Posted by Moira Finnie on April 14, 2010
On Saturday, April 24th at 3:30 PM at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, the audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival will have an opportunity to see director George Cukor’s effect on Joan Crawford when A Woman’s Face (1941) is introduced by Illeana Douglas, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, and Casey LaLonde, the grandson of Joan Crawford. For those of us who won’t be able to make it that day, this movie may still be worth exploring on DVD and whenever it appears on the TCM schedule.
Seeing A Woman’s Face (1941) for the first time a few years ago made me realize all over again why Joan Crawford was–like her or not–more than a movie star: She could act. The actress cited this film as one of the performances that ultimately helped her to earn an Oscar as Best Actress later in this decade for Mildred Pierce (1945). A Woman’s Face may be her among her best films. It deserves a bigger audience.
As suggested by Crawford‘s above comment about George Cukor, he brought out what was best in her. Watching A Woman’s Face, I found my reluctant awarenesss of the more tortured aspects of Crawford‘s life and career slipping away as I became involved with the story of this character and the people who surrounded her. In certain roles– Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Possessed, and this film–the hard working Crawford showed her underlying artistry, finding a way to use her fearsome neediness to delineate the characters she played in bold, sometimes disturbingly intense strokes, but here she also expressed a gentle, tentative sensitivity as well. She created a character who experienced tenderness and confusion, as well as frustration. Her performance was also a comment on the inescapable fact of life–we are each judged, defined and imprisoned by the form that nature, circumstance or our foibles make for us. With Cukor at her side, Crawford pared away most of the mannerisms and the “la-dee-da” elements of her screen persona, and created a portrait of an individual as well as the centerpiece of a film. In A Woman’s Face, based on a play by Frances de Croisset and a Swedish film, (featuring a very young Ingrid Bergman in 1938′s En Kvinnas Ansikte) Crawford allowed the audience to see a human being behind the facade. She became what the director Cukor described as “a complete character, not the actress who’s playing it.”
According to producer Victor Saville, he and George Cukor were brainstorming in his office at MGM when Joan Crawford entered one day in 1941. Nearing the end of her 18 year tenure at MGM as the studio turned its attention to fresh faces such as Greer Garson and Lana Turner, Crawford put her need matter-of-factly, “Look boys, I haven’t made a picture in a year. This one has got to be good and I’ll do anything you want me to do.”
After a pregnant pause, as Cukor and Saville took in Crawford‘s signature “harsh and contrasting” heavy makeup of that period, Saville recalled that he told her bluntly, “The first thing we’ll do is take all that goo off your face.”
Perhaps this was partly because the brooding movie’s mise en scene has a European feel and a timeless setting that seemed to pre-date world wars, though the theme of renewal and shedding one skin could not be more American. Few critics sensed the lasting power of the film at the time, and some complained that the psychological aspects of the story got in the way of a simple mystery plot. As the reputation of the movie appears to have grown in the decades since that plot, which clunks along in the second half of the film, took a back seat to the care with which Cukor and his associates in front and behind the camera crafted their story. Photographed in a delicate play of light and shadow by cinematographer Robert Planck, the actress was rarely as expressive as she is in this film. Under Cukor‘s direction, she revealed something true, sensual and vulnerable, especially in the first part of the film when we mostly see the left side of her face. Her character, who was badly scarred as a child physically and psychologically when a fire was started by her drunken father, is a lonely, caustic creature, who has developed her criminal instincts after the world has rejected her because of the badly marred right side of her face.
Twenty years later, Joan Crawford commented that A Woman’s Face was “my last happy part at MGM and my last good part for a long time. A star’s career proverbially lasts five years. Ten years was exceptional. Well…I’d had it. I was over 30, as a matter of fact, over 34. Years ago Willie Haines had told me that when you start to slide in this business it’s like walking on nothing, the career of no return. I hadn’t understood. Now I was walking on nothing.” Possibly, that may explain why her performance in this film appears to be among her most heartfelt and human.
The story, set in MGM’s version of Sweden, begins with a trial of defendant Anna Holm (Joan Crawford), for the crime of murder. As it unfolds through flashbacks told by different witnesses, elements of a fairy tale told by the Brothers Grimm emerge. The testimony of a waiter, played with a cunning mixture of troll-like, obsequious resentment by Donald Meek, sets the scene as we fade into a neatly imagined if cardboard forest sheltering an out of the way tavern under the towering trees. The remote place caters to aristocratic wastrels looking for a discreet place where they can continue to go to seed after hours. At a very late party on the patio, two women* waltz with one another under the trees, while others banter listlessly and drink. The elegant if sinister Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt), who is unable to pay his party’s check, is asked to speak with the manageress, (Crawford) who doesn’t mince words about the bill, but is a bit startled when Veidt takes in her face. She expected the sight of her to cow the deadbeat Barring into a malleable state, but finds instead that he is not repulsed, but intrigued, even flirtatious.
Veidt was a Promethean actor whose talent went far beyond his ability to create the indelible Major Strasser in Casablanca, makes the corrupt Barring as fascinating as a spider weaving his web. The character he plays was one that the actor named as one of his favorite roles shortly before his untimely death in 1943. Torsten Barring is appealingly decadent in a courtly yet intense way. Trained on the stage and an adept veteran of silent films, Veidt effortlessly uses his body, his height and his eyes to suggest both a curiosity and more complex emotional life for his character than the script can convey, creating a believable rapport with the skittish Anna Holm. Soon, the suavely manipulative Veidt and Crawford are working together, extracting cash from those whose secrets they unearth. Unnerved and aroused by Barring’s attentions, Anna uncharacteristically is drawn to him, becoming touchingly girlish in the attention she pays to a new hat and a ruffled blouse, anything that she hopes will be pleasing to the eye (and distract from her face). Despite her skittishness, she becomes involved with him, as her feminine nature is drawn to Veidt‘s apparently warped but kindred spirit. As Barring says, “We’re both proud, both wretched,” as they toast each other defiantly lifting their glasses with the oath, “Sköll, Satan!”
Sharing a love of Chopin and a shared sense of separateness from the world, the two seem attracted to one another’s sense of isolation and superiority; though the tender notes that Veidt introduces to his character indicate a loneliness that the two share as well. One scene shows Crawford tentatively approaching the door of Veidt‘s apartment through a hall with mirrors on either side of the walls. Her large felt hat pulled down to conceal her face, her manner that of an invisible woman, she tries to avoid the reflections of herself. Despite her best efforts, her tense body language tells the viewer how uncomfortable walking down this gauntlet of mirrors makes her feel, until she reaches the luxurious apartment of Torsten where she visibly exhales, as the door shuts out the world.
Working with her band of petty criminals at the shady restaurant, character actors Reginald Owen, Connie Gilchrist and Donald Meek each add just the right mixture of fearful awe and coarse contempt for their mastermind, Anna, especially after her nature seems to soften with Veidt‘s criminal and sexual nurturing. Their resentment and anger toward her appears to be a kind of jealousy mixed with concern that her involvement with the more sophisticated Barring might signal the end of their alliance with this strange woman. They specialize in picking the pockets of the rich wastrels who frequent their rather charming road house, engaging in blackmail when possible to bring in steady cash. Anna’s minions, who probably need her energizing drive to animate them, are both in awe of her coldness and still have contempt for her as a woman. In one scene, when a mirror has been left on the back of a door, allowing Holm to unexpectedly see her own reflection, their mockery and her fury with them is startlingly raw as Crawford hurls the mirror toward their heads.
Mild Spoiler Alert Below * Mild Spoiler Alert Below
Their fears are confirmed as Anna goes to work for Barring, until the fateful night she visits the married, smugly pretty Osa Massen to blackmail her for the return of some indiscreet love letters she has written. The kittenish Massen, an under-utilized but intriguing actress during her time in Hollywood, tries to stonewall Holm. In a powerful scene revealing the essential childishness of the promiscuous Massen character and unleashing the intensity that Crawford has largely held in restraint during the movie, the two have a classic confrontation:
This brutal exchange is interrupted when Massen‘s husband returns unexpectedly. The seemingly clueless cuckolded husband, played by Melvyn Douglas in a truculent manner and with his tongue in his cheek, quickly assesses the situation, decisively taking control, curtly issuing instructions impatiently to his wife and his reluctant patient. Literally and figuratively a deus ex machina, Douglas just happens to be one of the world’s best plastic surgeons, (yeah, only in the movies). He apparently believes his mewling wife’s story that this odd stranger in his house was a burglar who has sprained her ankle trying to escape. He is, naturally, intrigued by the burglar’s scars, and promptly offers the disbelieving Crawford a chance to be “made normal.” Crawford turns the pages of the doctor’s scrapbook in a daze. As she gazes with a fearful mixture of hope and anxiety at the doctor’s photographs of his patients before and after he has used his skill to restore their faces, she seems enthralled, but, once again, as she was initially with Torsten Barring, reluctant to trust in anything as audacious and unlikely.
Twelve operations later, Dr. Segert (Douglas), playing “Pygmalion” finds himself increasingly intrigued by his patient’s thorny character, though he is not sure if he has created a “Galatea or a Frankenstein.” Despite his interest in this difficult woman, he tries to give her the kind of care she apparently has never received since childhood. Melvyn Douglas, a fine comic actor whose skills as a dramatic actor only began to be appreciated in his old age in films such as Hud (1963) and I Never Sang for My Father (1970) plays his thankless role with a seamless ease, unselfishly providing a humanistic contrast to the Nietzschean Conrad Veidt character.
In one of the few scenes when he is allowed to express his frustration with his strange patient, he brusquely dismisses her awkward attempts to express gratitude, just as he is clearly suppressing those fantasies he may be nursing about her emerging beauty, wondering if he can heal her spirit along with her scars. Crawford‘s grasp of her character is well displayed in a nearly silent scene after her release from the hospital. Her fragile sense of self is clear as she walks into a park for the first time, half expecting people to stare at her ugliness and shy away as they have in the past. Slowly, self-consciously still favoring the right side of her face when approaching others, she finds children responding to her with smiles, men admiring her, and the world becomes a different place, externally, though her interior scars will not be so easy to eradicate.
At this point, I was reminded of the reaction I had when I first saw Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946). When the handsome Jean Marais emerged from the likable form of the poignant, brusque, yet romantic beast at the end of the story, I longed for la bête to return. As Cukor pointed out to an interviewer years later, “then [in the latter part of A Woman's Face] when she becomes pretty, she becomes Joan Crawford.” It is satisfying to see the character liberated from her initial, hostile self, but that bristling, defensive romantic she was at the beginning, who only knew love from reading the letters of George Sand, Keats or Browning was one of the more memorable women in 1940s movies and the actress underplayed her character beautifully. Never slipping entirely into the simple formula equating beauty with goodness and vice versa, the story suggests that the characters have a kind of security in the way they are perceived by others, based largely on their mien.
Crawford‘s Anna Holm, still in thrall to Veidt‘s Torsten, returns to his apartment bearing flowers, and pauses this time in that mirrored hall to gaze at herself. Is it narcissism, or a budding self-awareness as a new-born moral being that is emerging? Veidt, who seems almost wistful to find her so comely now, has a plan to use his transformed partner to acquire the wealth that he believes is rightly his from his very old and wealthy uncle (Albert Bassermann, a prominent German character actor who was a refugee from the Nazis, like Veidt. The 70 year old Bassermann supposedly only learned his lines phonetically, though his skill as an actor enabled him to convey an endearing mixture of good humor, warmth and appropriate befuddlement for the character).
The resentful Barring sets his lover up as the governess of the four year old nephew, played by Richard Nichols, the curly-headed lad with the southern accent that just didn’t jibe in All This and Heaven Too when he played a French toddler, just as it didn’t here when he played a Swedish boy. The boy is slated to inherit a pile from his industrialist uncle, and all Torsten asks of her is to murder a child. The horrific nature of this plan doesn’t seem overwhelmingly evil to the newly minted Anna, who, after some persuasion, changes her name to take the position in the mountain home of the Uncle. Fitting into the household poses few challenges for Crawford, since the boy immediately decides that she is “too pretty to be mean” and the old man seems quite smitten with the young, capable woman, much to the chagrin of a suspicious Marjorie Main as a housekeeper.
The film builds considerable suspense, especially in a scene in which the boy is “accidentally” exposed to an intense amount of light under a sun lamp. Building toward a climax, the choice between good and evil appears to be vexing Crawford as she is increasingly drawn to both men in her life, as well as a growing awareness of a maternal streak in her character. The arrival of an increasingly impatient Torsten and his subsequent revelation of an unwieldy amount of egoism bordering on fascist megalomania chills his formerly steely companion in crime, distancing her emotionally from him, even though she agrees to arrange an accident involving the boy soon. In another, outlandish coincidence, Dr. Gustaf Sebert (Melvyn Douglas) just happens to visit the household as well. Recognizing his former patient, he nearly unnerves Crawford‘s Anna further, though he is seemingly mollified when she explains she changed her name to “start fresh,” leaving her criminal past behind to become a nursemaid (!). In another nearly silent but effective scene, Crawford and the boy are suspended high above a wintry landscape, almost evokes a Hitchcockian anticipation of tension in a sequence edited by veteran cutter Frank Sullivan:
Things come to a head in a segment of the film when Crawford and her two men are inveigled into donning MGM’s take on traditional Swedish folk wear as they participate in one of Uncle Albert Bassermann‘s annual soirees for his birthday, which includes lots of glögg, alleged folk dancing and a bracing race through the snow in a sleigh to sober up afterwords. Suffice it to say, that this part of the story literally got away from the filmmakers, as a carefully rendered but sped up sequence in the sleighs leads to a murder charge being lodged against Anna Holm. This might have ruined the ending of the film,which I will refrain from describing in detail in case you haven’t seen it. However, in one scene near the end, after Osa Massen‘s serial duplicity has been revealed in court and her husband makes it clear that this is one faux pas too many for their marriage, Dr. Segert and Anna are both led to a room to await further action by the court.
The intensity with which Crawford delivers her speech about longing to belong is brimming with piquant feeling. Her knowledge of life, and the reception given a beautiful or an ugly face is not something she can file away in the past. Is this scene really meant to indicate a woman who wishes to be tamed by conventional love? Beneath her avowed wish for domesticity a question lingers. Can she sustain the straight life? According to the Production Code, “the normal pattern of life” was upheld in this scene, but still…
A Woman’s Face (1941) is sometimes dismissed by Cukor scholars as one of his minor works, but in this, his last of four films working with the actress, may be their best together. Crawford aficionados often dwell more on her films after the splendid Mildred Pierce (1945), but if you really want to see Joan Crawford as a good actress nearing the peak of her powers and surrounded by several of the best actors in movies–then or now–perhaps you would enjoy this movie.
*Look carefully in the opening scene of A Woman’s Face and you might catch a glimpse of the soignee 1930s starlet, the beautiful Gwili Andre (1908-1959) in a nearly wordless role. A former model, the Danish-born Andre was a protegee of producer David O. Selznick at RKO in the early ’30s, but found herself playing in B movies such as Secrets of the French Police (1932), but her best role was as a rapacious mistress to a married industrialist in No Other Woman (1933), starring Irene Dunne and Charles Bickford. Her final film, the programmer The Falcon’s Brother came in 1942. Andre ended her life in 1959, reportedly committing suicide by self immolation amidst her publicity stills. More can be seen here about her life.
Information about the TCM Classic Film Festival: http://www.tcm.com/festival/#/home/index
Ardmore, Jane Kesner, Crawford, Joan, “And Then Came the Big Bomb,” The Miami News, Aug. 18, 1962.
Chandler, Charlotte, Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford, Simon and Schuster, 2008.
Long, Robert Emmet, George Cukor: Interviews, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001.
McGilligan, Patrick, George Cukor: A Double Life, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Starr, Kevin, The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s, Oxford Univ. Press US, 1997.
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