You’d never know it from the way he’s written about but George Cukor is one of American cinema’s greatest directors. His best films (Dinner at Eight, David Copperfield, Holiday, Camille, The Philadelphia Story, A Star is Born, Adam’s Rib etc) are amongst the greatest American cinema has ever produced and thus impossible to ignore. But the critical treatment of his lesser films proves my point. Every Hawks bomb is trawled through like the Dead Sea Scrolls for signs of the great man’s ‘signature’. Yet, films like A Woman’s Face, very considerable ones, are largely ignored except, in this instance at least, by Joan Crawford fans, who tend not to appreciate that much of what they love about Crawford in this movie is due to Cukor.
The film is a remake of the Swedish En kvinnas ansikte (Sweden, 1938) with Ingrid Bergman, itself based on a play, Il etait une fois, by Francis de Croisset. I saw it many years ago in a retrospective of Bergman’s Swedish films at the Cinémathèque Québécoise and remember thinking how great a director Gustaf Molander was and what a pity that Bergman was never allowed to play roles like that in Hollywood. But I did not take notes and my memory remains vague. I must see it again.
Moira Finnie writes that, “according to producer Victor Saville, he and George Cukor were brainstorming in his office at MGM when Joan Crawford entered one day in 1941. Nearing the end of her 18 year tenure at MGM as the studio turned its attention to fresh faces such as Greer Garson and Lana Turner, Crawford put her need matter-of-factly, “Look boys, I haven’t made a picture in a year. This one has got to be good and I’ll do anything you want me to do.”
A Woman’s Face is a courtroom drama. Joan Crawford plays Anna Holm, the head of a blackmail gang accused of murdering Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt). Anna is in love with love but rendered bitter because her face is so deformed she thinks no man will love her. When the aristocratic Barring shows her the least attention, she falls for him, even though he’s only using her for money. They’re really opposites: she outwardly monstrous but good inside; he the picture of genial aristocratic bonhomie on the outside but evil inside. Anna cruelly extorts Vera Segert (Osa Massen) for being pretty, desired, comfortable, unfaithful – all that she’s not – but this is interrupted by the arrival of her husband, Dr. Gustaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas) a famed plastic surgeon, who sees Anna and decides to maker of her a project and restore her face. As Anna is rendered beautiful – which is to say she begins to be shown as the Joan Crawford everyone recognises – all her goodness comes to the surface again and she’s unable to go through with the plot to kill Barring’s nephew, Lars-Erik (Richard Nichols), the child who stands in the way of Barring inheriting a great fortune. As the case proceeds Anna and Dr. Segert admit their love for each other. There’s a letter, initially forgotten, that will absolve Anna.
The rough outline of the structure is simple: Joan Crawford is accused of murder and Cukor does a marvellous job of withholding her face, filming her only from the back, then showing only the part of her face that is whole, then showing her as a shadowy outline (see above), before revealing her disfigurement. Whereas most stars get one entrance; here Crawford gets a whole series of them in a marvellous coup-de-théâtre. The witnesses are also introduced in a clever and engaging way (Donald Meek as a mild-mannered swindler, Marjorie Main as the no nonsense housekeeper etc.)
Cukor is generous and gives each actor their moment to shine. They each also get to tell part of the story, thus briefly becoming the centre of it. This telling is not as sophisticated as it could be. Their knowledge is not narratively restricted and they’re also not restricted to their point of view. The information conveyed by the story in flashback exceeds that which each of the characters might be privy to. It’s been simplified so that each character is merely an excuse for the story to be told as it would ordinarily have been – linearly. Each character’s telling is a touchstone to the story rather than a point-of-view on it, but told in flashback to create tension around particular ‘reveals’, not the least of which is Joan Crawford’s many faces.
The material is second rate. Donald Ogden Stewart’s structure of it is clever in that it streamlines it but in doing so it irons out complexities that more sophisticated explorations of knowledge and point-of-view could have wrung out of the material. But Cukor’s direction is a marvel. You might have already seen the glorious Crawford ‘reveal ‘, a shadowy outline brought into the light as an embodiment of ugly bitterness, in in the clip above. I’d here like to further demonstrate only a few aspects of it. In the clip below, note simply the humour Cukor injects with the way he films what seems like a nice middle-aged lady knowingly smoking where she shouldn’t, revealing her rebellion through her nose. It’s characteristic of the the sly, witty direction in the film. It’s also indicative of the wonders Cukor draws out of actors. Veidt and Ossa Massen are superb and no one is less than good. Crawford herself was very proud of her performance here and credited for setting the ground for her Academy Award later on for Mildred Pierce.
In the clip below, note how Cukor generously allows Osa Massen her close-up. See how Massen says the line ‘as usual’. Then the dissolve into the fashion magazines, the camera moving to the nuts, chocolates and bibelots on the coffee table, the flower, the un-made bed. This is a pretty, frivolous woman of many appetites and little willpower. Also she’s in trouble. When she tells us the doorbell rang, the flowers are shown in shadow and the travelling shot on the staircase focusses on the bars rather than the feet. Note the contrast between Anna and Vera. Vera’s taller and prettier. But see how the angles change once the tables are turned. It’s a great scene marred only by the dialogue so typical of the phony high-culture aspirations of so many Crawford characters in this period: ‘Such cheapness. You call these love letters. Have you ever read any real love letters: Georges Sand. Debussy. Keats. Browning.’ Vera might not have. But Cukor draws out a wonderful comic performance out of Massen in the midst of a very threatening and shadowy extortion scene where Anna’s danger and her longings are clearly expressed. It’s very good.
The direction of A Woman’s Face is wonderful at creating and maintaining a mood, at inserting comic elements into the bleakest of situations, at drawing out complex characterisations. All this Cukor is renown for. But this film also has two wonderful action set-pieces, one Anna’s attempt at killing a child in an areal cablecar over snowy mountains. The other, a magnificent chase scene in snow sleighs which you can see below:
Note the alteration of angles, with Conrad Veidt and Crawford often filmed from the same angle, from below and in medium close-up. See how purposefully the compositions go under the sleigh to allows us to see how close the pursuing horse and sleigh are approaching. Note too the timing of each. It’s clever, imaginative and beautifully done in order to create tension and excitement, all in the middle of a great confession from Anna and even as she demonstrates her goodness by performing the most evil action we see her do. It’s magnificent direction in a fine film that, though not one of Cukor’s best, certainly deserves a great deal more attention.
According to Finnie, twenty years after the film was released , Joan Crawford commented that A Woman’s Face was “my last happy part at MGM and my last good part for a long time. A star’s career proverbially lasts five years. Ten years was exceptional. Well…I’d had it. I was over 30, as a matter of fact, over 34. Years ago Willie Haines had told me that when you start to slide in this business it’s like walking on nothing, the career of no return. I hadn’t understood. Now I was walking on nothing”. That might well have been. But Crawford fans will see in this film the seeds that would come to flower in the noir world the star would explore and make her own from Mildred Pierce onwards.