Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Joan Crawford Fierce in 'A Woman's Face'

MGM's PR department goes the classy route promoting 'A Woman's Face!'

A Woman’s Face is a fascinating look at one of Joan Crawford’s best performances, one that is somewhat overshadowed by her more famous roles. The 1941 drama of a physically and emotionally scarred criminal was Crawford’s last quality picture before leaving MGM, her long-time studio. 

MGM makeup artist Jack Dawn created Joan's scars as Anna Holm.
Joan plays Anna Holm, a ringleader for a ragtag band of crooks. The victim of a childhood accident, a fire ignited by her drunken father, Crawford’s Anna is left with a hideous scar on her face. Guided by George Cukor, renowned as a “woman’s director,” Crawford is restrained throughout A Woman’s Face. Joan plays Holm as utterly hate-filled, but with glimpses of hurt. Not always the most subtle of actresses, Crawford alternates the conflicting feelings of her character in a natural, believable way.

In A Woman’s Face, though Anna’s back story is given—with emphasis that 30-something Crawford’s character was 27!—Joan’s criminal is at first unrepentantly hard. When the surgeon’s unfaithful wife mocks blackmailing Crawford’s disfigured face, she is rewarded with some of Joan’s best onscreen face slapping ever. The scene is drawn out and disturbing—especially in a movie from genteel MGM.

The operation is a success. So is Crawford's performance, one of her most subtle.
One of Anna’s would-be victims, Dr. Segert, intrigued by this tough piece of work, offers to operate on her damaged face. The surgery is a success, but Anna has struck a bargain with a cad from a wealthy family, Torsten Barring, who is cash-poor himself. His solution is to have Crawford’s character pose as a governess and knock off the child heir to the family fortune. The big question is: Anna has healed on the outside, but has her humanity healed, as well?

A Woman’s Face is told in flashback, framed by a murder trial. Crawford is supported by some of the best of MGM’s stock company: Melvyn Douglas as the surgeon; Marjorie Main as Emma, the wealthy family’s housekeeper; Reginald Owen, Donald Meek, Connie Gilchrist, Henry Daniell, and Osa Massen are familiar film faces who round out the cast.

Suave and sinister as Torsten. Veidt is best remembered for Casablanca.
Conrad Veidt as Torsten is one of the sexiest movie villains ever! A star from the German silents, Veidt was still an aristocratic, handsome man with piercing blue eyes. As the cash-poor cad, he is magnetically charming, but totally twisted in his inheritance scheme. Often cast as a Nazi villain, Veidt was actually a hero, a German actor who publicly denounced Hitler while declaring his love for his Jewish wife. Sadly, he died two years later, shortly after appearing in Casablanca. Conrad Veidt died of a heart attack on a Hollywood golf course, with Ingrid Bergman’s then-husband, a doctor, attending to him.
Meanwhile, leading man Melvyn Douglas, a fine actor from the studio era, whose no-nonsense style never dated, has nothing to do as Dr. Segert, the surgeon who saves Joan’s face and soul. He disappears for long stretches of the film and when he’s onscreen his character is merely an observer to Crawford’s actions.

Swedish governess Crawford giving a UV treatment to her little charge! 
Child actor Richard Nichols is adorable as Lars-Erik, the heir in danger. There’s an amusing scene where governess Crawford gives him a UV treatment—with huge goggles yet—was Joan the first tanning salon professional captured on film? Nichols appeared in Bette Davis’ All This and Heaven Too the previous year, where Davis played, yes, a governess accused of murder. Imagine having both Joan and Bette play your nanny—and a murder suspect!

George Cukor deserves credit for giving Joan Crawford strong direction in their three films together, whom Crawford herself paid tribute to many times. Cukor was a blunt, articulate director and demanded Joan truly play her characters, and not play Joan Crawford performing a dramatic character.
Honey, you're going to be SO sorry you laughed at Joan Crawford's scarred face!
This is especially true with A Woman’s Face. Cukor and the film’s producer demanded that Joan tone down her MGM glamour mask and mannerisms. As in The Women, Joan’s “MGM English” is dialed back for the most part, and probably sounds like the real Crawford. Great stars often cling to their personas and it takes a strong director to get them to let go. Director William Wyler fought ferociously with Bette Davis to rein in her theatrical tendencies—yet together, Bette gave three of her best performances. Later, Davis trusted Joseph Mankiewicz’ directing and writing skills, and together they made the classic All About Eve. Similarly, Elizabeth Taylor deferred to Mike Nichols’ genius and gave the performance of her career in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? So, kudos to Cukor in gaining Joan’s trust and respect: Crawford stays in character, and does not play a caricature of herself as Anna Holm.

Will Joan kill or spare the heir, played by Richard Nichols?
As to Joan Crawford’s actual talent as an actress, my opinion is that a director cannot deliver a truly good performance from a non-actor. A perfect example of that is Alfred Hitchcock’s attempt at molding a dramatic performance from amateur actress Tippi Hedren in Marnie. When Virginia Woolf was released, Nichols gave several statements that he didn’t “get” a great performance out of Elizabeth Taylor, because the talent was there. However, even a Meryl Streep benefits from a strong director, over a weak one. Joan Crawford has never been afraid to give everything she’s got as a star and actress. But strong directors like Edmund Goulding, Michael Curtiz, Robert Aldrich, and George Cukor were not afraid to offer constructive criticism, whether it was for Crawford to take it down a notch, speak naturally, or to wear hairstyles, makeup, and clothes in keeping with her character. On some of her later films, Joan overruled weaker directors on clothes, makeup, and script changes—though it was actually against her own best interests.

What about my festive folk outfit?! Melvyn Douglas wasn't one of Hollywood's best straight men for nothing!
The first half of A Woman’s Face is dark and direct; as Anna’s hard heart slowly thaws, the film’s later half is more slick soap opera. Unlike some modern viewers who can’t stand “old movies” with their old-school acting and story -telling, I’m pretty good at looking at the big moving picture. However, I have two criticisms of what prevents A Woman’s Face from achieving classic status. First, the story is an American remake of a Swedish film, starring Ingrid Bergman, before she came to Hollywood. So, why didn’t MGM set the film in the US? The cast is all American archetypes, from Crawford to Melvyn Douglas to Ma Kettle herself, Marjorie Main. Yet, they’re playing Swedes—at least they don’t attempt accents! The party scene at the family mansion, with Joan sporting Swedish garb while joining a folk dance, is a hoot. Second, the MGM glamour is at times so gaga. It is one thing when Joan goes to work for a wealthy family in the second half, but the early scenes at a Swedish country tavern that looks like a Walt Disney fairytale as depicted in Thomas Kinkade painting. Smooth criminal Crawford mixes with patrons, who wear suits and glittering evening gowns at a rural inn.

'Face' was head and shoulders above Joan Crawford's early '40s films.
Upon release, Joan received strong reviews for her performance and A Woman’s Face became a modest financial success. Unfortunately, Joan Crawford was fighting an uphill battle after being labeled—somewhat unfairly—“box office poison” in 1938. At MGM since 1925, Crawford swiftly rose from popular starlet to bonafide movie star, but most of her roles were sleek soap operas or fluffy comedies. Starting with 1939’s The Women, also directed by George Cukor, Crawford let the studio and critics know that she wasn’t afraid to play unsympathetic or unglamorous roles. The spiritual drama, Strange Cargo, with Clark Gable followed in ‘40, earning mixed notices for the film, but strong ones for the stars. The satirical comedy, Susan and God—again with Cukor and Melvyn Douglas—had Crawford playing a mother of a teenager, a movie diva taboo at the time.

I think the real reason Joan Crawford fell out of fashion at MGM was because the studio was changing—no reflection on Joan, who was always game to mix things up. After Irving Thalberg died in 1936, L.B. Mayer was large and in charge. And two of his up and coming stars were superstars by the time the 1940s arrived: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Their stardom seemed to pave the way for other musical and comedy stars.
Where did this leave Joan? Greer Garson arrived at MGM in 1939 and instantly became a star with Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Garson then got all the “great lady” parts, inherited from Norma Shearer, who had left Metro about the same time as Joan. Then starlet Lana Turner broke through with Ziegfeld Girl. A decade earlier, Joan would certainly have played the Turner parts in Johnny Eager and The Postman Always Rings Twice with Clark Gable. Turner, touted as the next Jean Harlow, actually took over Joan Crawford’s mantle as the glamour star whose highly publicized personal life often mixed with her films.

Despite these game attempts like A Woman’s Face, Crawford’s career was considered on the down slope. Clinkers like They All Kissed the Bride, Above Suspicion, and Reunion in France that followed didn’t help the perception. By 1943, Joan was closing in on 20 years at MGM, and considered past her sell-by date (an expression Cher used to describe her own mid-career ups-and-downs!).

Joan Crawford, in a role said to have been intended for Garbo.
A Woman’s Face is a precursor to Joan’s later dramatic work at Warner Brothers. Crawford believed that her Oscar win for 1945’s Mildred Pierce was a career Oscar for cumulative work in films like The Women and A Woman’s Face. Maybe, but Hollywood also loves a comeback! I wish A Woman’s Face had been filmed at Warner Bros. It would have been grittier and free of that overwhelming MGM gloss. The story certainly appealed to other Warner Bros. actresses—Bette Davis and Ida Lupino both performed Crawford’s role in radio versions of A Woman’s Face.

Despite Joan Crawford’s herculean efforts, her battle to extend her range and shelf life were initially somewhat in vain. However, Joan’s never say die attitude prepared her when she left MGM after 18 years and moved to Warner Bros. Crawford’s tenacity and talent paid off when she waited for—and got—Mildred Pierce. And the rest, as they say, is history.
For those who aren’t devoted Joan Crawford fans, check out A Woman’s Face. It’s a fine dress rehearsal for Joan’s Warner Bros. years.
Joan Crawford: A Movie Star's Face.



8 comments:

  1. Great write up on one of my favorite, non-camp Crawford films. In fact, it's one of the movies that contributed to altering my opinion of Crawford as merely a figure of overkill and melodrama.
    She's good in this, and like you, I'm able to suspend disbelief as the incongruities of casting and MGM gloss take over. It is indeed baffling why they didn't just relocate the action to the US.
    I remember liking the little boy very much and finding the motley band of characters comic. I haven't seen it in a while. A few months back on the movie streaming site Filmstruck, I finally got a look at the Ingrid Bergman version. It's really marvelous, and so simpler in plot that comparisons become unnecessary. Joan and Bergman are each excellent in very different ways (of course, the pain Bergman is able to convey with her eyes is something else altogether).
    Thanks for so enjoyably covering another classic favorite, Rick!

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  2. I'll have to check out the Bergman version sometime. Fascinating that a naturalistic actress like Bergman flourished in '40s Hollywood!

    I had never viewed 'A Woman's Face' in its entirety until recently, and most impressed by Joan. Alas, like most great stars, when left to her devices, preferred to play the star versus the character.

    Cheers, Rick

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  3. Absolutely categorically agree on Torsten Barring being one of, if not *the* sexiest villain in screen history. Really glad to see someone else who gets it. What I think makes that twisted, sadomasochistic erotic tension between Joan and Connie work was exactly because they were sexually voracious people in real life, people who knew what sex was about. You really couldn't have had Anna shiver the way Joan does as he just *looks* at her or twists her arm, were she the sort of woman who'd never had an orgasm in her life. That shot where he slowly pulls her to himself at the country dance and her eyes meet his and he spins her away (this bit here: http://aikainkauna.tumblr.com/post/37488491613 ) is as perfect a depiction of someone sinking into subspace as I've ever seen, and I've seen some pretty damn rough BDSM porn in my time. All the Torsten/Anna scenes beat *all* the porn I've ever seen when it comes to dark eroticism, really, but... Connie has a gift for that. I don't think a neurotic male actor could've pulled that part off with such staggering confidence and catlike fluidity either--you had to have a guy who knew exactly how powerful and charismatic he was. Confidence is sexy, and he's got it in spades. I have often thought what the role would've been like had Torsten been played by, say, Basil Rathbone or Claude Rains (whom I both love), but they would've been far more rigid, I think, not having that kind of bouncing, dancing walk and those incredibly loose hips--way too neurotic or stiff for that kind of thing. Hell, the whole concept of Torsten's character--a guy who's so good in bed, so good with his evil sex that you'd be ready to kill for him (and Anna is shown to be a tough bitch who won't fall for just any old bullying playboy, as we can see at the start)--is preposterous, but Connie makes it work perfectly. I believe it completely, but I wouldn't believe it of anyone else.

    *Drags in deep breath* I honestly will be here forever if I start talking about the genderbending aspects of the pairing as well... sorry, I'm just slightly obsessed with this movie that I had to pipe up. It's so rare to see anyone even mentioning it, let alone heaping praise on Torsten's sexiness (I think that in this, too, one has to know something about sex to even get the true depth of all the subtle things in that pairing's dynamic). I'll shut up now, but, yes :)

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    1. Hi, I know Veidt still has a big following out there and it's easy to see why! I think European actors are more confident and natural in their sexuality, whereas many American stars "act" sexy. There's a difference! Thanks for your great comments, Rick

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  4. LOVE this movie and think it contains a brilliant Crawford performance (along with Veidt and the little one, who was truly precious!) I agree that it might have been made better without the candy-coated Swedish settings and clothes (or if done that way, but with a lighter touch!) I didn't realize that Bette had done the part on radio! No doubt it was somewhat easier to portray a disfigured person on radio than to sit through hours of makeup applications... LOL Thanks for the spotlight on this unusual (for MGM) film which, as you say, has a hint of what JC would do at Warner Brothers.

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    1. Thanks, Poseidon! You can find both Bette and Ida's radio performances on YouTube!

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  5. Bizarrely I just put this on my Netflix list. I recently discovered Conrad Veidt in great little gem called "The Spy In Black" and fell in love. I am so sorry to hear he died so young. I can't wait to watch this again after reading your informative write-up and all the comments. I have revised my own opinion of Joan Crawford though I still love her campy. I will watch this with new eyes (if not a new face).

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    1. Good to hear from you, Gingerguy! Will be curious to see what you think. And yes, Conrad was cool! Cheers, Rick

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