The Bride Wore Red was a low point in the careers of its director and star.
It was the only film Dorothy Arzner ever directed for MGM, and its failure kept her out of work for the next 3 years.
As for its star, it was the second straight commercial flop for Joan Crawford after The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. The next year the Independent Film Journal dubbed her “box office poison.”1
But The Bride Wore Red isn’t as bad as all that.
It begins when two wealthy gentleman, Count Armalia (George Zucco) and Rudi (Robert Young) argue about the role luck plays in a man’s fate. The Count feel it’s just a turn of the cosmic roulette wheel that landed him as an aristocrat instead of a waiter. Rudi vehemently disagrees, insisting that breeding and a je ne sai quoi separates the classes.
In a bid to cause mischief and knock his friend down a peg, the Count hires Anni, dive bar lounge singer, to impersonate an aristocrat and turn Rudi’s head.
Anni accepts with her own agenda—if she can get Rudi to throw over his fiancé and marry her instead, she’ll live in the lap of luxury instead of scrounging through her stew bowl searching for chunks of meat to keep her full.
Rudi buys her story lock, stock, and barrel and it isn’t long before he’s poised to propose. But by then the plot is complicated by Anni falling in love with Giulio (Franchot Tone), the local postmaster who is content with his lot in life as a peasant.
It’s clear to the audience that Anni would be happier with Giulio, but she’s stubborn enough to purse Rudi until she’s nearly ruined everything. Yet we can sympathize with her ruthlessness—she’s a woman who’s always scraped by, and the prospect of a life without hunger is at first more appealing than one with love.
The film shines in the scenes between Anni and the hotel maid, who by coincidence is an old friend. Behind closed doors, Anni lets down her guard and we can see the strain of her pretense.
We’re rooting for her to choose Giulio, who is clearly the superior man over the materialistic snob Rudi.
And in the end, of course, it all works out, even for Rudi, who is lucky enough that his jilted fiancé takes him back.
This was the seventh film that married couple Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone made together. They had very different backgrounds—Crawford wasn’t that far removed from the shopgirls and prostitutes she played in the 1930s—she’d survived a childhood of grinding poverty to make herself a success despite a lack of sophistication and education.
Franchot Tone was born into a wealthy family. He got his start in the theater, and at first enjoyed tutoring Crawford in great literature, theater, and opera.
Joan Crawford’s career withstood the smear of box office poison—MGM stood behind her, and she was back on top in 1939’s The Women.
Her commitment to success saved her career but doomed her marriage.
Though he was nominated for an Oscar for 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, Franchot Tone looked down on the movies, and wasn’t a great film actor. Joan Crawford lobbied for him to receive many of the roles he did, especially in films with her at MGM.
Just like Russell Brand and Kay Perry, Franchot Tone resented and belittled his wife’s success and wanted them both to step out of the limelight.
But that was something Joan Crawford was never going to do—she lived her entire life for her fans and her career.
She could always get another husband.
- Crawford was in good company on the box office poison list, which also included Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo.
- Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. 1994.
- Spoto, Donald. Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford. 2010.
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