We’re joined by Birmingham blogger Laura Creaven (www.constantlycurious.co.uk) for a discussion of our fourth Michael Curtiz film, the film noir Mildred Pierce. We’re glad of her perspective, as this is a film all about women, their relationships and desires.
We discuss the film’s flashback structure – though it helped the film get made in the Hays Code era, would the film be even stronger with a simple chronological plot? Class is everywhere too, motivating the mother-daughter conflict that’s central to the film, and we consider America’s class system and social mobility, and whether you could tell this story in Britain.
We look closely at Curtiz’s use of shadows and mirrors to imply off-screen space and create meaningful, poetic images. And there’s a lot to discuss in the construction of the characters, both male and female – we think about how masculine and feminine characteristics are deployed in both, and how roles are reversed.
Mike and Laura talk about how they each had differing attitudes to the framing device of showing the climax first, Mike wanting to know how the film would tie its plot up and Laura not caring very much. It reminds Mike of discussing Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant short story The Husband Stitch (free to read here: www.granta.com/the-husband-stitch) with previous podcast guest Celia, and finding a similar difference in the experience. Mildred Pierce is without question a film aimed at women, but as a film noir does the framing device work to capture their interest?
And indeed, how much is the film a noir? With shadows and murder and intrigue, it’s inseparable from it, but there’s a lightness to the image and combination with family drama that serves to adjust it. To José the film is unambiguously noir; to Mike and Laura, the noir elements invade an otherwise normal world in interesting ways.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The use of mirrors is also a key component of mise-en-scène in Mildred Pierce. The film begins with the shooting of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). There are several shots, some land on the mirror, he falls over. The mirror teases us with off-screen space but in this case angled so that we don’t see the perpetrator.
Mirrors are used for expressive purposes. Here at the beginning Mildred (Joan Crawford), having led Wally (Jack Carson) into the beach house is planning to leave him on his own so the police may find him and he can take the rap. The duplicitous action suggested by Mildred being doubled for us through the mirror.
Mirrors, of course, also appear simply as part of household or office decor, fulfilling no other function than to make a room seem ‘real’. See the office mirror here in the centre of the frame on one wall reflecting the painting kitty corner to it.
But usually mirrors are used to much more expressive and narrational ends in Mildred Pierce, like in this moment where the dress her mother’s bought her does not at all fit in with the kind of woman Veda (Ann Blythe) wants to become; and how both Mildred’s and Veda’s differing ideas of a pretty dress and the notions of femininity it might help project are contrasted with Kay (Jo Ann Marlow), happy in her overalls.
Curtiz makes use of any reflecting surface to mirror and creates a striking image with it as here below. Mildred, walked off her feet and needing a rest before she enters the cafe. She’s elegant in her hat and coat, potentially too elegant for the for the type of job the sign is advertising (though we know she’ll take it). The fact that the reflection is from below expresses something of how low she’s willing to go to work, no job is really beneath her. A striking image conveying lots of story information, densely condensed.
We get some of this also in the scene where Mildred goes swimming with Monte and goes to the wardrobe to find a bathing suit. We see her doubled with Monte off-screen but as she opens the wardrobe, eliminating him from the picture, she sees that she’s far from the only woman Monte’s brought there. As Mildred and her reflection open the wardrobe, Monte gets effaced by what the contents of the wardrobe reveal: all the ‘sisters, ‘ all to be scantily clad, he’s brought to the beach house before Mildred. The mirror here is used dramatically, as revelation.
Here below, the mirror is used as a kind of narrative punctuation. Monte and Mildred are embracing, the record ends, the camera pans to the record continuing to spin whilst the mirror shows us they’re too hot for each other to bother to change it. The embrace starts and ends the shot and at the end is framed next to and against the record player. It’s a brilliant piece of visual direction, made more so if one also remembers this is the mirror is not unlike the one behind Monte as he was shot at the beginning of the film. Thus the initiations of an uncontrolled passion are already linked with death from the beginning.
Whilst Momma’s been playing, baby’s been dying. In the next scene, the finality of Kay’s death is brought home by the mirror. Mildred, her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) and Veda are mourning. And we see that there’s no hope as the doctor and nurse recede and disappear through the mirror.
Sometimes, mirrors are used to anchor context and create atmosphere. Here below, the main function seems to be to make us aware that Monte and Mildred are at a party — they’re surrounded by people whilst nonetheless allowing for a private conversation: one about money. They’re in public, the moment is private, but the private is always threatening, on the verge and in danger of becoming public.
But of course we mustn’t forget that this use of mirrors, potent, as it is constructed so as to appear incidental and that, although I’ve extracted still images above, it usually takes place in motion and as part of other elements of mise-en-scène. In the scene below, which is really about Monte and Mildred getting together and Bert granting Mildred her wishes, all encased in the break-up of a family. The mirror behind the bar first appears discretely and then gains in dramatic force helping to shows us how Bert and Monte are at odds, how the appearance of Bert onto the scene underlines the break-up of a family. The conflict is generated by who appears facing the mirror, the whooshing of the camera movement from the mirror following Mildred and onto Bert which begins around 45 second into the clip below and shows Bert appearing in the mirror onscreen whilst following her, past Monte and as she’s pictured between them onscreen. At 1.29, after he says, ‘I’m doing fine’, the scene cuts onto Bert and Monte exchanging challenging gazes through the mirror. The composition once again indicating that the ‘private’ word is being played out publicly, or at least within Monte’s sight (through the mirror).
I wanted to include the whole clip above rather than still images so you could see how important motion is to the potency of the pictures. They’re moving pictures. And in relation to other elements of mise-en-scène. Thus in the clip above I’ve made the cut after the swish pan to the left, which brings us out of the flash-back, and also underline the inverse rhyming of the camera movement from the last scene in the bar to the first shot at the police station.
It’s extraordinary work by Curtiz, and only a tiny example of his astonishingly imaginative mise-en-scene for this film.
Since you are reading this, I assume you’re interested in movies; and if you’re interested in movies, you’ll be interested in the wonderful ‘Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs’ exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which runs until the 20th of January 2019.
The title of the exhibition, ‘Night and Day’ is taken from Cole Porter’s superb song which Fred Astaire introduced onstage in 1932’s The Gay Divorce and on film in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. It is also the title of the famously terrible biopic of Cole Porter directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers (1946), in which Cary Grant plays Cole Porter. But it is Fred Astaire who the song is associated with.
‘Night and Day’ was written for Astaire. His recording was an enormous success which topped the charts for ten weeks in the early thirties; and indeed the spirit of Fred Astaire haunts this exhibit. Firstly because of the evening dress he so casually wore, the glamorous and glistening Art Deco which was the background to his dancing the final number in so many of his films with Ginger Rogers at RKO, and the beginnings of a sporty elegance he is associated with. Well-cut clothes that enhance and adorn the figure but also allow one to move in them well enough to burst into dance. Fred who from the twenties was a superstar of both Broadway and the West-End, embodied the mid-atlantic best of both worlds: He was always associated with ‘ Top Hat, White Tie & Tails’ but wasn’t limited to that look. His clothes and how he wore them is analogous to the sentiment behind Coco Chanel’s great contribution to fashion. She made the combination of casual and elegant possible for women in the way that it was for men like Astaire: American men who were as free in their movements as in their outlook but were dressed by Saville Row.
The Spirit of Fred Astaire
The movies in general and Fred Astaire in particular are everywhere evident in this exhibition. The sections are named after popular songs of the Thirties, which are either the names of movies or taken from movies of the period and which in turn evoke the period of The Great Depression (1929-1939): ‘Brother….can You Spare a Dime?’ (also written for the stage and made into a hit by Bing Crosby; ‘Whistle While You Work’ (taken from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937); ‘I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams’ (Bing Crosby again from Sing You Sinners, 1938); ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ (Astaire again, this time from Follow the Fleet, 1936: you can see the marvellous excerpt below); ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, eternally associated with Judy Garland and from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz;’Life is just a Bowl of Cherries’ ; ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’; ‘The Way You Wear Your Hat,’ which is a lyric from ‘They Can’t Take That Way From Me’ Astaire again, this time from Shall We Dance (1936).
Along with the glorious clothes, the exhibit also features movies stars, and shows them to us in the very collectible cigarette cards so evocative of a way of life and a structure of feeling in the Thirties. We also see how Madeline Carroll and Ronald Colman are featured in the Miss Modern magazine below, demonstrating how interlinked movies were with other mass media and how fashion was a thread which knit them together. Movie stars wore the clothes ordinary people dreamed of wearing and and manufacturers made sure they could, as for example with Joan Crawford’s famous Letty Lynton dress. The movie popularised the dress, the magazines popularised the dress and movie, the availability of the dress sanctified the star and increased the fandom for both magazines and movies.
Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s: Fashion, Film and Fantasy
The exhibit also features a mini-exhibition within it with Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the famous: royalty, writers, society people but more than anything film stars (see below)
This being a British exhibition, royalty of course features:
But Hollywood’s influence dominates:
Sonja Henie, to left; Ruby Keller, top right; Tallulah Bankead bottom: From Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbooks
The exhibition is very good at contextualising the developments in fashion. The guide, for example, tell us: ‘Women’s fashions, which had reached giddy heights of youthful freedom (and brevity) during the Roaring Twenties, reflected the more mature and sober decade that followed. By the end of the 1920s the styles had already begun to change as the flapper grew up. Waits returned to a normal, rather than dropped, position. Skirts, which had begun to dip in the back by 1927-1928, fully descended to the knees and mid-calf for suiting, and the ankle for the afternoon and evening dresses. Structure infiltrated the relaxed shapes of 1920’s dressing: ‘hard chic’ became a watchword as couture houses such as Schiaparelli introduced a stylised and emphatic shoulder line.
As a decade the 1930’s presented the extremes: from the depths of poverty for many to a sparkling party-filled escape for the wealthy and international set’.
The exhibition’s great care with contextualisation really does pay off, though it also gives rise to moments of amusement, such as in the timeline below where Hitler’s rise is juxtaposed on the timeline right in between the drop of a hemline and the rise of the neckline.
The the main reason to see this exhibition is the clothes. No photos do them justice. You really need to see them in three-dimensions to see how they hang, to get a real sense of what the fabric is like, to walk around them and get the whole picture. I really recommend the exhibition. But for those of you who can’t go, here are some examples of what you are missing:
A delight to sit down and talk to Christopher Twig (aka Twiggy) on the occasion of the forthcoming retrospective of his work — Twiggy Birmingham: Slap in the Face — curated by Trevor Pitt as part of the forthcoming ‘Shout’ Festival from the 9th-19th of November. To the LGBT community, Twiggy is as much of an icon of Birmingham as Selfridges or the Library: everyone who’s been to an LGBT club or to a gay pride parade in the city will have at least walked past and usually had their photo taken with him. His evolution as an artist is also the city’s evolution in respect to LGBT cultures. A maker of ‘Happenings,’ a performance artist non-pareil, a constant designer of unique and iconic looks, he’s conjured up a space for himself and his art where one didn’t exist before. The ‘Twiggy Birmingham: Slap in the Face’ exhibit on his work, curated by Trevor Pitt, is long overdue recognition of his achievements as an artist. As Pitt describes it, ‘Twiggy Birmingham is an ongoing creative project spanning over three decades that takes the body, costume, adornment and performance to the level of an art form. From androgynous punky Goth, to energy fuelled Club Kid to flamboyant event host and walkabout artist, to outrageous stage performer, Twiggy Birmingham has documented their experiences through photographs, video, costume and memorabilia. An unmissable figure in pop, club and drag culture of Birmingham and beyond’. The experience will be open to the public from 10-18th November at Vivid Projects, 16 Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley Street Birmingham.
Feud is super trashy but great fun. The feud in question is the one that started when Joan Crawford and Bette Davis first got together to star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1962). The film is worshipful of stardom in general and these two in particular. Joan Crawford admires Davis’ talent; Davis admires Crawford’s beauty and her professionalism. They’re both, in different ways, each other’s equal. And so they’re jealous of each other. On the one hand, the series aspires to be an examination of what Hollywood does to great female stars past a certain age, on the other it seems the work of worshipful fans hanging on to every gossipy tidbit (many of them from Shaun Considine’s Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud) and offering a retort to the matricidal work of the two stars’ daughters: Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest and B.D. Hyman’s My Mother’s Keeper) with the aim of rescuing their reputations. And it succeeds. After Feud, wire hangers will not be the first thing we think about when we think of Joan Crawford.
I think the series miscast. Susan Sarandon, seventy, but meant to be playing mid-fifties, looks no more than 40. I love her and she’s very attractive in this but actually not very good; she mimes Bette without having the volatility or danger that Davis had. Sarandon is so warm, still sexy, and rather maternal in spite of all the mother-daughter conflict shown in the film. What makes her a star is so different than what made Bette a star that she’s bad casting (though extremely watchable).
Jessica Lange gives a terrific performance, but not as Crawford. She’s too soft. Crawford was never that. She lacks that tough, almost mannish quality that Crawford brought to her most memorable parts. It’s good to see her vulnerability accented. But everyone’s vulnerable. What made Crawford special is the zeal and focus with which she fought for her place in the movie firmament in order to transform Lucille Lesueur into Joan Crawford. Crawford had been a dance hall girl, a ten-cents a dance dancer; she’d done porn, gotten to Hollywood as, I think, Eddie Mannix’s girl. She was not this soft, almost yielding creature presented here. At least not by any account I’ve read. Lange does show great depth of feeling in the role she plays. She’s creating someone much more complex than Sarandon. But it’s not Crawford. Nonetheless, Lange and Sarandon are stars playing stars and thus extremely watchable (alongside Judy Davis, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci – I don’t get the casting of Catherine Zita-Jones as Olivia de Havilland).
The series never becomes good but it does become compulsively watchable as it unfolds. It’s fun in all kinds of ways. I loved pointing out the anachronisms: was Joan Crawford ever really called an ‘Icon’ to her face? Did her agent really speak to her about ‘branding opportunities’? As one can see in the cut and mix videos that fans have done, it’s also great fun to compare the depictions in the series with the actual events as filmed. This clip of Susan Sarandon/Bette Davis singing the theme song from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a favourite.
The fun, however, is laced with something nastier: there’s a slight air of misogyny infusing all the admiration and worship and slightly camp approach in Feud. Why this project anyway? On the one hand, it’s to remove the tarnish spewed by two vengeful daughters and revarnish two film immortals for posterity. On the other: Take two gay icons, add a touch of fading glamour, show them in their decline, posit them as antagonists and create a bitchfest in which fur may fly. There’s a nasty edge that constantly threatens what is otherwise a bubble of fandom and good will. Camp and misogyny need not overlap but there’s a magnetic field around which the two terms seems to attract each other in the presence of gay men; and there’s something about that overlap in the show, not very overt, more like an overhanging air, or a slight infusion. One feels it all through Feud.
I thought I Am Not Your Negro was about James Baldwinbut I wasn’t quite right. The film is more about race relations in America, using Baldwin’s analysis, mainly as articulated in Remember This House — an unfinished manuscript on the theme — that serves as the basis of the screenplay. The manuscript offered an analysis of race structured around the significance of the lives of Medger Evers, Malcolm Luther King and Malcolm X — what they represented – but also what was signified by their assassinations. It’s a structure the film borrows.
Baldwin’s analysis of race remains amongst the most cogent and potent – to me the most moral and unassailable. Here Samuel L. Jackson gives understated voice to Baldwin’s first-person narrative. I Am Not Your Negro is a historical account, and an argument, but also feels personal, like a confidential conversation on past horrors that becomes a realisation that those horrors of the past are still with us now. The music is as expected blues, jazz and soul, but largely on a lower key, a mournful one that lends the film an intimate tone with which to express sorrow and pain.
The film uses lots of visuals — photographs, newsreels, old TV footage — but cinema plays a central role in how the film articulates its case. There are clips of Joan Crawford in Dance Fool Dance, Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, clips from silent films, John Wayne westerns, the films of Sidney Poitier and Doris Day in The Pyjama Game and Pillow Talk.
The image of Doris Day in Pillow Talk, all bright and beautiful longing in Techicolor, the colours that for François Truffaut signified America but are nowhere found in nature — the utopian ideal she represented, the price paid for it, and the erasure of the knowledge that there was a price – is powerfully conveyed through a clip from Pillow Talk juxtaposed with images of lynchings. What Ray Charles represented — art, truth, vitality, sexuality and feeling in all its varieties and with all its complexities — is what Baldwin posited against what Doris Day signified, at least to him.
The film argues that history is also now and makes a convincing case. I had never seen the Rodney King beating in such brutal and relentless detail, the power and the cruelty in a society the film evokes as still a police state fifty years after the legal abolishment of segregation. The credits give the impression that the film has money from various countries – with Arte in France given a prominent credit. I thought no American company was credited, giving the impression that such a critique cannot be rendered or made possible in the US now in spite of all we’ve seen that led to the Black Lives Matter Movement. However, I see from imdb that I was wrong to think that.
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.
Seeing that extraordinary close-up of Joan Crawford being swayed by John Garfield’s music in Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, USA, 1946) reminded me that Joan Crawford’s stardom had begun in the silent era. Rifling through my file on Crawford films, I noticed that I had never seen Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (Harry Edwards, USA, 1926). Now Joan Crawford in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp would be one thing but sadly it turned out to be Harry Langdon in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, which has quite different connotations. Though second-billed, Crawford’s role is really merely that of ‘the girl’ and could have probably been played by almost any attractive actress of the period.
The plot is basic. Burton shoes is running a huge nationwide campaign, and the face of Burton shoes in posters across America is Betty (Joan Crawford), the boss’s daughter, inviting everyone in America to ‘walk with her’ wearing the ‘sole of the nation’. The campaign is so successful it’s wiping out smaller shoe shops like Amos Vogel and Son. The son is Harry (Harry Langdon), so besotted with the image of Betty that he splashes the walls of his bedroom with it and even brings it/her to bed. When their landlord gives them three months to find money for rent, Harry joins the Burton contest to walk across America. Whoever gets there first will win 25,000. Intriguingly, though nothing much is made of it in the film, the nasty landlord is one of the contestants. Needless to say, Harry wins the contest, gets the girl, and even gives himself a little number as his and Betty’s son being just as inept as the father in a crib at the end of the film.
Frank Capra ostensible wrote the film and co-directed it with Edwards, though the credits of the print I saw give no evidence of this. It’s an interesting example of the rise of advertising in America and its effects on mass culture, an issue so live in the twenties that it was already drawing debate by leading American thinkers (one thinks of the work of Walter Lippman). Harry Langdon’s charms are lost on me but the film has several imaginative set-pieces (Harry hanging from a cliff, nailing his sweater to a wooden fence and sliding down the hill on the fence; Harry in a prison work-gang; Harry in the middle of a cyclone, first losing all his clothes while attempting to take a bath, then defeating it with rocks like David and Goliath – they’re all very well-done).
What interested me most was Crawford, whose image is already presented as one evoking dreams and desire across America, and a charming little vignette of Harry’s father going to the pictures and seeing his son on screen (see clip above), which evokes something of what going to the cinema in a small town must have been like in the 1920s.
When I originally noticed the discrepancy between how Adrian’s dresses for Joan Crawford in Howard Hawks’ Today We Live look in still and in motion pictures, I wanted to demonstrate it in a film, rather than write it in an article. However, i wasn’t a skilled enough editor to accomplish what I wanted with sounds and images. So I wrote the article but I decided also to at least practice a little and see what I could come up with. This is the result.
Today We Live is a curiosity: the only time Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper co-starred; the only time Faulkner wrote a script of one of his stories. It’s a handsome but lifeless film, redeemed only by some exciting areal sequences retooled from the footage in Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, USA, 1939).Crawford is arrestingly beautiful and very bad in the role of Diana ‘Ann’ Boyce-Smith: one can’t help but giggle when she remembers to put on her English accent, which luckily for us isn’t often.
Only the clothes Adrian designed for Crawford make an impression. Theirs is a famous partnership that endured for 28 films. He’s credited with the wide-shouldered look she made famous in the 30s.The year previously they’d made a hit with their collaboration for Letty Lynton (Clarence Bronw, USA, 1932), with the the famous dress being adapted in various patterns and flying off shelves and Sears’ catalogues and onto the shoulders of young women across America (see above). As Jessica Ellen writes in her blog:
‘(Adrian) designed a dress to reflect the 1930s eagerness to “get back to femininity” after the flapper years and thus yards and yards of fluffy organza was used to create an excessive ruffled effect. The waist was cinched to show off Crawford’s best attribute and the shoulders were emphasised, as Adrian desired. When the dress finally debuted in the film, it set of a nation-wide fashion craze as every woman decided she wanted to look like Joan Crawford! Thousands of more affordable copies were made for department store sales and allegedly every single one of them sold! Edith Head once said it was “the single most important influence on fashion in film history” and with it, the Crawford shoulders were born!’
In Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ Hollywood Sketchbook: A Century of Costume Illustration, she writes that Adrian was arguably the king of Hollywood Golden Age glamour,
‘ (he) didn’t confuse the art of costume design with fashion (and) embraced the inherent problems of creating costumes for black-and-white movies. Fahion designers, he explained, ‘have to please the human eye. I have to satisfy the discerning eye of the camera…in black, white and gray. For this reason, line is vastly important, and only the finest fabrics may be draped or cut in a satisfactory manner’ (p74).’
That he designed for the camera, and the way fabric looks in black and white is very clear in Today We Live. The issues of line and fabric are more questionable.What is immediately noticeable in Today We Live is that the dresses that look so beautiful in photographs begin to seem less so as soon as Crawford begins to move; how it’s almost as if the clothes were designed for stills rather than for motion pictures.
Contrast for example, the image above — an ideal of art deco elegance and geometry — to the way the dress looks in motion: uncomfortable, with additional purposeless pleating on the back, badly tailored so that the material scrunches up around Crawford’s waist, and with that ridiculous cardboard decoration which slashes diagonally way past the neck and threatens to decapitate Crawford should she try and look behind her shoulder.
Next, look at the elegance of the outfit above; the beret at a jaunty angle, the metal buttons catching and reflecting the light, and cascading symmetrically way from the neck. But then see below as Crawford takes off her coat. The top is very badly taylored: look at the creases it makes from her breasts, the way the material gathers into unflattering folds along the sleeve, the ugly fold as she lifts her arm, which creates an unflattering line from the arm past the shoulder. Lastly, see how all of the front of the dress seems to scrunch up into folds as Crawford goes to comfort the made. It’s almost like motion transforms what is beautiful in stills into unflattering uncomfortable uglyness in motion, the costumes more architecture than clothes.
Lastly compare the still to the clip. It’s one of Crawford’s most famous looks, one we’ve seen illustrating book covers (see below for all)
Now, look at the clip above. The closeup with Crawford framed by the candles is gorgeous. But as soon as she stands up all the ruffles and bows are too much, too impractical, too creased. Then when she turns around, turns her back to the camera, and moves away from the table, the back of the dress is ridiculous, with those extraneous, useless, bits of material riding up around her waist, making her bum look bigger. It’s completely impractical. The pleats on the flounce need ironing. Yet, they are constantly going to be sat on. A ridiculous and gloriously impractical dress. It’s no wonder that upon the film’s release, Variety panned the outfits : ‘…”Gowns by Adrian” were extreme and annoying’.
They are extreme and would look extremely beautiful if Crawford had sat for some stills from Hurrell (see above). But for Hawks in Today We Live — i.e. in motion and in character — it’s one more element that takes you out of the story and helps sink this particular ship.
It was only upon reading Howard Gutner’s marvellous Gowns by Adrian, the MGM Years 1928-1941, that I discovered the reason for that discrepancy between the way Crawford’s clothes look and the way they move. Prior to the beginning of Today We Live, Crawford had gone with her then husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., to Paris and discovered Schiaparelli’s couture. She asked Adrian to copy some of those lines for her. He made up a trio of dresses that were designed purely for publicity purposes. Crawford was a late addition to the cast of Today We Live and she insisted on wearing the dresses in the film, which Hawks hated, because he quickly realised they did not move well. But in those days, Crawford was billed as ‘the most copied girl in the world’ for her wardrobe and she won, to the detriment of the film.
I had a fantastic cinephiliac moment at the Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museo do Cinema in Lisbon. As I was walking into the cafeteria with a friend, I noticed that as part of the permanent exhibition and hidden behind an old projector there was a poster for Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954), but rather different than the one originally designed to advertise the movie upon first release in America.
There, as we can see above, what was advertised was Joan Crawford, billed above the title and in lettering that seems even larger than that of the title itself. The tagline at the top trumpets ‘Joan’s greatest triumph’. The image of Joan Crawford occupies almost all of the left hand side of the poster. She’s wearing trousers but the light emphasises her bust. Joan is imaged as a ‘pistol-packin’ mama’, but a glamorously made-up one, and with romance evident beneath and between her legs, against a backdrop of a canyon cliff rising towards her crotch.
Joan Crawford was not only instrumental in selling the film but the driving force behind it being made at all. In Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, Patrick McGilligan delineates how ‘Crawford was considered the picture’s de facto producer’ (p.244), how she not only owned the rights to the novel but had bought them before publication and may ‘indeed have commissioned it’(p.246) with Roy Chanslor first writing the novel as a lengthy treatment in the film.
In the bottom quarter of the poster we see a lot of other things the film promises: Sterling Hayden with a gun, a posse with Mercedes McCambridge, small but dead-centre in the lower section of the poster’s composition. We also see fire and explosions. Below the title are the other famous people in the film in order of importance and in relatively small print, amongst them Hayden and McCambridge but also Scott Brady. That the film is in ‘Trucolor’ is also advertised; as is the fact that the film is a Republic Picture, in yellow and on the bottom right. This might have been unwise as Republic was known as the cheapo studio even though this was one of its priciest products, ostensibly budgeted at $2 million. That Nicholas Ray directed is shown in half the size of the co-stars billed under the title and a mere fraction of the size of Joan Crawford’s own billing. This is significant because it is so unlike the poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa.
If the original poster promised a ‘kiss-kiss, bang-bang’ western with Joan controlling the kissing and the banging, the later poster offered something else: a ‘Nicholas Ray Film’. As you can see in the poster above, Nicholas Ray is billed first, in lettering that seems the same size as the title but in a font that makes it seem less; the title of the film seems twice as large as the name of the director. Thus the poster conveys a particular message, which could be relayed as: the director, the film, the image; the dialogue or one of the most exchanges of dialogue in a superb scene from one of the most famous films by one of the greatest directors. The scene is of course, the famous ‘Lie to me’ scene; a gorgeous composition with Joan Crawford as Vienna, carefully framed and looking onto Hayden, occupies much of the centre of the poster. The image gives more importance to the stars than the billing in the poster does, in which Crawford is billed below the title and on the right, thus after Haydn: she might be rolling over in her grave now at the very thought.
Underneath is the dialogue (which I’ve taken from the film itself), some of the most famous in the history of cinema:
Johnny: ‘Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited. Tell me.
Vienna: ‘All these years I’ve waited’
Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t returned
Vienna: I would had died if you hadn’t come back’.
Jonny: Tell me you still love me like I love you
Vienna: I still love you as you love me
Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
One could say that comparing the two posters indicate a shift in the appreciation of the importance of the director versus that of the stars. However, as we know from the tortuous billing of The Towering Inferno in the 1970s right down to the discussions of how much money James Toback can raise on the names of Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell in 2013’s Seduced and Abandoned (only 4-5 milion) stars remain central to the whole commercial cinematic apparatus. It would perhaps be more true to say that the posters for Johnny Guitar are addressing two different types of audience, one commercial, contemporaneous with the film and seeking to highlight what might attract it; the other, a later cinephile audience seeking art and film history. Does this shift over time and in terms of audience address not carry within it a soupçon of sexism? It’s almost like Joan Crawford and all she once meant has to be buried so that ‘Nicholas Ray’ can acquire its own set of meanings; auteurism, so founded on particular sets of specialised knowledges, as a kind of unwitting and socially unaware sexist erasure.
What incurred that moment of Cinephilia at the Cinemateca Portuguesa was not just the reference to the film, although that is potent in itself: I admire what David Thomson called its ‘bold incursion into camp’ and even remembered Truffaut’s assessment: ‘a string of preciosity, truer than truth…The bold, violent color (by TruColor) contributes to the sense of strangeness; the hues are vivid, sometimes very beautiful, always unexpected.’ However, at the Cinemateca there were also posters for so many other films that had meant as much to me just next to it (see the lovely one for the Astaire and Rogers Top Hat below).
What thrilled me at the Cinemateca was the memory of how Almodóvar had deployed the exact dialogue displayed in the poster in one of the most famous scenes in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Pepa (Carmen Maura) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her lover has just left her. She’s got something important to tell him and he won’t let himself be found. They’re both actors who dub films. She’s at the studio dubbing Joan Crawford’s part in Johnny Guitar, her absent lover has already over-dubbed Sterling Hayden’s voice with his own.
As you can see above, Almodóvar starts with the mechanics of the film projector, cuts to an over-head shot that places the light thrown by the projector in the very middle of the frame, amidst the darkness of dimming lights, and creates a dream-like tone of feeling, of sadness and longing, that Pepa ads her voice to, that she voices but that also speaks her (and by turn Almodóvar and many of us).
In a stimulating round table on Cinephilia and the work of Jacques Rancière, Erika Balsom cites Serge Daney’s notion that ‘Cinephilia is not only a love for cinema. It’s a relation to the world through cinema’. That’s what we see in Almodóvars integration of the ‘Lie to me’ scene into the very narrative of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. As her absent lover whispers in her earphones what Johnny (Hayden) is telling Vienna (Crawford), ‘Lie to me. Tell me something nice’, the camera resting on Carmen Maura’s face, lined, lived-in, so much more human than the architectonic iconicity Crawford’s conveys. But we do not see Crawford. Indeed, as you can see in the clip, we do not see Johnny Guitar in this moment of the film. It’s only the dialogue, the dialogue from the Johnny Guitar poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa, overdubbed so that it’s what Pepa and her lover, who cannot say this to each other in ‘life’, may do so through film. Johnny Guitar speaks Pepa’s relation to the world through cinema, and indeed, I would argue, as we can see through so many of his films, Almodóvar’s.
Later in the Rancière round-table, Balsom cites Raymond Bellour’s notion that the film body is a body that flees from us and we’re always left trying to recapture it through different kinds of practices. Not just a love of cinema but a set of practices that happen after and that try to recapture this lost experience. Perhaps that is what Almodóvar is doing in Women on the Verge. For me, the sight of the poster ignited a concatenation of old memories and new questions: What did the poster advertise? Who was it made for? Did Almodóvar see it? Were those bits of dialogue generally famous with a cinephile audience? Were they also part of a shared queer culture of the moment? My cinephile moment was not just an attempt to recapture the feeling of seeing this moment in Johnny Guitar, or in Women on the Verge, or in the relation between the two, though it was all of that; it was also a spark to action: to realise there’s more to discover and to know; a moment of trying to recapture something lost that simultaneously leads to the accretion — perhaps creation — of something new.
I love this opening for so many reasons: the way it begins with the factory whistle, tilts and then cranes down to show the crowd of workers surging out of the factory, settles on the boyfriend (Wallace Ford), finds Joan Crawford, and tracks back with them as a couple. We see it’s a working couple, a make-do couple, a couple only because it’s the best available in a town without many options. I love the dissolve into the next shot and the way the camera then tracks along with the couple but with the background in focus so we can see the poverty, the drunkenness, a fight between a married couple where the woman is left at home, alone and distressed. We know that’s Crawford’s future if she stays there. I love the way Crawford shows her tiredness and dissatisfaction and the way that she says her only way out of this life and this place is her looks and whatever fellas like about her; we all know what it is, that she’s got it and that she’s willing to use it. I love the way Brown creates a dreamyness of tone when Crawford gazes in on the train from the outside and he frames the windows of the train carriage as a view into a different world, a better world, more glamorous, like film frames run through a sprocket, like cinema. It’s how Brown conveys that going to the movies is many factory workers’ way out of a repetitive, dehumanising, exploitative milieu of mindless labour and into another dimension, a marvellous one of glamorous possibilities. And an awestruck Crawford is our conduit into it. She’s us; us as we could be if we had her looks, her drive and her gumption. It’s a technically superb opening, beautiful to look at, expressive of social conditions and full of feeling.
According to Donald Spoto, in the book on Crawford he intriguingly entitled, Possessed, ‘the film struck a powerful responsive chord among Depression-era women of 1931, deprived of prospects and caught in frightening economic circumstances. In their neighbourhood screens was Joan Crawford — sensual yet strong-willed, vulnerable but determined, and willing, as Marian says, “to use whatever men find attractive about me” to succeed.
In a way Marian was Joan Crawford’ (p.87).
And according to Crawford Clarence Brown was ‘a genius’ (p.86). This is certainly a great and complex job of directing, a great performance from Crawford and a film that lays claim to being one of the land-mark films of the pre-Code era.