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Sadie McKee

Ring a Ding Ding

She goes from rags to riches, but not in the way you'd expect.

Sadie McKee (1934)

     When you have watched enough movies from the ’30s and/or ’40s, you start to notice a lot of trends, especially in the romantic genre, and the plots start to blur together. You could also say the same of some Joan Crawford movies as she went through phases of characters: the flapper, the rags to riches, the bitch, etc. In watching Sadie McKee, however, I had the second of my recent experiences of thinking I had a plot pegged only to be wildly surprised (The other was Something to Sing About).

     We are introduced to Crawford’s titular character as she strolls toward a mansion. Some gents in a car comment that one can tell she has class, while another notes she is the daughter of his cook. It has been some time since servant Sadie has seen the son of her masters, Michael, with whom she grew up. Played by Franchot Tone, Michael Alderson is thrilled to see Sadie has grown up so beautifully, so it is easy to assume the two will soon wind up together.

     Sadie has a boyfriend, however, who has been fired for stealing from the company run by the Aldersons. Sadie believes he is innocent and so throws a fit as she is serving the family dinner and overhears how they wish to make an example of him, with Michael leading the attack. She holds a grudge against Michael as she hops a train from upstate New York to the big city with this boyfriend Tommy (Gene Raymond).

     After an awkward unmarried, yet consummated night at a boarding house, Sadie and Tommy make plans to meet at city hall after going to separate job interviews. The man never shows, however, because he has met the sexy performer across the hall (Esther Ralston), has joined her act as a singer and left town. Sadie soon takes a job as a dancer at a club and attracts the attention of millionaire Jack Brennan, played by Edward Arnold. His attorney who has joined him at the club happens to be Michael. The old friends have a tense reunion as Sadie is still angry with him and as revenge spends the entire night in the drunken arms of Brennan while at the club.

     Brennan, who is a perpetually drunk alcoholic, proposes to Sadie that night and the two are indeed married despite Michael’s objections surrounding Sadie’s gold-digger intentions. The feud continues up through a negative diagnosis that Brennan will die unless he quits drinking. Sadie makes it her mission to keep the man sober and succeeds, and in so doing restores a friendship with Michael.

     The marriage hits a breaking point, however, when Sadie learns Tommy is unemployed and possibly sick. She still loves him and explains to Brennan why she needs a divorce.

     My prediction within the first five minutes of Sadie McKee was that the protagonist and Michael would end up together. Crawford and Tone became off-screen lovers on this picture and eventually married, although the size of her fame would eventually squash their relationship. As they interact on screen at the movie’s start, the two get along so swimmingly, and Tone gazes at her so lovingly, that their courtship seems easy to predict. When Sadie goes to NYC, however, my prediction changed to her bumping into Michael and an instant relationship starting from there. Again wrong.

     The plot element that has Sadie unendingly in love with Tommy, despite his having done her wrong, seems to create a hurdle for the story to get over. By the time we reach the point that Sadie can leave Brennan, the picture has gone on for so long that it has little time to wrap everything up and presumably throw the woman in Michael’s arms. SPOILER Even in killing Tommy, the story cannot erase Sadie’s feelings for the man, and so the picture closes on she, her friend, her mother and Michael enjoying the man’s birthday at the woman’s apartment. Although we can guess what his candle-blowing wish is about, the screen goes dark and we are left with no final kiss to seal the deal. (Time to put on The Bride Wore Red). END SPOILER

      Both Crawford and Tone give splendid performances. Tone especially will grab you with his powerful emotional displays as he fights tooth and nail against Sadie’s desire to make herself into an unsavory sort. Crawford matches him well in her fighting scenes, and the couple have always been delightful to watch on screen together. Backing Crawford up is Jean Dixon, playing Opal, the hardened night club performer who finds Sadie a job and then revels in her wealth. She acts as a bit of comic relief while encouraging the woman to take Brennan for all he is worth, although her intentions are not sinister.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

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Love on the Run

Love on the Run (1936)

Gasser

     If one were to pit Franchot Tone against Clark Gable in vying for a woman’s affections on screen who would win? One might say the answer depends on the woman. In the case of Love on the Run, Joan Crawford is our leading lady, but although she was married to Tone offscreen at the time of the film, that man does not get the slightest chance to woo her in this picture.

     Tone and Gable are dueling reporters of sorts as Barney Pells and Mike Anthony, respectively. They are London roommates and foreign correspondents for rival New York newspapers. Mike is consistently vowing to share any scoops with his pal, but always leaves him in the lurch. On the first day of our story, the two flip a coin to see who will cover the wedding of a socialite to a prince and who will attend the takeoff of a baron and baroness who are pilots. When Mike arrives at the church, he finds Crawford as socialite Sally Parker fleeing from the premises and tracks her down.

     The reporter wins over the girl’s trust and conceals his profession. To sneak her out of her hotel, however, he borrows the aviation outfits of the baron and his wife, and the two take off in that couple’s plane using Mike’s moderate flying skills. To get away with this, however, Mike tied up the baron, baroness and his pal Barney who was interviewing them at the time. The two crash land in France and begin an adventure of hiding from the public, secretly reporting news stories back home and avoiding the baron and baroness, who turn out to be frauds/spies.

     Tone intercepts the couple repeatedly throughout their journey and is rewarded by being tossed from a train and tied up again and again to allow Mike to continue getting the scoop. When Mike’s profession is uncovered, it creates turmoil in the romance blossoming between he and Sally, but nothing that a movie plot cannot overcome.

     Love on the Run is not the love triangle I expected it to be. If anything Sally and Mike band together to thwart Barney. It was Mike’s treatment of his roommate that particularly turned me off to the protagonist. He is so brutal in his treatment of the man –at one point forcing Barney, who is rescuing Mike, to switch places with him and become a hostage to the spies– that I found it difficult to laugh at.

     The romantic plot is not particularly enthralling. It is a slow-growing love between Sally and Mike as the two initially annoy each other, as is often the case in movies, but it is nothing if not predictable. Crawford, as you might have gathered from my lack of mention of her thus far, offers nothing novel to the story. Any woman could have played this part and the picture would have remained the same.

Sudden Fear

Ring a Ding Ding 

Sudden Fear (1952)

What would be more shocking: Discovering the man you just married and are mad about doesn’t love you and is having an affair or that he wants to kill you for your money? I had a hard time deciphering which of these circumstances, which come hurtling at Joan Crawford‘s character in Sudden Fear, were more hurtful to the woman. Sudden Fear comes at a time in Joan’s career when she is in between the gorgeous face she brought to the screen and the more mature look that moviemakers tried to pass off as that past beauty. Despite being a thriller, this film did not come at the end of her career when she was making all those absurdly bad slasher movies (see Straight Jacket or Berserk).

As play-write Myra Hudson, Crawford’s character has the prerogative to choose who she likes for a leading man in her most recent play, and it’s not Lester Blaine, played by a young and sort of handsome Jack Palance. Lester tells Myra off before leaving the stage and the show goes on to be a great hit without him. When Myra boards a train to her home in California from New York, she discovers Lester is on board and invites him in for a drink and game of cards. The two enjoy the lengthy trip together and continue to see each other while in California. We get the sneaking suspicion that Lester might have sinister motives for dating the wealthy woman –based on his interest in a dangerous set of stone steps along a cliff at Myra’s home– but the two marry anyway.

Surfacing at one of the couple’s parties is Gloria Grahame as Irene, who has followed Lester to California after seeing a newspaper notice of his nuptials. She has some dirt on the groom that leads him to seek out employment of his own so he can pay the woman’s living without using his wife’s money. It soon becomes evident that despite his initial disdain towards the blonde, the two have become lovers.

It is not until Myra’s dictating machine accidentally left running picks up the duo’s conversation about how Lester makes out in her will that we actually discover the husband does not love his wife as it appears he does. On that dictation device Myra hears that to avoid a lousy settlement that Myra will sign as part of her will in three days, Lester and Irene plan to kill her and secure her entire fortune for the man. The villains have three days to execute and accident, and Myra might have been able to protect herself had she not accidentally broken the record onto which this evidence is recorded. The remainder of the picture is a high-stress account of Myra trying to avoid any precarious situations with her husband while also scheming to kill the man and make it look like Irene did it. The criminals get their just desserts but not in the  manner Myra plans.

Besides the excitement of the second half of Sudden Fear, the most profound scene is Myra’s solitary experience while listening to the recording of her husband and his lover’s plan to kill her. Her emotions start as pure remorse at hearing the lovers’ affectionate words towards each other before transitioning to horrid shock at the abject danger in which she lies. I think it might be impossible to watch that scene and those following it without thinking about what you might do in such a situation. The natural thing would be to run, get out of town without telling Lester where she has gone, but Myra does not take this course. The first of the three days that mark her doom are spent holed up in her bedroom in shock and fear of her husband, which she tells him is the result of a headache. The next day she cozies up to Lester and suggests they take the weekend at a vacation house, which appeals to him as an excellent murder site. She tells him they will go on the third day but then cancels last minute by citing other party plans she had forgotten. This pushes the murders’ plans to the very last evening before Myra is to sign her legal documents and allows her to manipulate the schemers into their own deaths.

     Sudden Fear was highly enjoyable as it allows Crawford to play beautiful and influential without being the man eater she often portrayed. She conveys vulnerability well and turns her character around to be powerful enough to plan a murder of her own while still remaining too weak to carry it out. This was a well-acted and highly suspenseful story executed to its best.

I Live My Life

Gasser

I Live My Life (1935)

     Over the past couple of years I have absorbed A LOT of Joan Crawford movies. I tend to DVR them any chance I get, which has led me through an array of great and mediocre flicks. What I have observed in many of her basic romance plots is that the woman often plays the dame who toys with men’s romantic devotion to her for most of the movie before finally succumbing to the love she never realized was there. That is true of I Live My Life, the title of which tells one nothing of the story.

     Crawford is part of a wealthy American business family as Kay Bentley. She meets Irish archeologist Terry O’Neill (Brian Aherne) while her yacht is docked in Naxos, Greece, and immediately makes a pest of herself. The man is working to dig up an ancient statue he has searched for over two years and the woman feigns an ankle injury to compel him to carry her down a mountain. She begs her boat captain to return them to the island the next day so she may see Terry again under the guise of an apology. The two spend the day together as Kay pretends to be the yacht owner’s secretary because Terry has made clear he has no interest in people who have too much money to be good for them. That night the rugged man declares he loves Kay and will meet up with her again in New York.

     When Terry arrives in American and tracks down this secretary, he finds he’s been misled. He happens to connect with Kay’s father, played by Frank Morgan, however, in presenting his artifact to the museum at which the older man is a trustee. When Terry is invited to his home, he re-meets Kay but both are cold over the lie. Kay’s deception in her identity is not the true conflict of the story, however. Nor is the clear class divide between the woman’s friends and her outdoorsy love interest. Kay is engaged to some other wealthy bloke strictly on business terms that will result in her wealthy grandmother paying out a marriage settlement to the newlyweds. Her father is under his mother-in-law’s thumb and is getting himself into financial trouble through private prospecting. His daughter’s dowry, however, could help him in settling the debt.

     Crawford’s Kay not only allows the male lead to declare his love for her without any reciprocation but waits until the movie is three-quarters complete before shouting her affection. In this vein we see a better performance by Aherne than Crawford because we can read the genuine fluctuation in his emotions as he is scorned and re-adored by this woman. Crawford is content to flit about uttering her lines and projecting the cheerful, fun young woman audiences surely loved but fails to bring any conviction to her part. She does what is required of her, nothing more.

     It is in roles like this one and in The Bride Wore Red with Franchot Tone that we cannot help but fall in love with the genuine affection of the men while loathing Crawford’s parts in their plans for the most financially suitable match. In I Live My Life, Kay could easily have informed Terry of why she would marry her fiancée instead of him, but perhaps that dims the drama.

Forsaking All Others

Gasser

Forsaking All Others (1934)

     I think we all remember Joan Crawford for the roles in which she played commanding women, perhaps because she was one off screen, but when she was still fiddling about with basic romantic comedies, she was not foreign to the lovesick-gal-chasing-after-a-lover-type roles, as was her part in a well cast Forsaking All Others. Here we also find Clark Gable in a role we will not remember him for because he takes the part of a man regimented to best friend status as he pines for the girl set to marry the third member of the trio. In that third role, Robert Montgomery does shine forth in his standard a-cad-that-one-can’t-help-but-love character.

     Crawford as Mary is readying herself for tomorrow’s wedding ceremony with childhood friend Dillon (Montgomery). Making the occasion complete is the return of Jeff (Gable) –another childhood friend– from Spain who arrives ready to propose to the young woman until he learns the “joyous” news of the impending marriage. During what should have been a bachelor dinner, Dill instead gets held up by his last girlfriend Connie (Frances Drake) and the man never shows. Dill also fails to show at the church the next day, and Jeff eventually receives a cable indicating the groom has instead married his ex.

     To get away from the embarrassment, Mary heads off to a cabin in the New York wilderness. When Jeff visits with her mail, she finds she is invited to a party hosted by Dill and Connie –an attempt by the latter to upset the jilted bride. To prove her recovery from her last relationship, Mary attends, with Jeff on her arm. It is at the party that Dill discovers ashamedly his wife’s evil plot and confesses his enduring love for Mary. The two attempt to take up an affair and head out on a fun-filled adventure into the country to what would have been their honeymoon house. The trip is marked by comedic disasters and the couple are rained into the house for the night, but Mary refuses to go to bed with the man. Connie seeks a divorce because of the seeming infidelity and the story comes full circle to the wedding of Mary and Dill, at least momentarily.

     All characters in Forsaking All Others are likeable, even Montgomery whose Dill cannot seem to synch his physical and emotional impulses with his own logic. The story does a great job of convincing us that Mary wants no one but Dill and so should we root for their reunion even if Jeff has stood by as the more sympathetic male lead. Gable wears his emotions on his face for the camera while concealing them from the other characters, which is not something we often see with him. The Jeff character is also joined by comedic sidekick Shep (Charles Butterworth) who lends much of the comic relief and witty dialogue. Billie Burke is also on hand as a woman who considers Mary her daughter and is intertwined in all the rumblings.

     Forsaking All Others is nothing special in the realm of romantic comedies, nor in the careers of its players, but it is a delightfully enchanting love story that will give one the warm fuzzies, if that’s what is sought in a movie.

Trog

Dullsville

Trog (1970)

     I really need to stop setting my expectations so low for certain Joan Crawford movies because they keep turning out okay. Her last movie, Trog, is a sci-fi monster movie of sorts, but the then-blonde star does a great job in this otherwise mediocre story.

     When a few cave divers discover an untouched cavern and the murderous half man-half ape “with the strength of 20 demons,” as the trailer suggests, that has been trapped there, Crawford’s Dr. Brockton apprehends the monster and cages him in her lab. Brockton is a paleontologist who believes this thing is a troglodyte who had been frozen under the earth for millions of years and had been thawed and reanimated recently. He is the missing link between man and his ape ancestry and must be studied. Others in this British town, however, think the creature must be destroyed.

     Brockton works to educate the thing she has named Trog by offering him toys and teaching him to use them. He shows much progress but can be enraged by loud music and the color red. Land developer Sam Murdock (Michael Gough) is the biggest opponent of keeping the creature alive as it will frighten away prospective buyers. He conspires with Brockton’s colleague Dr. Selbourne (Jack May), who is jealous and annoyed that the lab has been neglecting its other work, and sets the beast free. While on his walk-about in town, Trog kills a man by throwing him through a window and another by hanging him on a butcher’s hook. He eventually works his way back to his cave after picking up a child and Brockton goes in after him. She rescues the girl but Trog does not meet a happy ending.

     Crawford’s performance was good. She did not overact as might be easy to do in such a film, but kept her cool as a brainy scientist. Her appearance even with the blonde hair was also not as freaky as she has been known to look. The monster was only moderately hokey. The face mask offered great animatronics and was decently creepy looking, but the man wearing the get-up, Joe Cornelius, wore only some fake hair around his shoulders and a loin cloth and moccasins of fur to give the impression of a part-ape creature. I’m not sure if the loin cloth was meant to be what it looked like or if we were supposed to accept that the beast had fur in that area of his body. Otherwise, the actor was very hairless. One would think a hairier man would have been hired to give the creature a better look.

     Trog is far from a masterpiece and certainly not the best way for a superstar like Crawford to end her career, but it is not without its merits. It primarily succeeds, as mentioned, in the face prosthetics of the creature and in Crawford’s performance but otherwise fails to realize its full potential.

Johnny Guitar

Gasser

Johnny Guitar (1954)

     I have been relishing the opportunity to watch Johnny Guitar because I have been convinced it would be horrendous. You might then understand my utter amazement at how good the movie is. Outside of Joan Crawford who is the only downfall of the flick –and a big one at that– Johnny Guitar is a great story that takes an untraditional approach to the western genre.

     Westerns generally depict the feuds between men, but Johnny Guitar‘s main focus is on two fighting women. Crawford is saloon owner Vienna who has become generally associated with the gang of the Dancin’ Kid. Mercedes McCambridge as Emma, on the other hand, aligns herself with a rival posse of ranch hands that includes the sheriff and a U.S. Marshall. At the opening, Emma’s brother is killed in a stagecoach robbery and that group of ranchers blame the Dancin’ Kid’s quartet. They go to Vienna’s saloon to search them out but do not find the supposed culprits there, at least not at first. When the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) does show up, he denies involvement with the robbery and shooting. Emma has a particular hatred for this man, but Vienna maintains it is because she wants him but in a star-crossed lover sort of way cannot have him. The Kid, might want Emma as well, but he’s also pushing to get in Vienna’s bed. In light of the feud and shooting, the sheriff declares a law that would prevent Vienna from offering booze or gambling at her establishment and calls for the Kid’s gang to get out of town –all within 24 hours.

     Throughout this, a new man in town, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) has arrived at Vienna’s request for a job playing music at the saloon. He gets on the bad side of the Dancin’ Kid gang and beats up Bart, played by Ernest Borgnine, and shoots a gun out of young Turkey’s hand (Ben Cooper). We eventually learn that this Johnny Guitar –or Johnny Logan– was Vienna’s past love, but the woman’s seedy bedroom forays in the past five years stand in the way of a reunion.

     Because the Kid’s gang is being run out of town, the group decides to actually commit a crime on its way out. Just as Vienna is withdrawing her money from the bank now owned by Emma, the men barge in and rob it of all its gold. The authorities naturally associate Vienna with the crime and Emma is out for blood. Before Vienna and Johnny can skip town, however, they are faced with a wounded Turkey, whom they must hide in the saloon as Emma and the ranchers barge in. All is well until Turkey’s hiding place is discovered and the law and Emma force him to say Vienna helped in the robbery or else be hanged. He does so but the posse now rushes off to hang them both. A chase and shootout compose the remainder of the plot.

     McCambridge was truly stunning in her brutal portrayal of a frontier woman with masculine strengths. Often the camera takes a close-up on her homely face as she seethes with rage in either yelling at or campaigning against her nemesis in Vienna. McCambridge and Crawford hated each other off screen making their onscreen feud all the stronger, but Crawford’s approach is more cool and aloof and does not stack up against her rival. Besides having left her beauty behind her by this point in her career, Crawford is absolutely out of place in a western. Her clothing, face and hair are absolutely spotless throughout the movie as though the woman never ventures outside into the dirty, dry world of the western U.S. The gun belt she wears looks more like a fashion accessory than a weapon holster, and she holds a gun more like Mildred Pierce than a gunslinger. For one portion of the flick, Vienna dons a purely white dress that somehow never dirties despite being hauled on a horse to her hanging, hiding against the earth and strolling through a mine. Even after getting wet while wading through a river and passing through a waterfall, moments later she is dry, her hair pristine and the man’s clothes she’s borrowed perfectly clean and well-fitting. It takes no stretch of the imagination that Crawford likely required these perfections for her role. She certainly required all close ups be filmed in a studio rather than on location so that the lighting could be controlled to her advantage.

     Besides Crawford sorely standing out as the wrong person for the role, I greatly enjoyed the story of Johnny Guitar even if it has less to do with the titular character than the women who consume the story. It is a great twist on the classic western and draws many great performances.

Source: TCM.com

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