January 11, 2014
David Kalat
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Our Modern Joan Crawford

Jack Conway’s 1929 romance Our Modern Maidens climaxes with a wedding.  Of course it does—it’s a romance, isn’t it?  But there’s something decidedly off about this wedding—indeed the entire film seems to strike a strange note.  It could be argued that the film’s fundamental weirdness is a consequence of its star, Joan Crawford.

In connection with TCM’s tribute to the films of Joan Crawford, this transitional late-period silent romantic comedy was screened already.  Normally I try to write about movies before they air, but I had Arbuckle on the brain last weekend.  Now, by “transitional” I mean it was a silent film with a synchronized soundtrack consisting of music and sound effects but not voices.  But it’s also transitional in the sense that it is probably best understood as a “Pre-Code” film, for its sexual content—but we’ll get there.


KEYWORDS: Joan Crawford, Joan Crawford blogathon, Our Modern Maidens, Romantic Comedy

Never show fear: Joan Crawford in TROG


Even if there were a place left in this world where it might still be possible for Joan Crawford to get a fair trial post-MOMMIE DEAREST (1981), there exists no such venue in which to defend her for TROG (1970).  [...MORE]

Joan Crawford in The Best of Everything (1959)



I love a good Hollywood melodrama. Particularly full-color big-budget melodramas that directors such as Douglas Sirk (ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, IMITATION OF LIFE), Mark Robson (PEYTON PLACE, FROM THE TERRACE, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) and Delmer Daves (A SUMMER PLACE, SUSAN SLADE, ROME ADVENTURE) dished out in the 1950s and 60s. Critics often refer to these movies as “women’s pictures” or “weepies” but that trite description tends to put them in a corner or a small box and the movies are often much too big and multifaceted to be shoehorned into a simple one-size-fits all package. Last year I re-watched many of my favorite mid-century melodramas and caught up with a few I hadn’t seen before including Jean Negulesco’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959), which features the one and only Joan Crawford in a small but standout role as Amanda Farrow, a cutthroat editor working at a New York publishing firm.


Hollywood, 1929: Let’s Revue, Shall We?

It’s rare that a single event changes the movies forever.  So rare that, for all intents and purposes, it’s happened only once, with the advent of sound.  The advent of color had almost no immediate impact.  From two strip to three strip, developed from almost as early as the cinema itself, color movies didn’t become the norm until the late fifties/early sixties.   Special effects, like stop-motion, optical printing, and blue screen all saw increased use in certain types of movies but by no means became the norm for all movies.  CGI has had a slow, gradual acceptance into mainstream cinema, used to fill in where extras once served or create backdrops where matte paintings once ruled the day.  And 3-D, while being adopted and retrofitted for many a movie,  still isn’t the norm and even if it was, it would have taken years to get there.  But sound?  Holy cow!  Once they knew it could work and draw in the audiences, specifically with that single event in the form of the release of Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer, in 1927,  that was all she wrote for the silent period.  Everything became sound and the vanishing handful of silents left were almost all done by Chaplin.

Hollywood Revue 1929C


Back to the Perfume Counter: Joan Crawford in The Women (1939)



It is Joan Crawford month at Turner Classic Movies, with sixty-two of her features airing on Thursday nights in January. Today I’ll be looking at one of her scene-stealing supporting turns, as the gold lamé digger Crystal Allen in The Women (1939, screening on 1/16 at 8PM on TCM). It was directed by George Cukor, recently the subject of a complete retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Cukor was canned from Gone With the Wind a month before shooting started on The Women, and it was a fortuitous re-assignment. The Women was based on the hit stage comedy by Clare Booth Luce, trumpeted as having ran for 666 performances at the Ethel Barrymore theater. Famed for having an all-female cast, Cukor’s movie claimed that even its animals were of the fairer sex. A sensitive director of actresses, Cukor elicits a wide range of performances from his volcanically talented cast. Norma Shearer is the nominal lead, projecting regal innocence as news of her husband’s infidelity is smeared over the tabloids. Rosalind Russell is her loudest friend, a motormouthed gossip buried under headscarves and microscopic hats. Cukor was fondest of Joan Fontaine, one of his discoveries, perfecting her shaking leaf naivete. But the one who hip-swivels away with the picture is Joan Crawford.


Joan Crawford in ‘Flamingo Road’: The Face of Melodrama

flamingoposterA few years ago, I consulted on a film reference book filled with star bios, movie trivia, lists, and fun facts. The group of writers responsible for the content was divided into two camps: experienced freelancers, who were accustomed to using libraries, biographies, and reference books, and newbies who thought the Internet could supply all their needs. Not surprisingly, the work submitted by the latter camp was riddled with errors, unsubstantiated assumptions, and age-old myths about Hollywood legends long shattered by legitimate biographies. The whippersnapper responsible for the bio on Joan Crawford used only a single web article as his primary source, which I discovered when I fact-checked his work.  Both the whippersnapper’s bio and the web source painted Crawford in broad brushstrokes, exploiting her string of romances to sensationalize her life story and emphasizing the “no more wire hangers” portrayal created by Christina Crawford in Mommy Dearest. The experience saddened me, because I realized that Crawford’s remarkable, decades-long career had been overshadowed by this cartoonish persona.

Not only is the sheer length of Crawford’s career impressive but her ability to reinvent herself decade after decade is a more telling view of her personality  than the Mommy Dearest image that has tainted her in death. This month, TCM is airing 63 Crawford films, covering her career from The Boob (1926) to Trog (1970). As TCM’s star of the Month, Crawford receives the respect she is due as a major contributor to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the Movie Morlocks are proud to make her the subject of a week-long blogathon, exploring the various phases of her career. The blogathon begins today and concludes next Sunday. Crawford’s films will air every Thursday, sometimes over a 24-hour period.


The Eternal Star, Trapped in Time

Quick, how long was Clark Gable’s movie career?  If you said  38 years, lasting from 1923, his first uncredited extra work in Fighting Blood, to the 1961 posthumuous release of The Misfits in 1961, you’d be correct, technically.  For me, his career spanned 1930 to 1939, with Gone with the Wind as his swansong.   Oh, he didn’t actually do anything of note in 1930 and he did a hell of a lot of note after 1939 but when I think of Gable, I think of the thirties.   I identify most actors with a specific decade and, as box office returns would indicate, so do a great many people as actors’ careers tend to have a five to ten year period of total dominance followed by years of ups and downs.



Crawford’s Fire of Unknown Origin

Poster - Mildred Pierce

What was it about the script for Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) that caught Joan Crawford’s eye? And why does the finished product, a film that is a perfect fusion of film noir and melodrama, still resonate with us today? Go to any film school teaching a film noir or women and film course (or both), and you’ll probably find Mildred on the syllabus. The property was also recently brought back to life by director Todd Haynes in a critically acclaimed HBO miniseries released in 2011. The novel by James M. Cain (1892 – 1977), the author known for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1943), ran afoul of so many restrictive provisions set forth by the Motion Picture Production Code that most of the sexual relations depicted in the novel had to be excised from the original film and replaced with something more acceptable: murder. [...MORE]

Clark Gable & Joan Crawford: The Affair that Nearly Burned Hollywood Down


One of the most notorious affairs in Hollywood history was the romantic liaison between Clark Gable and Joan Crawford that blossomed on the backlot of MGM. The two stars appeared in no less than eight films together and five of them (DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE; 1931, LAUGHING SINNERS; 1931, POSSESSED; 1931, CHAINED; 1934 and STRANGE CARGO; 1940) will air on TCM this coming Sunday (Aug. 25th) during the network’s ongoing Summer Under the Stars celebration. Today I thought I’d share some of Crawford’s memories of working with Gable as well as some of her personal observations about the actor who may have been the only man she ever truly loved.


William Edward Cronenweth: A Legacy in Photos


William Edward Cronenweth photographing Rita Hayworth (1947)

In my ongoing quest to learn more about the talented men and women who were responsible for taking the imaginative studio portraits and set photos we all love but too often take for granted, I recently became fascinated with the work of William Edward Cronenweth. Trying to compile information about the man was difficult and I often ran into obstacles while attempting to learn more about his life and work. Cronenwerth’s name is rarely mentioned in the various books I’ve read about studio photography and if it is, the information tends to be sparse and inconsistent. Hopefully this brief portrait I’ve compiled will shine some light on Cronenweth’s considerable contributions to Hollywood’s glamorous history.


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