What we have here is two-thirds of a good movie. A Woman's Face starts out wonderfully, continues well through the midpoint and just when you are thinking, "Hooray! I love this!" Joan Crawford shows up at a dance in some kind of Swedish peasant dirndl-drag and it's all over.
For the first 70 minutes or so, Crawford is so good you almost can't believe it. She liked to say her Oscar was as much for A Woman's Face as Mildred Pierce, a notion Patrick McGilligan scoffed at in his George Cukor biography: "She and Cukor liked to kid themselves about the quality of their work together." But now that the Siren has seen this movie, which was hard to find for a while, she can say Crawford was right. The actress gives an excellent performance and it's really the script that lets her down. McGilligan also goes on to say that usually when critics praise lesser Cukor works, what they are really talking about is "the lighting and camera work, the pictorial embroidery of studio craftsmen," in this case cameraman Robert Planck. But the Siren agrees more with Karli Lukas over at Senses of Cinema:
In his published conversation with Gavin Lambert, Cukor is openly embarrassed by the film's disappointing spiral into conventionality; in part blaming the traditions and studio pressures of the time. However, he also attributes its failure to something much more interesting--his inability to curb Joan Crawford's star persona. Cukor revealed that while her character is physically scarred "she's really a complete character, not the actress who's playing it. Then, when she becomes pretty, she becomes Joan Crawford"...
But upon repeated viewing A Woman's Face makes you appreciate the value of Cukor's subtle orchestrations. There are many great scenes in this film that beg for its redemption. Cukor exhibits a great ability to reveal the turning points of character through his use of seemingly understated, but in fact very clever mise-en-scene. I love the way that he has directed Crawford to dance amongst pools of light and shadow to heighten suspense (and show off her great facial structure).
The film fuses a Warner Brothers plot with an MGM aesthetic. The opening scene is a courtroom, with Crawford's character being escorted in, and the court is spacious and the prison corridor is wide and elegant and beautifully lit. Everything is beautifully lit. Even the velvety shadows on that face in the title give off a certain glow. That's MGM for you, there wasn't a single dark corner of the human psyche that couldn't be gussied up with a nice fill light or two.
Against all odds, the studio's tendency to make everything gorgeous usually works just fine for this movie, which isn't really an early noir (though it's sometimes described as such) but rather a fairy tale. A flashback takes us to a "roadhouse" where people go after hours to drink and slum and where, we later learn, a gang of ruthless blackmailers is operating. Given these parameters Cedric Gibbons designed a beautiful whitewashed tavern with diamond-paned windows, set back in a lovely manicured forest.
The camera glides into the outdoor cafe, where a bunch of society types are amusing themselves. A bunch of the characters are established here, including Conrad Veidt, who signals he is up to no good merely by being Conrad Veidt, and Osa Massen as a feather-brained straying wife. A kerfuffle over the bill lands Veidt in the back room with the roadhouse owner, and it's Anna (Crawford). At first she is showing only one side of her face, but when she wants to intimidate Veidt and make a point, she looks at him and we see her scar for the first time. (It's bad, but this is 1941 so it isn't that bad.) And Veidt doesn't blanch, indeed his face barely reacts, and he continues to treat Crawford's character with courtly deference. Her expression tells you this is an extraordinary thing, perhaps even a first for this mutilated woman, and it's clear she is already beginning to fall in love with him. We sense from the beginning that Veidt is concealing his true nature, and so it is no surprise that he alone sees past Anna's face in the beginning. It's so well played--melodrama yes, but believable melodrama.
Later we learn that Anna's face was injured in a childhood accident. Just as in fairy tales, Anna's physical ugliness is mirrored on the inside, but just as in all women's pictures, she is a woman and therefore yearning for love. She begins to buy better clothes, her partners in crime cruelly mocking her when she shows up with a new hat. The Siren spent about five days recently with a seriously messed-up face, and she can tell you that Crawford nails it here. You try to avoid notice, not by actually hiding but by a sort of mental exercise--you are constantly thinking yourself into invisibility. When the notice comes anyway, you look at a stranger with an expression that says "don't you dare ask, buddy." The Siren found herself nodding as Crawford walked in and pulled the hat down on the scarred side of her face, fiddling with the veil as she tried to maintain her hardened poise and the upper hand in the conversation.
Crawford's gang tries to blackmail Osa Massen, who just happens to be married to brilliant plastic surgeon Melvyn Douglas. The scene where Crawford goes to collect from Massen is played to the hilt, the heartless tramp wife trying to get the jump on Crawford by shining a light on her disfigurement. But then both women are surprised by Douglas's return. Despite this inauspicious introduction to Anna he decides to repair her face. The surgery is successful, and Crawford's repaired face is exquisitely shot by Cukor, her makeup relatively subtle for possibly the last time in her career. Before and after the surgery, he gives us those amazing bones from angle after angle, often in profile, teasing us with our desire to see the whole face.
Some critics think it's all downhill once Anna goes in for surgery, but one of the Siren's favorite scenes occurs after the new face is revealed. Anna exits the hospital and goes to the park. A small boy chases his ball over to her. She looks down at him and starts the old gesture of tugging at her hat, and the boy smiles up at her with artless pleasure. Realization hits, and Joan pulls off the hat and walks away, the sun and breeze in her hair. As rendered by Cukor and Crawford, this rather hokey scene becomes a little bit of liberation, a woman throwing off oppression and walking away free.
She's done all this for Veidt, but Veidt wants to use Crawford for no good end. He sends her to his family's castle with instructions to murder the four-year-old boy standing between him and the family fortune. When Joan showed up and the little boy was Richard Nichols, the Siren's heart sank. Nichols had the face of an angel but every time he shows up things get syrupy. And it was pretty much downhill from there, despite a brilliantly suspenseful sequence on a cable car.
By far the worst is the dance at the castle, when Crawford shows up in the aforementioned dirndl. The guests are doing a traditional Swedish dance (or so we're told, possibly MGM made the whole thing up) and the old man who owns the castle says to Crawford, "come and try it! it isn't hard!" No, not hard at all. You just have to jump in the air, swing your partner, join hands and galop down a row of similarly attired partygoers, twirl in a foursome, join hands again and do a "London Bridge" formation and then start all over again with Conrad Veidt as your partner. For the duration of the dance poor Joan's performance goes stone-dead. Anyone who's ever seen her Charlestoning up a storm in one of her Jazz Baby roles realizes right away that Joan is really, really hating this "Lonely Goatherd" shit.
Almost as bad is Conrad Veidt's mad scene toward the end where he all but yells "UND ZEN I SHALL RUUUUULE THE WORLD!" or maybe he does, the Siren was so appalled she lost track. What on earth is this scene about? Until this point Veidt's cold pathology has been so understated. Crawford's character is already mostly out of love with Veidt so the motivation isn't needed. Veidt of course would be Major Strasser the very next year so at first the Siren thought this was war metaphor, but the movie is set in Sweden and absolutely nothing else suggests politics of any sort. Surely it wasn't Code-mandated. You could be just plain evil under the Code, you didn't have to combine it with crazy, as long as you didn't Triumph in the End and nobody could mistake your actions as good. Maybe that unmistakable evil bit was the problem. Maybe plotting to kill a toddler for his inheritance just wasn't obvious enough, they had to throw into a spot of megalomania as well. The Siren hasn't a clue.
All in all, despite the hamfisted final third, the movie is well worth viewing, and an absolute must for Crawford fans. But you've been warned about that Swedish dance.