Laughing Sinners (1931)

I’d Rather Laugh With The Sinners Than Die With The Saints

Laughing Sinners is surely some good publicity for The Salvation Army. The plot of Ivy/Bunny (Joan Crawford) leaving her previous life behind and finding happiness in the helping of others is moralising but never came off to me as overly preachy. I like Laughing Sinners despite the film’s inconsistency with sections of the movie having little to no impact on the overall story. The first twenty minutes of set up, for example, could easily have been done in half the time. Yet despite this, there is a powerful emotional undercurrent at the heart of Laughing Sinners with a number of highly moving scenes making up for the less than stellar portions of the film.

At least some of these weaker moments are made passable from the presence of a comical, stereotypical Italian chef to a bizarre dance number in which Joan Crawford is dressed as a scarecrow; go figure. Likewise, another real highlight in Laughing Sinners is a scene in the park depicting a charity picnic which has such naturalism in both its documentary-like appearance as well as the acting; a piece of neorealism which doesn’t feel like a movie set.

As soon as Clark Gable enters the picture at 22 minutes the film truly takes off. Any scene with Crawford and Gable is pure magic with the sincerity in their interactions which at no point feels like acting. I don’t think there’s any other actress of the time who can as effectively as Crawford make you pour out your heart for the poor woman and rarely has she ever looked as angelic as she does here in her Salvation Army uniform. Likewise, many people will laugh at the idea of Clark Gable playing a Salvation Army officer but Laughing Sinners provides a side of Gable I wish more people could see. Like his role of Dr Ferguson in Men In White (1934), the part of Carl Loomis is saintly without delving into the sickly with his ability to project a real sense of warmth especially with his interaction with children.

This is one of the few films in Gable’s career in which he isn’t a romantic lead as he only remains in the friend-zone with Joan. Never again would we see Gable as more of a boy scout and less the alpha male; as he cooks, wears sweaters and aprons and lives with his aunt.

 

Possessed (1931)

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Living In Sin

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The poor, poverty-stricken girl goes to the city to meet a rich man. Once you’ve seen enough 1930’s films which follow this formula you get sick of it but Possessed is one of the better films of this kind, partially from a degree of its self awareness, such as when businessman Wally Stuart (Richard “Skeets Gallagher”) reacts to Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) showing up at his New York apartment (“Poor but beautiful factory maiden leaves squallier of small town for glitter of big city”). At the beginning of Possessed Marian works in the most comically mundane place imaginable, a box factory (thank you Principal Skinner). Marian holds the fear of getting older and passing her sell-by date; use your looks now while you still got them. When Marian goes to the city she must navigate her way through a man’s world full of greed, ambition, politics, and sex. It’s there that she meets a certain Mark Whitney (Clark Gable).

Crawford and Gable – the heat, the passion, the electricity. Could you ask for a stunning and sensational on-screen couple? Crawford has talked openly about her feelings for Gable and watching them on screen you can tell the two of them are really in love with each other. Possessed shows a couple living together (and presumably having sex) out of wedlock; means nothing today but was scandalous for the time. Mark refuses to marry Marian out of pain from his previous marriage (“Losing a sweetheart is a private misfortune, losing a wife is a public scandal”) and we see the effect this has on their relationship. In one pivotal scene during a party at Mark’s apartment, an accomplice of his brings a floozy to the party and justifies this over the presence of Marian. Not married and living with a man? Then others will see you no better than some tramp off the street.

Later in the film, Mark makes the decision to run for governor and decides to marry Marian as she would otherwise be a liability to his campaign. The scene in which Marian can overhear Mark talking about his intention to marry her as heard from Marian’s point of view is one of the many deeply emotional and naturalistic scenes with Possessed. Also at exactly 7 minutes and 7 seconds into Possessed, there is an edit which does not match at all when Crawford opens a kitchen door and enters the room; I found myself watching it several times just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

Mark Whitney is a man of moral character compared to other Gable characters. This isn’t the brutish Gable who throws women around. Just like the film itself, there is a great sense of tenderness, warmth, and maturity to his performance. When the two do break up we finally hear the brutish Gable and it’s heartbreaking. The greatest emotional high, however, is saved for the film’s climax as we are treated to Mark giving a campaign speech to a huge crowd in an auditorium; expertly shot and very rousing stuff (he gets my vote!) Likewise that Whitney for Governor poster is an obscure film prop that I want.

Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)

I Pity the Dancing Fool

Dance, Fools, Dance begins with a party onboard on yacht in which the younglings jump off the boat for a late night swim in their underwear while the older men are ignorant of a possible fall in stocks and the idea of forthcoming great depression; the last days of the carefree, roaring twenties seen through the lens of 1931.

Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford) and her brother Rodney (William Bakewell) are young, glamorous people who never worked a day in their life and show no resentment for it either, from a father who doesn’t want his children to have the hard time he had. They don’t exactly mourn over the death of their father but the loss of their fortune following the stock market crash is the tragedy which gets a reaction out of them. Regardless Bonnie deals with the loss of their fortune surprisingly well and accepts the fault of being left nothing from their father because she and her brother didn’t finish school. This is the crux of the character and what makes her interesting. She doesn’t choose the easy way out of getting married to a wealthy man even though the opportunity comes to her but rather desires the thrill to make it on her own as she herself later puts it.

I don’t believe many people are aware of just how endearing Crawford was in her younger, pre-shoulder pad days. In Dance, Fools, Dance she exemplifies a working-class heroine with an aura of refreshingly simple, straightforward bravery which really makes you route for her character; plus there is the joy of watching her flex her dancing talents.

Clark Gable is a mere 5th on the cast list, even William Holden (no, not that one) is higher than him but his introductory scene is hard to forget. The downbeat piano music as one of his servants puts a blazer on him as he then blows smoke in a woman’s face; tells you everything you need to know without a spoken word. Likewise, Bonnie’s brother Rodney is a memorable character himself as someone who is shocked by the criminal underworld where his alcohol came from before the depression after taking his supply of booze for granted for so long. Likewise, the other great cast member is Cliff Edwards as Bert Scranton who makes for an endearing comic sidekick and mentor to Bonnie.

Dance, Fools Dance isn’t quite a great film, its concept could be fleshed out and explored to a greater degree and would have been ripe for a remake (and maybe a title that wouldn’t sound like something a James Bond villain would say). Although even at that despite the film being imperfect it would still be hard to top with that endearingly creaky, early 30’s, pre-code charm.

The Women (1939)

Estrogen: The Movie

The Women is surely one of the greatest celebrations in cinema of femininity and the female form; even the animals featured in the film are all female in this unabashed display of women being women. Unless you’re easily offended by a movie in which the majority of its female cast are vicious gossips then stay away; stereotypes are greatly exaggerated as part of the film’s humour. As Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) puts it, “You know how those creatures are, babble babble babble babble babble, never let up for a minute”. That’s probably the best way to describe The Women by using one of its own lines of dialogue. Like the other notable female ensemble Stage Door, the dialogue in The Women is delivered so furiously it’s impossible to keep up with it. Watch the movie with subtitles turned on, it’s worth it to find gems of dialogue which can easily be missed (“It’s marvelous to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika”). I can also give the movie a few bonus points being a heterosexual male and all.

The Women explores the tribulations and dilemmas of whether sleeping dogs should lie. After Mrs. Mary ‘Stephan’ Haines (Norma Shearer) discovers her husband is having an affair with Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) she receives advice from her mother (Lucille Watson) in one of the film’s most telling scenes. Her mother tries to justify Stephan’s infidelity under the guise of that’s what men will do (“A man has only one escape from his older self. To see a different self in the mirror of some woman’s eyes”) and ultimately that Stephan doesn’t actually love Crystal. Mary’s response to this? The classic “It’s current year” argument; “Back in your day mother when women were chattel and they did as men told them to. But this is today. Stephan and I are equals. We took each other at our own free will”. Mary ultimately agrees it’s not worth the destruction of the family to confront Stephan about his infidelity. The married women of The Women have a strong dedication to their husbands yet in this world adultery seems to be the norm rather than the exception, even Mary’s mother tells Mary that most wives do find out about this.

Norma Shearer really was made for the silver screen with a truly dominating movie-star aura. The character of Mary Haines is distinguished for being a bit of a tomboy in contrast to her more glamorous side. In her introductory scene as well as in her vacation reels she is dressed like a man (similar to how Shearer dressed in The Divorcee), poses with a pipe and can apparently fish better than her husband. Likewise, Joan Crawford is delightfully mean in the role of Crystal Allen, particularly with her scene in the bathtub which so ridiculously villainous she could be playing a mafia boss. Crawford’s first screen appearance was in 1925’s Lady of the Night in which she acted as a screen body double for Norma Shearer. Crawford and Shearer since became the two biggest rivals in MGM and The Women would be their second and final appearance on screen together in the closet thing at that point to a Baby Jane showdown, a battle of the egos. I believe you do have to give the Crawford the credit for her willingness to play such a nasty character especially considering she has the least amount of screen time of the three leads. This is a character after all who has no remorse for helping destroy a family and the impact that will have the Haines’ child Little Mary.

The stealer of the show, however, is the great greatness that is Rosalind Russell. She succeeds in being the center of attention in any scene no matter whom she is sharing the frame with thanks to her comedic timing (both verbally and physically) as well as her over the top outfits. Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo, on the other hand, were the only two major actresses at MGM who did not appear in the film. I can picture Myrna Loy in Norma Shear’s role although she would have been too big a star otherwise to play a supporting role. Garbo, on the other hand, is well, too much of an oddball to fit in with an ensemble like this.

The Great Depression? Ha, what depression?! There’s no sign of it here. It feels like there is no other time period than the 1930s in which it was easier to make a movie about rich people and their rich people problems without it coming off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. The Women is one of the most decadent movies of the depression era, maybe even the most. The majority of the cast is dressed like a million dollars, every actress is light like a goddess and inhabiting a world which largely consists of retail stores and beauty salons. There is even time for a Technicolor fashion show which has no relevance for the rest of the plot, but it looks pretty. Lose yourself in this world of wealthy rather than being aghast at how bourgeois they are (“Weren’t you going to Africa to shoot?”). This kind of being made today (which unfortunately it was in the form of a remake) with the likes of the Sex and the City films would come off as a ghastly exercise in consumerist pornography (a term borrowed from Mark Kermode). On a side note also keep an eye out of the postcode sex references they got in there  (“Whatever Stephan doesn’t like I take it off”) while also look out for the topless woman in the mud bath at the beginning of the film not to mention Paulette Goddard’s clear lack of a bra.

With two hours of some of the finest actresses of the 1930’s spewing nonstop machine gun fire dialogue, scenery chewing and competing for the camera’s attention amongst an art deco wonderland, then I’m in movie heaven.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

Two-Faced Woman

A Woman’s Face is a trashy, pseudo-horror movie like film but one presented as an A-picture melodrama. I’ve watched A Woman’s Face five times as of writing this review and gets better every time I watch it. Within the last year, I’ve felt the motivation to watch the film three times, something which is almost unheard of for me; this movie is that good. I’ve now decided, screw it, this is my favourite Joan Crawford film and considering there’s tough competition from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mildred Pierce and The Women, that’s saying a lot.

Every major cast member in A Woman’s Face is superb. I know that sounds like a generalization but it’s true. Firstly there’s Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring. I adore every second this man is on screen; he’s just so delightfully sinister but in the most absorbingly charming manner – I’m swept off my feet by his presence. I can completely buy into the romance he shares with Anna Holm (Crawford) because he looks past her facial disfigurement and is unbothered by it. Melvyn Douglas is the other great charmer of the cast, whom I’ve yet to see paired with an actress who he didn’t share great chemistry. Ossa Massen, Reginald Owen, Albert Bassermann, Marjorie Main (unrecognisable here) and Donald Meek are also all equally memorable and stand in the strong characterisations of their roles. Likewise on re-watching look out for the moments of foreshadowing (“You love children? I loathe them”).

Then there’s Crawford herself in a once in a lifetime role as a facially disfigured woman, a part few actresses would be prepared to play. Her character of Anna Holm only engages in deceitful acts because of society’s mistreatment of her since childhood but is otherwise good at heart. Anna tries to make the best for herself and doesn’t dwell into a victimhood complex (“I don’t care for pity ether”); she runs her own tavern, pursues different talents and less virtuously is involved in criminality. Regardless throughout the film my heart pours out for the poor woman and yet even with the disfigurement I still find Crawford to be incredibly beautiful in this film, nor does the disfigurement ever take away from the asset that is her stunning body. If anything the moment in which Anna returns from a shopping trip and is wearing a very excessive blouse to take attention away from her face is the one moment in the film in which her character comes off to me as pathetic sight.

A Woman’s Face is one of the few thrillers George Cukor directed with echoes of Hitchcock throughout, such as the shots of the smelter plant and a waterfall in the background (similar to the scenery in films such as Foreign Correspondent), to the film’s suspenseful scenes such as that atop the cable car. This sequence itself is absent of any music, simply allowing the sound of the nearby waterfall and the smelter plant increase the tension while the film’s climax, on the other hand, offers a sort of Ben-Hur on sleds finale. Since I consider this film far superior to Hitchcock’s thriller offering that year of Suspicion, Cukor out Hitchcocked Hitchcock. With Cukor being one of the great masters of his trade, the cinematography of A Woman’s Face is a feast for the eyes. Technically speaking, the scenes at the hospital and Anna’s subsequent unbandaging are my favourite part of the film. Along with A Woman’s Face and the 1934 medical drama Men In White, it makes me wonder if it’s just me or do medical interiors and apparatuses make for some of the best subjects to capture on film.

Being a remake of a Swedish film, there’s something somewhat unconventional about A Woman’s Face for a Hollywood film. The movie does manage to capture the essence of its Northern European setting (despite much of the cast supporting American accents) and offers a slice of Swedish culture with its dancing sequence.

I consider 1941 to be the greatest year in the history of cinema. The output of this single year is the jealous vain of entire decades and A Woman’s Face just adds to this. Melodrama seems to have a bad reputation for no good reason. Like many things, it can be done well and done poorly. A Woman’s Face represents the old Hollywood melodrama tailored to perfection.