Yup, it’s that time.
I’ll be honest: I have a love-hate relationship with all things Joan Crawford. It’s got nothing to do with the Mommy Dearest stuff Crystal barred us from going into for this blogathon, either. Joan’s face always seemed so hard to me, especially in her later work, as if a hammer blow would shatter it to pieces. At the same time, though, I’m in awe of what a trailblazer she was in terms of the roles she took on. Not content with playing just a romantic lead, Joan’s signature character was the working woman. Two great examples of of this are Grand Hotel and Mildred Pierce, as they show Joan’s evolution as an actress and how public perception of the working woman changed during that time.
Grand Hotel (1932) is unique in a lot of ways. It’s the first ensemble film, and the one movie so far to garner a Best Picture Oscar without winning in other categories. Plus, it’s probably the only movie to capture Lionel Barrymore letting out a belch that would make Will Ferrell proud. They could do that sort of thing in the pre-Production Code days.
But I digress.
If anyone isn’t familiar with Grand Hotel, it’s based on a book of the same title written by novelist Vicki Baum, which was subsequently made into a successful stage play. It’s almost absurdist in structure, with the characters and their various dramas literally swirling around the circular lobby and front desk. All the members of the hotel staff are trapped into watching these lives play out in front of them. It’s their job to serve these people, but still. Even the poor concierge, whose wife is having a baby, can’t escape, although he wants to. None of the principal cast have huge parts, but each one is memorable. Joan plays Flaemmchen, a young stenographer who wafts in and lands a job with Preysing, played by Wallace Beery. It seems like a simple gig, but turns out to be anything but, with murder and intrigue providing the usual clutter.
The initial thing that struck me about this movie was how happy and relaxed Joan seemed in her role of Flaemmchen. It was pretty refreshing, really. It may have had to do with the fact that Joan was a rising star in 1932, married to Douglas Fairbanks the Younger, and had everything going for her. She managed to infuse the very slightly hard-boiled Flaemmchen with a nice mix of fun and smarts. Flaemmchen was a lady who had been around, and she was nobody’s fool.
It was a good thing, too, because no sooner does Flaemmchen walk into a room than all the guys start sizing her up. Didn’t matter how proficient she was at the job or how conscientious she was–it was all about how she looked, since there were…ahem…expectations of her beyond taking dictation and answering the phone. Women who worked were supposed to have a bit of Bad Girl in them. This certainly wasn’t always the case, but when the boss booked adjoining rooms for the upcoming business trip, their secretaries had to presume he would take certain liberties. There is nothing new under the sun, and Grand Hotel definitely played to the then-accepted stereotype. It must have been difficult for a woman to maintain her personal integrity under these circumstances.
In contrast, Mildred Pierce (1945) took a more pragmatic approach. Drawing from James Cain’s much racier novel of the same name, Joan portrayed the title character who needed money ASAP to support her family, and also appease her older daughter (and pretentious diva), Veda, played by Ann Blyth. She goes from waitressing to opening her own chain of restaurants, and in this case her looks don’t matter so much, although they don’t do her any harm. When Mildred approaches Monty Berrigan to buy the property for her first eatery, she’s talking business while he clearly has other things on his mind. She quickly squelches Monty (for the time being, anyway), but it doesn’t take long for her to succumb to his charms.
Even if someone isn’t a Crawford fan, it’s really hard not to get caught up in the story of this enterprising woman. She goes from being drab and in the background to the one everyone looks for. The film has just a dash of noir, but isn’t quite fatalistic enough to completely tick all the boxes. Noir doesn’t usually have comic relief in such forms as wise-cracking Eve Arden, either, who is one of my favorite faces in classic film. She saves Mildred Pierce from sagging under its own weight, and is a great foil for Joan.
When she played Mildred, Joan was thirteen years older and had adopted two children, so the young, desirable woman-of-the-world persona she built up didn’t work anymore. This was after she was let go from M-G-M, where she’d been treated like a queen, and told she was box office poison. Ouch. By the time Mildred Pierce came along, Joan had been waiting for three years to find good roles. In short, Mama was mad, and it came through in her performance, which paid off with a Best Actress Oscar and a classic, enjoyable film. It’s a win-win.
The other differences between Grand Hotel and Mildred Pierce are legion, the main ones being the Depression and World War Two. The Bad Girl stereotype quickly dissipated during the nineteen-thirties when, as everyone knows, the economic climate was a wee bit scary. Working was a matter of necessity and desire to do something worthwhile. Although the novel was set in the thirties, Mildred was filmed at the tail end of the war and the story pushed forward a decade. Women had been performing various war-jobs and volunteering for a dizzying array of relief groups. Oh yeah, and they served in the Armed Forces. It wasn’t about the supervisor or boss taking liberties anymore; in many cases women were the supervisors and bosses. The shoes were on different feet, and those feet wore heels.
The new paradigm shift shows up in Mildred Pierce. Joan’s character partners with her lawyer and friend, Wally, who’s there to support her at every turn. Wally isn’t afraid to challenge Mildred or go to bat for her, depending on the situation, and she gives it right back to him. The scene when Wally tells Mildred she ought to divorce her estranged husband so she doesn’t have to share the profits from her restaurant is a great example. At first, Mildred balks at the idea, but finally goes along, because at that point she has given up on her husband. On the other hand, Mildred the restaurant dynamo has no qualms giving Wally her opinion of his dive bar, which Wally good-naturedly chuckles at and deflects. This dynamic doesn’t exist in most of Grand Hotel. Flaemmchen flirts and banters, but it’s clear she isn’t seen as an equal until she jumps at a new offer after her previous situation goes south. Flaemmchen took opportunities as they came, but Mildred made them.
I’ve heard it said that movies only give an idea of what life is like or what someone wants life to be, and that’s mostly true. However, movies can also reflect, without always trying to, the sensibilities and mindsets of their time. Joan Crawford is one of those actresses whose filmography shows the progression of the working woman in American society.
For more entries in the Joan Crawford Blogathon, go to In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Until next time…