After a successful run with MGM, Joan Crawford’s career was on a slow slide into oblivion when she came roaring back to life with her Oscar-winning turn in Mildred Pierce (1945).
She proved to audiences—and herself—that there was a place in Hollywood for a Joan Crawford no longer young enough to play the ingénue.
She followed Pierce up with a trio of quality films—Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), and Daisy Kenyon (1947)—that launched the second, and more interesting half of her career.
It is to Daisy Kenyon that we turn our attention today.
Based on a novel of the same name by Elizabeth Janeway, Daisy Kenyon is a post-war New York love triangle between Daisy, her longtime married lover Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews) and new suitor Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda.)
Some worried that Crawford, in her early forties, was too old to play the 32 year old Daisy from the novel. Though the much younger Gene Tierney was considered, the film is better for having cast Crawford, who plays Daisy as a woman ultimately beyond her years in wisdom.
Though Dan’s heart has long been with Daisy, he is fully ensnared in his marriage. He and his wife have two children who adore him, and the ambitious Dan works as a lawyer in his father-in-law’s firm.
Daisy has mostly been content as Dan’s mistress, devoting herself to her career as a freelance commercial artist. The film opens with Dan breaking a date with Daisy, something it’s obvious he does frequently, and which is part and parcel of being a mistress instead of a wife. But Daisy is growing tired of waiting for Dan to divorce his wife, and she picks a fight with him.
She’s beginning to see what is obvious to the audience—that Dan will never leave his wife.
Their affair is breaking her heart.
In anger, and perhaps a touch of desperation, Daisy begins dating the widowed Peter. The two men in Daisy’s life could not be more different. Dan is a charismatic glad-hander who juggles all the people and situations in his life with aplomb. Peter has returned from World War II emotionally scarred. He’s awkward and has nightmares about the war. Dan is ambitious, in the thick of things, wanting to be in the center of every room and at the heart of the action. Peter wishes to move to a remote village along the sea and live an isolated, quiet life.
Finally realizing that Dan will never leave his wife, Daisy marries Peter, but she remains torn between the two men who refuse to give her up.
Daisy Kenyon’s trio of stars elevates this potential soapy melodrama into something deeper that was not appreciated at the time of its initial release. Despite infidelity and betrayal, the film has no real villains—Dan is not toying with Daisy, he truly loves her. Daisy marries Peter in good faith, wanting to move on from being a mistress. Peter may still be in love with his dead wife, but he wants to build a life with Daisy.
As biographer Donald Spoto writes in Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, “Daisy Kenyon presents, with a rare kind of emotional honesty, a trio of credible adults struggling with unhappy situations.”
Things come to a head when the plot takes a turn none of the leads saw coming and Dan’s wife want to divorce him.
Suddenly the tables turn and Dan is available while Daisy is married. But Peter won’t hold her to her vows if she wants out.
With Dan free, Daisy finally has what she’s always wanted.
Or does she?
And in case you’re wondering—of course Joan Crawford rocks the shoulder pads here.
No one has ever done it better.
- Spoto, Donald. Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford. 2010.
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