Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Joan bis: A Woman's Face

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.


Karen said...

Gosh, I'm glad to read this. Back when I was buying videocassettes as if they were a staple, like bread or milk, I bought myself a copy of A Woman's Face. I was completely taken with it through most of it, and then it just went...wrong. I never watched it again, so I honestly don't remember much about it. I do remember it being beautifully shot, and the amazing lighting on Crawford's face. But mostly I remember being embarrassed I bought it by the end, and never screening it for any of my friends.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I'm loving your Crawford posts Campaspe! It's so nice to see her getting some positive press recently and I'd really like to read that new Crawford bio that you mentioned in your previous post (Charlotte Chandler's book). When I was on vacation visiting family in the Reno/Tahoe hills, I managed to step on a nasty spider on Sunday and I ended up stuck in a motel room with a swollen foot. Thankfully TCM was showing a bunch of Crawford's films that day so I watched They All Kissed the Bride and Humoresque since I'd never seen them before and I enjoyed both films a lot. They All Kissed the Bride wasn't as good as the terrific melodrama Humoresque with John Garfield, which really knocked me out me since it's beautifully directed by Jean Negulesco. But I liked the chemistry Joan had with Melvyn Douglas in They All Kissed the Bride and their romance in the film was fun to watch since it was played for laughs and Douglas is damn charming in the film.

I've never seen A Woman's Face but since I love Conrad Viedt and I can watch Crawford in anything, I really want to see this now thanks to your enjoyable write-up. Even with it's supposed flaws it sounds fascinating to me!

The Siren said...

yep, that is pretty much the story! The final part isn't completely without merit, there's good stuff too but it's all wrapped up with the dirndls and the Pangs of Conscience etc. And what they did to poor Conrad Veidt--he was giving a great performance too and then he has to go all Snidely Whiplash. The Cukor bio says there were about 9 screenwriters who worked on it so maybe it was just too many cooks. And although the final chase sequence is just way too "Way Down East" it has awesome back-projection, proof that the technique could work really well when needed.

The Siren said...

K., I love Humoresque too and I am sorry I seem to have given Wolcott the impression I don't, LOL! There's real sexual chemistry with Garfield and Crawford and I believe that was the case in real life. Although Garfield had great chemistry with any woman they put him on screen with, he was that kind of actor. He even made Priscilla Lane look sexy.

You poor woman, what sort of spider? do I even want to know? Those bites can cause such misery. I am glad you realized what it was and took care of it, they can really get bad. Take care of yourself and give us some more Liz soon!

La Fiancée disparue said...

A Woman's Face is wonderful. Conrad's and Joan's chemistry in this is rather interesting and chilly, I love it...

p.s.I enjoyed reading your review.

The Siren said...

Dulcette, thanks for stopping by. I really do think the first two-thirds rock.

Liz said...

Now I really want to see this. The problem is that now I'm expecting it to go sour at a certain point, so I know it will. Invariably, if people warn me that a movie gets worse as it goes on, I always feel as though it is (whether or not that's my actual opinion). But to be fair, I'm not sure I could stomach the Swedish dance either.

(I love your writing style. It's pretty rare to see reviews of old films done with a sort of punchy joy, instead of the usual reverent pomp and circumstance with a smattering of academic language, just to alienate casual film buffs like me.)

Kathy G. said...

Siren, I've been loving the Crawford posts. I just wrote one of my own on the blog I just started, which focuses on the wonderful precode melodrama Possessed. Check it out:

The Siren said...

Liz, even the final third is not without merit. The cable car sequence is really frightening and the process photography in the last dramatic sequence is just amazing - it makes you realize that rear-projection didn't have to look terrible even though it often did. So you can keep anticipating good stuff, it just doesn't hang together the way the first parts of the movie do. Thanks for the style comment, I appreciate it. I'm more flip when the movie didn't completely work for me, I admit.

Kathy, I love the first Possessed and I am eager to read your post. Thanks for the link!

Menky said...

To see many rare photos from my personal collection of Joan Crawford from the film "A Woman's Face" - go to the link below.


Richard Lloreda...Your host since day # 1 said...

Joan Crawford, say her name in a crowded room and just watch the reaction..she crosses into areas even she would not of believed.

Right wingers feel threatened by her independent, feminist spirit.

Born Againers freak at her supposedly immoral, lavish, champagne and vodka lifestyle.

The twit populace believes the bogus outrgeousness of,"Mommie Dearest'.

The Gays love the camp.

The style savvy, love her as a representative fashion ambassodress for nearly forty years of chic.

The satire-ists love the over the top middle to late years Joan.

All along the way there was the talent that shines in 80 plus films, of which a third are indelible and triumphant.

A true original, full of contradictions, which only serves to enrich her legend.

In all of this swirl, stands the golden fleece of her career, the holy oracle of her unique cinematic achievements, "A Woman's Face", is a masterpiece with tiny flaws as to create a yearning for even more depth, more intelligence and more of that dynamic force only Crawford could express.

It is the mature breakthrough performance that both salutes Sadie Thompson, Flaemchen, Sadie Mackee, Crystal Allen, Julie and Susan Trexell while conjureing the future with hints of all the Mildreds yet to come.

Ingrid Bergman originated Anna Holm, Garbo was offered this part, Bette Davis played a radio version as did Ida Lupino.

Joan had entered again into the realm of the rarest of film acting elite...and she pulled it off with a subtlety and a majestic aplomb yet so deeply felt, you are transported by the talent of her empathy to actually become one with this character.

A rare achievement where the perfection of the technical machine of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer again create art and Joan Crawford's career was never the same because of this gem.

And aren't we lucky to benefit and bask in glory of this astounding film and the infinate variety of Joan Crawford.

Toby, from The Joan Crawford Deluxe Suite

Michael Guillen said...

So great to read this after having caught a freshly-minted print of A Woman's Face at the first-ever TCM Classic Film Festival. Thanks, as ever, for your great insights.

Richard Lloreda...Your host since day # 1 said...

Well thank you very much, Maya.

I have seen,'A WOMAN'S FACE'. several times in movie theaters and it is an awesome experience.

One gets a fully raelized CRAWFORD in a movie house, better than a tv screen.

I hope you had a blast at the TCM festival and please feel free to visit my blog, the joan crawford deluxe suite, anytime and thanks the "SIREN' for her wonderful blog.

All my best,