In our ongoing exploration of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s filmographies, here are three more films building on Crawford’s renewed critical success in the 1940s after Mildred Pierce (1945) and Humoresque (1946).
Possessed opens with Joan Crawford wandering the city streets past cable cars and hamburger joints with a far-off look in her eyes. Although I should briefly clarify this is Possessed from 1947 (as the actress made an earlier movie with the same title). The unknown woman is searching for a man named David, and instantly we have the pretext for our story.
There’s a wonderful extended POV shot of Crawford being wheeled into the hospital as she is overtaken by a catatonic stupor, and the doctors try to piece together what to do for her and who she is.
If they’re in the dark, then we at least learn a little bit more about her. David (Van Heflin) was a man in her former life, in love with a piano and a parabola but not ready to marry her. He doesn’t want to be tied down and his ambitions lie in his work and a job up in Canada.
She’s obsessed and crazed with him, and the thought of him leaving her forever. Instead, she resigns herself to a life with her employer (Raymond Massey) who has lost his wife and has sent his kids away to school. Crawford’s not a villain, but how this relationship blooms, there’s another obvious reference point. It’s apparent how the movie blends and finds itself at the crossroads of Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce.
As her mental instability takes over, it’s almost as if a scene from Mildred Pierce is playing out in her head as she duels with a vitriolic stepdaughter. However, while this feels more like a facsimile of the prior’s year success, it’s really Hefflin who steals the picture’s other half.
Because Possessed finds Hefllin at his most caddish and cold (“My liver rushes in where angels dare to tread”). He has wit like Johnny Eager, but he’s also willing to run roughshod over Crawford without any amount of remorse. He’s a hedonistic, self-serving creature, and it only becomes more evident when the impressionable Carol (Geraldine Brooks) gets drawn in by his casual wiles.
They get married and Louise becomes more paranoid and hallucinatory by the hour. This movie is bookended by her descent into mental turmoil, and it’s hard not to laud Crawford for her genuine alacrity for the part making the rounds of psych wards and facilities just so she could provide greater authenticity. No matter what feels antiquated to our modern sensibilities, the movie is worthwhile for her performance, which seems to come in sharper relief with each subsequent layer of her ever-shifting personality.
The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)
The film’s title was ripped from a Eugene O’Neil quote, and it gets at the poetic essence of the movie more than its particulars. When a racketeer’s carcass is found ditched near a desert resort, it sets off alarm bells and triggers a search for a missing oil heiress played by Joan Crawford.
The impetus of her entire existence in the film is summed up in a single scene of definitive exposition. She lives alongside her husband, parents, and their little boy near the oil fields where her husband works. It’s a meager life. They can’t afford pleasure. And so when she splurges to get their son a bright new bicycle, her agitated husband (Richard Egan) tells her to take it right back.
The bike effectively becomes a vehicle for their marital conflict since they are scrimping and saving just to make ends meet. However, it’s also a token of tragedy in Ethel’s life searing her with wounds she will never forget. She leaves her past behind to make a new life for herself as an individual because her corner of familial bliss looks to be dead.
As the story progresses, it feels like a bit of a throwback for Crawford from the ’30s and her days as a driven working girl making a go of it. She learns quickly how to play the game to get ahead, modeling and then doing some overtime with out-of-town buyers after hours.
Then, she literally meets a man, a CPA (Kent Smith), at the water cooler. She winds up sprawled out on his desk asking for a cigarette and making his acquaintance with her self-assured flirtations. She has some misguided notions about his importance and yearly take-home pay. Either that or she confuses her acronyms.
In other words, he hardly has the money to bankroll the evening he has unwittingly been escorted to. Still, she goes to bat for him putting Martin in contact with some of her other “friends.” It starts out with the men discussing business together behind closed doors with Lorna left in the drawing room withing for their return. It feels oddly uncharacteristic because we know Crawford will get into that room eventually (and most likely dominate it).
George Castleman (David Brian) is the kingpin at the top, an elegant self-made mobster fascinated by art and antiquities. He’s trying to keep his cronies in check, the most headstrong of the bunch being Steve Cochran, who’s running the racket out in California. This is not Martin’s world, but Ethel has gotten him into it, and for the time being it’s lucrative enough.
But with her innate ambitions, Crawford’s character always has her sights set on the next prize. With the help of the society pages, she turns herself into the newly-minted heiress Lorna Hansen Forbes. Going forward, the movie blends the world of some of Crawford’s Pre-Code working-class drams with that of 711 Ocean Dr., another ’50s film concerned with wires, bookies, mob influence, and of course, California desert getaways.
Here it’s a more hands-on approach. For most of the film, Cochran waits in the wings brooding, but he gets his moment in California with some filming even taking place at Frank Sinatra’s own home made up in mid-century modern. Crawford has them all. The whole crux of the drama is composed of these spokes radiating out of Joan Crawford leading to four men who are attached to her at different times.
It gets so overblown and preposterous, and yet you can’t quite look away because the dilemma is made plain. She’s ingratiated herself with so many people to get what she wants, and since she’s caught between so many options, for the first time in her life, she’s not sure what to choose.
Everything must succumb to a bombastic round of Production Code comeuppance where all retribution is neatly doled out and moral ambiguity is left to languish. It makes for a hearty round of theatrics but also a minor disappointment. Because we’ve seen these tactics used in this kind of forced storytelling so many times before. Still, you can’t take the film’s title away. It’s one for the ages. Moreover, Crawford seems more than worthy of it.
Harriet Craig (1950)
“How many ways do you lie Harriet?” – Wendell Corey
In Harriet Craig, Joan Crawford plays the quintessential domineering lady of the manor. Before we even see her onscreen she has her whole staff in a tizzy as she rushes off on a last-minute visit to her sickly mother. If we can make an early observation, she’s a bit beastly.
Wendell Corey makes her stand out all the more thanks to his free and easy charm as her husband. He’s rarely been more likable playing gin rummy with the elderly Mrs. Fenwick, a woman of good humor and a light in her eye.
As Crawford’s opening perfectionism slowly burns off or at least is put aside, Harriet Craig somehow gives off the sense of an early sitcom of the era. It has to do with the setting and the world — the way the spouses interplay — and it doesn’t seem like the scenario could possibly boil over into something cataclysmic.
At first, Harriet feels nitpicky and fastidious. These aren’t negative qualities on their own per se, and her husband coaxes out brief moments of good humor. However, it becomes evident how deeply manipulative she really is.
Suddenly Harriet Craig becomes a blatant subversion of the portrait of post-war suburban bliss. Walter is offered a job to work with the company over in Japan. It’s a big promotion, and he’s elated. Harriet finds ways to derail this threatening source of change.
She drops a few intimating remarks to keep her orphaned cousin (K.T. Stevens) and her husband where they can serve her best. She gets snider by the day trying to preserve her life under glass.
One of the few who sees through her is the perceptive housekeeper Mrs. Harold, who has faithfully shared Walter’s family for years, but recognizes just how much Harriet is a canker. Her household is all a sham cultivated by its primary architect: Harriet.
Eventually, her pyramid of well-orchestrated deceit begins to tumble as all her half-lies and casual mistruths are found out. In all her neurotic pride, she’s prepared to rot in that house. The irony of the picture is how she’s tried to control everything — she’s particular about every iota of that place — and now that she’s made her own mausoleum, she has to lie down in it. That home is all she has.
I’ve never ventured to watch Mommie Dearest, and far be it from me to pry the fact from fiction, but part of me wants to know how the core faults of Crawford’s character were indicative of her real self. Part of me likes to believe she intuitively made the role into something that resonated with her, whether she fully recognized it or not.