We open up on the Acme Paper Box Co., which has a down-and-dirty industry strewn about its edges. If the people flooding out of the factory are any indication, this will be a dusty, grubby, little picture.
Two of their employees are Al Manning (Wallace Ford) and Marian Martin (Joan Crawford). He’s a concrete worker with a penchant for bricks, and he’s also positively smitten with her. Meanwhile, her gaze is focused somewhere else. She’s not about to settle for “happiness on an installment plan.”
It’s summed up by the train tracks — a handy conduit for the luxurious upper classes who coast by with their dancing, music, and cocktails. They have no idea about a life like Marian’s, nor do they have any reason to care about it. However, she gravitates toward them, peering in at their affluence from the outside. She would do anything to breach the space in between.
She does meet one fellow as he knocks a few drinks back and stares out at the sorry landscape. They strike up a momentary conversation; it’s nothing more and nothing less, but it leaves an impression. Among other things, he tells her there two kinds of people: those who are “in” and those who are “out.” And before he’s whisked away, he offers her one of his cards like a (drunk) gentleman.
Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, a character who ultimately becomes of minor importance, nevertheless fascinates me for some unequivocal reason. As best as can be described, he is the kind of actor who feels stuck in the 1930s, and I mean it as a kind of backhanded compliment. There’s a frequency to his voice perfect for radio tones but somehow it’s hard to see him existing outside the era. That’s perfectly alright.
At any rate, intrepid Marian having eaten the fruit, so-to-speak, and gained knowledge about their world, can never go back to her simple ignorance. Instead, she returns to her mother and Al telling tales of what she’s just seen.
In the city, folks see the world as a woman’s oyster. Poor folks think men are meant to go out and get whatever they can out of life; women are meant to stay where they and get married. If anything is obvious, Joan Crawford’s not one for the shabby status quo. So she goes out and does something about it.
However, she really is in a sorry state, showing up on the doorstep of the one man she knows in town. With nothing else to lose, she tries to sneak her way into a lucky break, fumbling around brazenly, foot in her mouth, but she’s definitely got guts. There are no pretenses when she tries to get in with his friends; she’s a straight-forward gold digger and she knows what she wants.
For some, that’s a turnoff. For self-assured up-and-coming statesmen Mark Whitney (Clark Gable), he finds it oddly attractive and so he gladly leads her by the arm and allows her the benefit of his bounty. A few years down the road she’s made strides in the life of a social hostess. For all intent and purposes, she acts as the perfect wife. Directing the servants, choosing the wine, throwing dinner parties like a seasoned professional.
What’s the big reveal, you ask? They’re not married. They have a mutual agreement and being pragmatic seems to have paid off. Even as she continues to educate herself in the finer things, including French and German loves songs, there’s still something in her upbringing that sympathizes with a lowly tramp brought to one of their gatherings. The woman feels woefully, even uncomfortably, out of place, surrounded by so much class.
Marian realizes no manner of jewels or perfume can totally cover her own genetic makeup. The gravest development in the story starts in Crawford’s own character. She settles in and softens up. In some ways, she wants marriage, because she’s gone and fallen in love. It’s no longer a convenient relationship with fringe benefits.
Right here, it’s evident how it courts similar themes as Back Street or any movie about women trapped in somewhat unenviable positions in a society where their only recourse is to take what they can get by any means necessary. We pity them even as some of their actions feel unfortunate.
Al comes to the city bitten with the same bug that once got her, with the goal of making “the big time,” asking favors from the man she’s already attached to. He’s utterly ignorant of what he’s stepped into — what Marian’s arrangement entails — still, he knows what he wants.
It should be noted Clark Gable never gets a lingering closeup as fine as the ones extended to Crawford. After all, her name is over the title credits, not his. But what’s refreshing about his character — he doesn’t feel like an out-and-out cad — there’s some integrity to him. Still, life must complicate everything. Their relationship begins to disintegrate, on the behest of friends and advisors, as he must make a choice between a political career a woman.
A new normal is soon established. The wheels of the political movement begin to spin, unnamed naysayers look to stir up scandal against him, and Marian somehow evaporates into the background. The final scene is the lynchpin of it all. Joan Crawford feels like an anonymous civilian walking through the rain with her umbrella and mac amid the usual foot traffic. They all make their way to a grand pavilion with posters of her man plastered on all sides.
In a purely cinematic moment, she takes the stand on his defense and gives a tearful, overly sincere annunciation of his character. It wins over the audience as she’s overcome with emotion and stumbles out in tears.
Again, the key is that we follow Joan. We are with her as she bursts through the doors and totters her way out onto the street with the rain pelting her as she labors up the stairs…That’s when her leading man comes and wraps her up in his arms. It’s what these old movies were made for. The final embrace propelled by emotion and buoyed by the attractive glamour of their stars.
Enough films of the era take a bleaker road; it’s safe enough to give this one its Hollywood ending. It is Hollywood after all, the land where Lucille Laseurr could become Joan Crawford: one of the most indelible figures Hollywood ever created.