was down the Hollywood food chain for co-starring actors. Were her pairings with thuggish Richard Egan, Steven Cochran, Jack Palance, and Jeff Chandler intended to soften her? And what about sourpusses like Van Heflin, Wendell Corey, John Ireland, and especially, David Brian? Brian starred in 1949’s Beyond the Forest, as Bette Davis’ allegedly he-man boyfriend. He took up film acting at Joan’s suggestion—I assume she vouched for Brian to Jack Warner. Brian starred opposite Joan three times: Flamingo Road, The Damned Don’t Cry!, and This Woman is Dangerous. With his beady eyes, weak chin, and mouth in a permanent sneer, David Brian was one of the least appealing men to ever grace the silver screen. Perhaps he had hidden talents, as my Dad used to say!

WB stud Steven Cochran, who performed better off-screen!
In Damned, Brian gets replaced in Joan’s affections by greasy Steven Cochran, who looks like a cross between truck driver-era Elvis and a young Jay Leno. Joan’s mid-life leading men were certainly a far cry from Gable, Cooper, and Robert Taylor.

In This Woman is Dangerous, Joan is Elizabeth Austin, a “society woman.” To her fellow gangsters, she’s just plain Beth! Once again, David Brian plays her hot-headed gangsta guy and Joan, his moll. Beth is loyal to the big lug because he was there for her when she got outta the pen. This time around, Joan is going blind and needs an operation. The doctor, played by crooner-turned-comatose Dennis Morgan, is so skilled that he not only restores her vision, but also Joan’s faith in love. The rest of the film is Joan romancing on the down low, while crazy criminal Brian is on the lam. The film’s climax is a shoot out in the hospital’s surgery room—I’m not kidding.

'Damned' Joan as a clothing sellers' 'model' who's a hit with the buyers!
Of the two melodramas, The Damned Don’t Cry! gives Joan a greater character arc. As the poor wife, Joan is even more deglamorized than the opening scenes of Mildred Pierce. Aside from the magnificent sight of seeing the mature Joan Crawford’s great face without all the war paint, her Ethel is genuinely played. As the tough cookie on the way up, Joan’s snappy patter is entertaining and believable. I always thought Joan was more fun on-screen when she played working class women. Once she is “groomed” to be a “lady,” Lorna Hanson Forbes feels like Joan Crawford, the leading lady. Still, it’s fun watching Joan swan around Palm Springs, fending off men and fighting back tears.

Joan with Kent Smith, about to have a showdown with tough guy David Brian.
The Damned Don’t Cry! feels like a mash-up of every WB Joan Crawford movie, whereas This Woman is Dangerous just feels like a mish-mash. Damned has more verve, zingier dialogue, and snappier locations. In Dangerous, many scenes take place in a hospital, hotel room, mobile home, or the doctor’s dull home. Crawford is surprisingly subdued as ‘Beth,’ whether recovering from surgery or trying to talk down her crazy boyfriend. There’s definitely a “B” movie feel to This Woman is Dangerous. Two decades later, Crawford called this the worst film she ever appeared in. I’ve got just one word in response: Trog!  I’ll amend Crawford’s quote: this is the worst movie Joan appeared in under her Warner Brothers contract.

Rumor has it Jack Warner offered 'This Woman is Dangerous'
to veterans Crawford & Dennis Morgan, hoping they'd turn it down.
By the time Jack Warner offered Joan Crawford This Woman is Dangerous, he probably hoped she’d turn it down and go off salary, and Joan realized it was time to roll the career dice again. Crawford’s comeback as an independent wasn’t as memorable as Mildred, but 1953’s Sudden Fear was a modest commercial success from which Joan benefited greatly—and got a third Oscar nomination to boot. From here, Joan played the hot mama romancing surly looking, younger leading men. Crawford then morphed into the tough, middle-aged career woman.





After that, Joan Crawford made one last comeback, when she was the catalyst for 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The surprise suspense hit and follow-up roles, along with performing publicity duties for Pepsi Cola, kept Joan in the public eye for another decade. By the mid-70s, Crawford withdrew from public view, after 50 years of stardom.

'Dangerous' Joan recovers from eye surgery & reading the script!
The Damned Don’t Cry! and This Woman is Dangerous are perfect examples of movie vehicles driven by great stars. And Joan Crawford always drove hers like a champ.
Joan on the set of 'This Woman is Dangerous':
"How do I get outta this picture!"



4 comments:

  1. Hi Rick - Wow, what a wonderful essay on these two Crawford films and the denoument of her career at Warner Brothers...you truly are a marvelous film historian and a pleasure to read.

    I just watched my new BluRay edition of Mildred Pierce this past weekend, and among the extras on the collection is the 2002 documentary on Crawford's life, and when the clips of Damned Don't Cry and Flamingo Road were shown, I made a mental note that I need to see them again after many years. I will now add This Woman is Dangerous to the list, strictly to examine the petering out of the Warners/Crawford formula.

    I need to do a post of Harriet Craig one day...it is my favorite mature Crawford vehicle after Mildred...

    I always love reading your great blog!
    -Chris

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    1. Thanks, Chris!
      These two movies are great companion pieces... I haven't checked out Flamingo Road in years.
      Yes, write a piece on Harriet, I love reading other writers' stuff!
      Cheers,
      Rick

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  2. What a great idea to "package" these two similar movies, to illustrate the ups and downs of a career like Joan's. "Feud" on tv is fictionalized but you get the struggle that an actress has to endure to get quality work. I loved "Damned" for many reasons and will definitely check out "Dangerous" thanks!

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  3. Gingerguy, Crawford fans will enjoy "Dangerous" most--and it's significant as her last WB film. JC is actually restrained in this one, especially when you consider what the rest of the '50s will bring! Cheers, Rick

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