I grew up watching the Joan Crawford of the 1940s and later. What that means is that I thought of Joan – who I’ve always been a fan of – as a hardened actress playing strong women who’d struggled through life. Her terrific performances in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945) and Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed in 1947 remain highlights in the Crawford films I saw early on. What I’ve discovered since the days when I watched classic movies on commercial television is that Joan Crawford had, in essence, an entirely different career prior to those movies. The Joan Crawford I later discovered is softer, sexier and wildly talented in a freewheeling sort of way, the pre-code Joan without whom I would have never known the scope of her movie star qualities and her talent. My favorite of those earlier Crawford movies is Clarence Brown‘s Possessed (1931), a pre-code gem in which Joan manages another great performance.
Possessed (1931) is the third and in my opinion the best of the eight movies in which Joan Crawford starred in opposite Clark Gable on their road to becoming one of filmdom’s great movie couples. I published an extensive post comparing their careers in relation to their on- and off-screen relationship. If interested you can take a look at that here. For the purposes of this entry it’s sufficient to know that Joan’s star was shining brightly by the time she was Possessed for the first time. Not only was Crawford Metro Goldwyn Mayer‘s (MGM) second highest grossing actress after Marie Dressler, but she was married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. — son of Douglas Fairbanks and step-son of Mary Pickford, the ruling couple of silent-era Hollywood. In other words, on both the personal and professional fronts Joan Crawford had connections to support her unequaled drive. As for Clark Gable – well, before 1931 was over MGM broke its initial $650-a-week contract to offer the fledgling actor $1,000 a week. To put his rising star in perspective, of the forty-three films MGM produced that year, Gable was in nine of them. One doesn’t have to be a psychic to know that the spark born when Gable and Crawford first appeared on screen together was bound to get brighter. It does – they sizzle in Possessed.
The story here is not necessarily unique, but it’s done with lots of style, attitude and what come across as genuine feelings. Joan Crawford plays Marian Martin, a small-town factory worker who longs to make something of herself. She achieves her goal by becoming the kept woman of rich lawyer, Mark Whitney (Gable). The lawyer is intrigued by Marian immediately upon meeting her because of her candor. She is up front about what she wants out of life, which is to find a man who’ll support her.
“I like women who know what they want. Sometimes I can help them get it.”
Not surprisingly, Marian falls hard for Whitney and he for her, but they’re not on the same page as far as what they want out of the relationship. He’s happy having her by his side as his mistress, not as a wife and she…well…she wants him completely. You know how that story goes. Although she’s disappointed and hurt Marian accepts her reality and stands by the choices she’s made in life. This is a strong, mature pre-code woman.
Things get a bit complicated when Al (Wallace Ford), the man Marian dated back in the day, shows up with intentions of asking her to marry him. The relationship between Marian and Whitney is strained and difficult decisions are made when she becomes a liability to his burgeoning political career. An affecting scene plays out as Marian is forced to play down her feelings for Whitney, giving up the life she’s longed for so that he can reach greater success. As many pre-code movies do, Possessed makes interesting commentaries on what matters to men and women, who must sacrifice for love and how society judges the sexes differently. Also typical of pre-codes the end here dictates the woman can still be a “winner” despite past indiscretions.
Brown’s, Possessed is just the kind of movie that audiences in the midst of the Depression would have gone for, a rags-to-riches story with beautiful people…
“for those who like their film fare hot and the morals of their screen heroines loose.”
The morals here are loose alright, but Possessed has a maturity to it that makes it a more layered film than expected treating its racy subject matter with some gravitas. Admirably so, actually, which I credit to Crawford’s performance. In fact, her performance outshines the movie in some ways and the movie is good. Joan shows a wonderful range even doing justice to the lovely, “How Long Will it Last?” by Meyer and Lief in French, German and English. Ms. Crawford also looks quite beautiful, lit exceptionally by cinematographer Oliver T. March who takes full advantage of Joan’s eyes in several scenes making them the center of attention. This is one of the reasons why movies stars became movie stars – they were lit like gods and goddesses. Anyway, Clark Gable is no slouch also doing a good job in this as the handsome, rich attorney with political aspirations. Check out IMDB for the complete cast and crew list.
Joan Crawford received three Academy Award nominations during a career that spanned six decades. I think most who are familiar with classic Hollywood would mention Joan as one of the greatest movie stars of the Golden Age, but I’m not sure her acting gets the recognition it deserves. I happen to think Ms. Crawford was a terrific actor particularly in roles where she is possessed, if you come to think about it. We could argue that Joan is possessed by her bratty, evil daughter Veda in her Oscar-winning turn as Mildred Pierce in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 movie. And she delivered an affecting performance, one of my favorites in fact, in Curtis Bernhardt’s 1947 film noir, Possessed wherein she’s overcome by her feelings for Van Heflin and where she becomes the only star to appear in two completely different films with identical titles. I leave you then with two thoughts: Joan Crawford possessed “Possessed” and when Joan’s possessed she’s terrific.
For lots more about Joan Crawford visit In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood wherein lies a blogathon in her honor.