She was one of MGM’s top box-office draws not long after getting her big break in 1928. She enjoyed the title of ‘Queen of Hollywood’ in her hey day. She won a well-deserved Oscar during her third decade as a movie star and actress. And she followed the win with two more nominations for Best Actress – in 1946 for her work in Jean Negulesco‘s Humoresque and in 1947 for what I believe is her all-time best performance in Curtis Bernhardt‘s Possessed, a performance worthy of yet another title – Queen of Catatonia. That’s Joan Crawford in 1947.
The first look at Joan Crawford in Possessed is a bit of a shock. The woman who said “I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star” is bare-faced, pale, grey against the lights and shadows that envelope her. You know at first glance that Joan gives this role all she has. She’s walking aimlessly, purposeless, repeating the name “David” over and over again. Searching for what cannot be found she wanders lost and alone on otherwise busy streets. And so begins the story of Louise Howell.
Louise ends up in the psychiatric ward of a hospital where we learn she is suffering from schizophrenia. She’s in a ‘non-traumatic stupor.’ Through carefully monitored (and miraculous) medication Louise is able to tell the details of how she got to that place and time.
As Louise tells her story to the doctors we go back in time to when she was with David (Van Heflin) – her lover – with whom she feels complete, “I was just existing until I met David.” But we are made privy to their relationship for a mere few moments before we learn that it’s a one-sided love affair. David is not in love with Louise and there begins her torment.
Unable (and uninterested) to return her love David breaks it off with Louise. Heartbroken Louise returns to the home of the Grahams for whom she works as a nurse caring for Mrs Graham who’s suffering from a psychological malady in her own right. In other words these are dire circumstances. One unstable woman caring for another. Although we never see Mrs Graham we hear her shrieks, accusations and complaints, paranoia and hatred. So Louise’s story is barely beginning and already she’s falling deeper and deeper into muck. And things don’t lighten up – obviously.
Due to “complications” in her emotional state Mrs. Graham ends up dead and it doesn’t take Mr. Graham (Raymond Massey) long to propose to Louise. In Graham’s defense his wife was a nightmare and he’d been unhappy for a long time. Although he’d kept it to himself he’d also been in love with Louise who accepts his proposal in order to improve her lot in life. And she actually manages to have a decent time of it for a little while, enjoying the comforts Dean Graham is able to provide for her. Unfortunately a cruel twist of fate intervenes when Mr. Graham finds himself in need of an engineer and the best man for the job happens to be David Sutton. Louise’s David. David. David. And so her obsessions are renewed – at first as simple reminders of unrequited love and quickly thereafter as full-blown compulsions when David starts romancing her step-daughter, Carol (Geraldine Brooks).
Hurt, defeated, insulted and jilted – things a sick mind cannot grapple with, deepened when David and Carol start talking marriage. And so Louise reacts by getting rid of the pain, the pain she will search for without purpose, while alone and hopeless on busy city streets.
As Louise Howell Graham Joan Crawford manages a wide spectrum of emotions. Her world turns toward hysteria – replete with hallucinations and all – and ends up in the psychiatric ward of a hospital after committing an unspeakable act of violence. From love struck to madness Crawford delivers. While I wouldn’t place Possessed alongside the fantastic Mildred Pierce for which Crawford won her Best Actress Oscar and in which she’s fantastic, I think Possessed poses a bigger acting challenge, which she meets with gusto. Not to mention that Crawford’s looks at this stage in her career are perfect for film noir. The hard features emphasized by her eyebrows, the clothes with the stern-looking shoulder pads and all else. It’s a natural in a sense that she play a volatile woman regardless of circumstances.
The other players in Possessed are worthy of note – the oft overlooked, but great Van Heflin is a treat in every scene he’s in although I would have liked a bit more substance to his character. And that goes double for Massey who comes off a bit stiff in his scenes opposite the highly emotional Crawford. Finally, Geraldine Brooks is quite good as an innocent, but nonetheless important contributor to Louise’s downward slide. You can take a look at the entire cast and crew list here.
If you haven’t seen Possessed you must. Aside from watching Crawford flex her acting muscles and the great look of the film, which emphasizes Louise’s psychology in a sense and in true film noir style, you also get a bit of a spin from the “normal” formula of the genre. You see Joan does not play the femme fatale role in this as one would expect. Instead what would be described as the “fatale” is played by a man, which is interesting.
I might add that I rewatched Possessed in the midst of the material pertaining to existentialism and psychology as offered in the ‘Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir‘ course presented by TCM in conjunction with the network’s Summer of Darkness film festival. The week’s lectures heightened my enjoyment of this movie as a supreme example of the alienation, hopelessness, self-worth issues and existential attitudes so prevalent in films noir. If you happen to be a fan of noir these attitudes and so forth are something you not only expect, but enjoy (although that probably sounds sick). However, it was quite something putting faces, if you will, to each “idea” as it manifests itself in this movie.
As an aide – the 1947 Possessed is the second film titled Possessed that Joan Crawford stars in, which makes her the only star to appear in two completely different films with the same title. The first was the Clarence Brown-directed 1931 pre-code, which was the third of the eight movies Crawford made with Clark Gable and my favorite of the lot. In fact, I love that movie and Joan’s performance in it stands high on my list of favorites as well. Is this a bonafide Joanie love fest or what?!
This Possessed commentary is my submission to the 1947 Blogathon co-hosted by two of the all-time great bloggers – Karen of Shadows and Satin and Kristina of Speakeasy. You MUST visit their sites as they host a fantastic array of submissions dedicated to 1947, a fantastic year in the movies.
As for Joan – well, she followed Possessed with Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon also released in 1947 so clearly that was a hefty year for one of Hollywood’s great legends. To end with an interesting anecdote…
Joan’s co-stars in Daisy Kenyon are Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda who usually found the set a very uncomfortable level of freezing. Crawford’s contract, you see, stipulated that the set be kept at a low temperature so her co-stars could do little, but put up with it. Except that Joan, ever the professional, did what she could to ensure their comfort. She bought them both long underwear. Ever fascinating. That’s Joan Crawford, Queen of Catatonia, in 1947.