You Don’t Know Joan

#14 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Here’s an infuriating fact—in 2020, most people know Joan Crawford only as Mommie Dearest—a badly aging insane woman with thick eyebrows who beats her adopted daughter.

No line Crawford ever uttered in her movies will be as famous as Faye Dunaway as Joan screaming, “No wire hangers ever!”

The film Mommie Dearest was based on a memoir written by Joan’s daughter, and though the accuracy of both has been widely questioned, it is indisputable that Joan and Christina did not get along, and that Joan was not a particularly good mother.

It’s also indisputable that Joan was a driven and increasingly haunted woman.  She had pulled herself out of a childhood of grinding poverty and never felt worthy of her success.  She forbade wire hangers because her mother worked in a dry cleaner’s, and Joan did not like to be reminded of her past.

Joan gave her life to her career—like many big stars, she had a string of failed marriages and strained relationships with her children.  Her work was all she had, and when age took its toll on her career, she never recovered.

But all that comes later.  

Today let’s talk about Joan in 1931.  She was young and beautiful, and right on the heels of Garbo and Norma Shearer as one of the MGM Queens. She was all glamour and potential.

(Strangely enough, Crawford actually starred in two unrelated films both called Possessed, one in 1931 for MGM and one much later in 1947 when she’d moved over to Warner Brothers.)

Joan had top billing in 1931’s Possessed, over Clark Gable, her up and coming co-star.

She plays Marian Martin, a poor but ambitious girl who ditches her job at the paper mill to find adventure and a rich man in New York.  She finds all that and love too with Gable’s Mark Whitney.  She transforms herself into a sophisticated kept woman.  But Mark does not want to marry, and thus Marian has to suffer the myriad indignities that come with being a mistress and not a wife in 1931.  

It is no exaggeration to say that I adore this movie.  It’s the first movie we’ve covered that you absolutely must watch if you want to appreciate Old Hollywood.  Young Joan is the ultimate Hollywood Glamour Girl and Young Clark doesn’t yet have his trademark mustache.  It’s got an ending that’ll make you melt, and plenty of hot backstage gossip.  

For when the director said cut, Crawford and Gable weren’t turning down the heat.  They’d made two previous pictures together, and the sparks were obvious to all.  In Possessed, those sparks burst into flame.

Though both married at the time, Crawford and Gable began a lusty affair.  

Crawford and Gable would maintain their on-again, off-again affair for years, and though it eventually ended, they made eight movies together and remained lifelong friends.

Some thought they would eventually marry, but from all accounts they never considered it.  Joan was too headstrong and ambitious and felt it would never work. Gable was a tightwad and didn’t want the expense of a divorce.

Some say that Joan wasn’t a great actress, that she got by first on beauty and later on a willingness to take any role, no matter how pathetic.

This is a disservice to Joan Craword.  You can count on one hand the number of actors and actresses who have had more successful careers than Joan Crawford.

You don’t survive in Hollywood for forty-five years without talent.  You don’t make ninety-two films, with thirty of those films coming after age forty in a time and business when women were washed up when they could no longer play the young love interest.

Garbo hung it up at thirty-six.  Shearer at forty.

But Joan Crawford was just getting started.

If It Doesn’t Fit…

#10 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Norma Shearer followed up her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcée with A Free Soul, the story of Jan Ashe, a woman who is caught between three men—her straightlaced, respectable fiance (Leslie Howard), a charming and exciting gangster (Clark Gable), and the true love of her life, her father (Lionel Barrymore.)

Her father, Stephen Ashe, is a brilliant lawyer, yet his uppercrust family have shunned him due to his alcoholism and tendency toward representing criminals and lowlifes.  Loyal Jan stands with him against his family and tries to moderate his alcohol intake with little success.  Stephen loves his daughter and her doting, but because of his preoccupation with the bottle and the courtroom, he lets her run wild, the “free soul” of the title.

Early in the film, Stepen defends gangster Ace Wilfong of a murder charge.  The main piece of evidence condemning Ace is the hat found at the scene of the crime, along with witness testimony stating a hatless Ace left the scene shorty after the murder.

In a scene that made me wonder if Johnnie Cochran has seen the film, Stephen instructs Ace to stand and put on the hat, which turns out to be comically small for Ace’s head.

I could practically hear him say, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Life imitates art, indeed.  For the benefit of our readers under thirty-five, I’m referring to the moment in the O.J. Simpson murder trial when O.J. put on the bloody gloves found at the scene, and held his hands up to show the jury that the gloves were too small.  Not as small as Ace’s hat, but both cases were won in that performative moment, regardless of the rest of the evidence.

Ace is handsome, charming, and trouble, so of course Jan immediately falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with the loving and stable Dwight.  Jan and Ace embark on a whirlwind romance, complete with clandestine overnight visits.

Jan thinks the affair is great fun, but things turn serious when Ace tells her father he wants to marry her.  Stephen is outraged at the idea—he has no problem drinking Ace’s bootleg booze and getting him off for murder, but has no intention of letting his daughter marry a lowlife gangster.

Angry and insulted, Ace returns to his apartment to find Jan waiting for him.  When he proposes to her (without telling her of his encounter with her father), she too brushes off the idea of marriage, albeit with more tact.  Ace realizes Jan sees him as nothing more than her dirty little secret and has no intention of taking their relationship public.

He is angry, but when Jan lays back on the divan, arms outstretched and says, “C’mon.  Put ‘em around me,” he obliges.

When Stephen finds them together, he drags Jan away and she is stunned at his anger and the depths of his disappointment.  They realize they are both out of control—Stephen’s drinking has escalated, and Jan is entangled with the wrong sort of man.  They make a bargain:  Jan will never see Ace again if Stephen quits drinking.

This movie calls to mind Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, another story of a daughter who idolizes her alcoholic father.  As with A Free Soul, the daughter runs wild and the most poignant scene involves young Jeannette asking her father to give up drinking.  In Jeannett’s case, she has asked him to stop drinking as her tenth birthday present.

In both stories, the fathers make the promise to stop drinking, knowing they cannot keep it.

In Jan’s case, she returns to Ace when her father starts drinking again.  But Ace’s wounded pride has made him both violent and possessive, and when Jan again refuses to marry him, he promises to expose to the world that they have slept together, marking her as a ruined woman no decent man would want.

Except good old Dwight still wants her.  Though meant to be heroic, Dwight comes off as a bit of a patsy when he takes it upon himself to shoot Ace dead to protect Jan’s nonexistent virtue.

This sets up a dramatic final courtroom scene, where an off-the-rails Stephen pulls himself together enough to defend Dwight.  He puts Jan on the stand and she confesses all.  She is distraught and ashamed of her behavior, and Stephen takes the blame, saying that she had no choice but to grow up wild with a drunkard who associated with criminals as a father.

It’s a rousing speech, one that won Lionel Barrymore his only Oscar.

The film also garnered Shearer’s third of an eventual five nominations for Best Actress.  

It was also one of the films that catapulted Clark Gable into leading man status.

Overall, it’s a very good film that holds up over time.  Shearer is delightfully charming, and Gable is Gable in all his glory.

It was, of course, hugely controversial at the time.  In particular, the scene where Jan holds out her arms to Ace was nearly universally cut by the regional censors.

Though the censor board was mostly ignored in the pre-code era, after the Warner Brothers films and A Free Soul, the board insisted the studios not make anymore gangster films.

It’s funny that A Free Soul is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  It’s much less violent than Little Caesar or Public Enemy, but it committed two sins that those films, for all their transgressions, did not.

First, Little Caesar and Tom Powers pay for their crimes with their lives.  And while Jan is humiliated in open court, she ultimately gets a happy ending when Dwight is acquitted and they go off to New York to start a new life together.  

Second, and most damningly, A Free Soul glorifies a woman having sex outside of marriage.  More shockingly, she refuses when Ace proposes.  

The studios, fearing government-mandated censorship, complied with the edict and put the gangster films on ice.

But as we’ll see next week, there was a way to make movies outside the studio system.  If you had enough money and enough moxie, you could make whatever picture you wanted.

Twenty-six year old business magnate Howard Hughes had plenty of both.