Joan Crawford

The Circle (1925)

The Circle 1925When Arnold Cheney (Creighton Hale) was just a baby, his mother Lady Catherine (Joan Crawford as the young Catherine, Eugenie Besserer as older Catherine) leaves her husband Lord Clive (Derek Glynne as young Clive, Alec B. Francis as older Clive) to run off and elope with his friend Hugh (Frank Braidwood as young Hugh, George Fawcett as older Hugh). When Catherine leaves, she leaves baby Arnold at home to be raised by Clive.

30 years pass and Arnold hasn’t seen his mother since. Naturally, Arnold and Clive have a lot of resentment toward Catherine and Hugh. Arnold is now married to a woman named Elizabeth (Eleanor Boardman) and they live together in the big family estate, enjoying all the privileges that come with wealth. But Elizabeth is in love with Edward Lutton (Malcolm Mc Gregor) and is considering leaving Arnold for him. Since she knows the situation she’s in sounds somewhat familiar, she decides to invite Catherine and Hugh over so she can see what their relationship is like now.

Arnold is very anxious about this meeting and when they arrive, things are awkward at first. But when Elizabeth sees Catherine and Hugh having a sentimental moment together, she thinks leaving her husband would be the best move. But when Arnold finds out about it, he isn’t about to give up on his marriage so easily.

For some reason, I didn’t have terribly high expectations for The Circle, but I ended up liking it a lot more than I expected to. Frank Borzage directed it and did a fine job. The story has a very healthy balance of humor and drama. It’s the kind of story that might have become cheesy and cliched in less capable hands, but it worked out very well. The cast is excellent and I really enjoyed the cinematography and sets. This is the kind of movie I don’t hear mentioned too often, but it’s a real gem.

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown 1927 Joan Crawford Lon Chaney

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless circus performer who entertains crowds by expertly throwing knives with his feet. He’s in love with his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus’s owner, who after years of being groped and pawed at, has grown to loathe being touched by men. Alonzo is one of the few men she can trust because he isn’t able to touch her the way other men can. However, she doesn’t love him the same way he loves her; she’s in love with Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus’s strongman, and Malabar adores her back.

What Nanon and the other circus performers don’t realize is that Alonzo isn’t actually armless. He is a criminal on the run from the law who has a very distinctive thumb, so he decided to avoid the police by binding his arms to his sides with a corset and pretending to be armless. When the owner of the circus discovers the truth about Alonzo, Alonzo strangles him to death. Nanon witnesses the incident, but the only thing she can distinctly see is her father’s assailant’s unusual thumb. Since all the other circus performers believe Alonzo is armless, he avoids suspicion yet again.

Alonzo is still deeply in love with Nanon, but the only person who knows Alonzo’s secret warns him that they can never be together because she will eventually discover his secret and learn the truth about who killed her father. Desperate to be with her, Alonzo has his arms amputated for the sake of keeping his secret. Meanwhile, Malabar has managed to help Nanon move past her fear of being touched by men and they decide to get married and Malabar starts working on an idea for a new act.

When Alonzo hears Nanon’s news, he is shocked and absolutely devastated. But when Alonzo finds out about Malabar’s new act, he thinks of a way to sabotage the act so he’ll be able to have Nanon for himself.

Although it’s easy to look at The Unknown now and think how great it is to see two of Hollywood’s greatest stars together on screen, it’s important to remember that Joan Crawford wasn’t quite a big star yet at the time she made it. She was still pretty early in her career and The Unknown is definitely one of her first really great movies. In fact, she often talked about how making that movie was a hugely important stepping stone in her career because she was able to learn so much about acting by working with Lon Chaney.

The Unknown was absolutely perfect material for Lon Chaney; I truly can’t think of another mainstream actor who could have played that role as well as he did. Joan’s great in it, too. Since Joan’s silent film career is pretty defined by Our Dancing Daughters and playing a lot of very exuberant, youthful flapper characters, The Unknown offers a chance to see her doing something considerably darker and more complex, which I really enjoyed getting to see. The movie is very fast paced and full of incredible tension and drama; I absolutely love this movie.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Our Dancing Daughters 1928

Diana Medford (Joan Crawford) is one of the most popular young women in town. She’s outgoing, flirtatious, and loves to go out dancing until dawn. Her freewheeling image leads many people to believe she’s a real wild girl and a generally bad influence, but although she may flirt with all the young men, she’s very virtuous and old-fashioned at heart. Her friend, Ann (Anita Page) is quite the opposite. She’s a gold digger, raised to be one by her mother, and is more like the person people think Diana is, although she tries to keep that under wraps.

While at a party one night, Diana meets Ben Blaine (Johnny Mack Brown), who comes from a very wealthy family. He admires Diana and the feeling is mutual, but when Ann finds out he has money, she sets her sights on him. As Diana and Ben get closer, he really loves her but mistakenly thinks she’s not interested in him. So when Ann gets him alone and convinces her she’s a good girl who wants marriage and a family, he buys it and they soon get married, much to Diana’s disappointment.

After 10 months of marriage, Ann is already cheating on Ben. Diana is still heartbroken without Ben and on her last night of visiting with friends, they throw a big going away party in her honor. Ben won’t let Ann go, so she tries to sneak out with her lover and gets caught. After getting into a fight with Ben, Ann goes off with her boyfriend to get drunk while Ben goes to the party alone to see Diana. Ben still has feelings for her and Diana would love to be with him, but then Ann shows up, drunk as can be, and causes a scene, showing everyone her true colors.

There isn’t nearly enough love out there for young, flapper-era Joan Crawford. Our Dancing Daughters is the movie that made her a star and it’s easy to see why. She’s the absolute height of the youthful, exuberant flapper image that was so popular at the time. Watching her wild dancing scene early in the movie is truly something wonderful to behold and it doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being such an amazing dance scene. Joan is positively mesmerizing so even though she certainly had many more interesting and complex roles ahead of her, it’s not hard to see how she was such a hit with moviegoers of the time. Plus there’s Anita Page, who is a rather delightful villain. I always love watching her when Ann starts showing her true self at near the end of the movie.

In the grand scheme of things, Our Dancing Daughters isn’t one of the all-time greats or anything, but I love it because I have a soft spot for these types of flapper-oriented movies. In terms of style and fashion though, it’s truly amazing. Because it’s one of those movies that tries to embrace a cultural movement as it’s happening, the fashion and style of set design you see in it is a very heightened version of what was in style at the time. As someone who loves 1920s fashion, I could watch Our Dancing Daughters over and over again just to admire all those spectacular flapper dresses Joan Crawford and Anita Page wear in it. In terms of style, this is absolutely one of my favorite movies.

Sadie McKee 1934

Sadie McKee (1934)

Sadie McKee (Joan Crawford) works as a part-time maid in the home of the Alderson family, where her mother has worked as a cook for years. The Alderson’s son, Michael (Franchot Tone), has long had a crush on Sadie, but Sadie is in love with Tommy (Gene Raymond), who has just been fired from his job working for the Aldersons. While working at a dinner one night, she hears disparaging remarks about Tommy, tells them all off, and runs off to New York City with Tommy to get married.

Once they get into town, Sadie and Tommy meet Opal (Jean Dixon), an older, hardened nightclub performer who helps them get a room at a boarding house. They plan to marry the next day, but need to spend the morning looking for jobs. While Sadie is out job hunting, Tommy is taking a bath at the boarding house and when Dolly (Esther Ralston) overhears him singing, she recruits him to join her nightclub act. He accepts, but has to leave town immediately, leaving a heartbroken Sadie behind.

With some help from Opal, Sadie gets a job dancing in a nightclub and one night, a very drunk (and very rich) customer named Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold) insists that she join him at his table. It turns out that Michael is there with him that night. Michael warns Sadie to leave Jack alone, but she doesn’t listen and it isn’t long before they’re married. Although the marriage gives Sadie a boost in social status, she’s forced to deal with Jack’s alcoholism, which is on the verge of costing him his life. And although she deeply cares about Jack, her heart still hasn’t forgotten Tommy.

Sadie McKee is a pretty quintessential 1930s Joan Crawford movie. She plays a working class woman who finds herself moving into a higher class, she gets to wear some fabulous Adrian gowns, and it was directed by Clarence Brown, who worked very well with Joan. Plus it also starred one of her most famous co-stars, Franchot Tone. In addition to Tone and Crawford, Gene Raymond, Esther Ralston, Jean Dixon, and Edward Arnold are all great in their supporting roles. I thought Esther Ralston and Jean Dixon were particularly great in their respective roles; I loved the scene between Ralston and Crawford when she goes to confront Dolly. Sure, Sadie McKee may be a bit heavy on the melodrama, but it is entertaining and that’s exactly what I wanted from it.

The Bride Wore Red 1937

The Bride Wore Red (1937)

Count Armalia (George Zucco) has few illusions about his wealth — he firmly believes that being wealthy instead of being poor is a matter of sheer luck. To prove his point, he decides to send Anni (Joan Crawford), a singer in a seedy nightclub, to an exclusive resort where his stuck up friend Rudi (Robert Young) is staying. He agrees to pay for Anni’s stay at the resort, buys her new clothes, and has her pretend to be the aristocratic Anne Vivaldi.

When Anni arrives at the resort, she succeeds in getting everyone to believe her rouse, but it isn’t long before she finds herself in the middle of a love triangle. When Rudi sees Anni at dinner during her first night at the resort, he’s immediately drawn to her, even though he’s already engaged to be married. At the same time, Anni has caught they eye of Giulio (Franchot Tone), a postal worker who, unlike all the elite society figures around, has no interest in having money.

Although Anni is more attracted to Giulio, she’s really grown to love having the best of everything and now she doesn’t want to give it up. If she married Rudi, she could keep the lifestyle, so she decides to try everything she can to get Rudi to propose to her. Meanwhile, some of the other guests at the resort send for information about Anni and when the truth about Anni arrives at the resort, Giulio is the first one to find out who she really is and loves her anyway. Before her time at the resort is up, Rudi proposes to Anni. But what happens when other people at the resort finally find out the truth about Anni?

During a certain period of Joan Crawford’s career, she, quite famously, found herself labeled as “box office poison.” Although she certainly had some good company on that list (Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Fred Astaire also made the list), the film that reportedly earned her that notorious “box office poison” label is The Bride Wore Red. All I have to say to that is, “…Really?”

The Bride Wore Red isn’t anything earth shattering; this is not a Mildred Pierce or Humoresque caliber movie and it never tries to be that. But when you’re talking about someone like Joan Crawford, whose career had so many highlights, saying a movie doesn’t live up to the highest high points isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And in the case of The Bride Wore Red, it’s certainly not something to label someone “box office poison” over. (Even if you only look at her 1930s films, this isn’t one of the best, but it’s hardly one of the worst, either. Movies like The Bride Wore Red were meant to be light bit of escapism and that’s all. Sure, it’s a bit formulaic, but sometimes that’s exactly the sort of thing you want. You can be formulaic but still pull it off well and that’s what The Bride Wore Red does. It’s a pure “1930s MGM era” Joan Crawford role — she gets Franchot Tone as a love interest, she dreams of going from rags to riches, and there are excuses to get her into some Adrian gowns. But, what can I say? I like the formula.

What’s on TCM: March 2015

Ann SothernHappy March, everyone! I hope you’ve been enjoying 31 Days of Oscar, which extends into March for a few days. But then it’s back to TCM’s usual schedule. March’s Star of the Month is Ann Sothern, which I’m excited about since I like her, but haven’t really seen many of her movies. The Friday Night Spotlight theme will be roadshow musicals and I have a hard time resisting a good musical.

What I’m most excited about this month is coming up on March 24th, an evening all about Alan Arkin. TCM will be premiering the Live from the TCM Film Festival interview Arkin did with Robert Osborne at last year’s TCM Film Fest. I didn’t attend the taping of that, but I did get to see Arkin speak with Ben Mankiewicz before a screening of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I found the discussion with Arkin so fascinating that it made me very eager to see what the longer interview had in store. This should be a real treat.

Now, on to the rest of the schedule…


Cedric Gibbons and Grand Hotel (1932): One of Oscar’s Biggest Oversights

Grand Hotel 1932 LobbyGrand Hotel (1932) is best remembered for being the movie to popularize all-star casts. Before Grand Hotel, the only movies that featured so many big stars together were “revue” type movies like The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Show of Shows, which were popular in the early days of talkies and featured many of a studio’s top stars in a series of skits and musical numbers. While most other movies had just one male lead and one female lead, Grand Hotel took five of the biggest movie stars working at the time — Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery — and put each of them in a leading role.

However, there is one other person who should be mentioned along with Garbo, Crawford, Beery, and the Barrymores as being a major star of the movie: art director Cedric Gibbons. The exquisite Art Deco style sets he designed for Grand Hotel refuse to be relegated to the background.

Grand Hotel 1932 Lobby Desk

Grand Hotel is also noteworthy for being the only movie to win a Best Picture Academy Award without being nominated in any other categories — no nominations for writing, direction, or even acting. Despite the sheer magnitude of Grand Hotel‘s stars, it’s easy to see how they failed to get nominated in acting categories. Grand Hotel doesn’t have just one male or one female lead to choose from and categories for Supporting Actor/Actress wouldn’t be introduced until the 1936 Academy Awards.  However, it’s not nearly as easy to understand how Cedric Gibbons wasn’t nominated for Best Art Direction, which is one of the biggest Oscar oversights I can think of.

Cedric Gibbons was MGM’s top art director for most of its peak years. He started working at MGM in the 1920s and stayed there until he retired in 1956. Name a big hit MGM movie from the 1930s through the mid-1950s and it’s very likely Cedric Gibbons had a hand in it. He is credited as the art director for The Wizard of Oz, The Thin Man, Ziegfeld GirlMeet Me in St. Louis, Gaslight, On the Town, The Great Ziegfeld, The Good Earth, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, National Velvet, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Marie Antoinette, and Forbidden Planet, just to name a very select few. He even designed one of the most widely recognizable symbols of Hollywood: the Academy Award statuette. But for all of his contributions to film, Gibbons’ work for Grand Hotel is undoubtedly one of the crowning achievements of his career.

Grand Hotel 1932 Exterior ShotEven with Garbo, Crawford, Beery, and two Barrymores to contend with, Gibbons’ sets stand out so much, they become a character unto themselves. Some people might even argue the sets outshine the actors. Although the sets are extravagant, there’s nothing about them that feels artificial. After all, this is a movie set in the finest hotel in Berlin, the sets need to exude an aura of luxury and represent the epitome of early 1930s glamour. But the sets are so believable as a lavish hotel, it’s very easy to forget Grand Hotel was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage and not on location.

Cedric Gibbons’ Grand Hotel sets demonstrate what an integral part art direction plays in creating Hollywood fantasy. This is a movie about characters going through difficult times in their lives, so it’s not a movie people watch and think, “I want to be just like them.” However, the sets are so breathtaking, people do look at them and think, “I want to go there!” If you’re a lover of Art Deco style, you’ll desperately want to believe this was a real hotel you could go visit. The hotel may not be real, but you’ll wish the sets had been preserved and put in a museum somewhere. These were movie sets that went far beyond being sets and were works of art.


31 Days of Oscar 2015 Blogathon

For more Oscar related articles, stay tuned to Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club all month long!