Joan Crawford joins a long list of Hollywood divas who underestimated their iconic roles. Joan thought Lewis Milestone’s direction was insipid and so she gave the performance she thought right and later regretted it.
But what I want to talk about is technique. At 01.24, Milestone begins the movie proper with billowing clouds and a rainstorm beginning with single drops in closeup detail. Kind of reminds me of Antonioni’s scene without people in L’ECLISSE. Sequences like this recur in the movie, the music warning us to expect a real typhoon, either meteorological or emotional.
At 8.32 there’s a long tracking shot — one of many — which leads us to meet Joan Crawford, the last major character to be introduced. But the point of the shot is not the long, fluid movement — a strain to achieve in early sound days — but the way it contrasts with her entrance, which is another series of details.
First, her appearance is heralded by a hurled bottle and a reject male being violently ejected from a doorway. Both have presumably been drained by Joan so she has no further use for them.
Then we get a series of delighted male faces feasting their boggling eyes on the awesome spectacle of Joan in all her glory — still unseen by us. This builds anticipation and creates a new, staccato visual rhythm. The bulbous mugs of Guy Kibbee, William Gargan &c also prepare us for something more aesthetically pleasing.
Then, rather extraordinarily, Milestone shows us a hand gripping the doorframe, another hand gripping the other side, a white heel perching on the threshold, another be-ribboned shoe positioning itself on the other side, then joined by its partner, and then –
Joan’s face slides into shot, practically Leone-close, cigarette semi-erect, lips irresistably recalling Tony Curtis in SOME LIKE IT HOT, who copied them, eyes baleful and hooded like a cobra as she leans against the doorjamb as louche as you like.
I think this is a really amazing bit of visual drama, as bold and startling in its way as Boris Karloff’s backwards shamble into view in FRANKENSTEIN the previous year. Did women scream and strong men faint at the sight of Joan’s erotic glower? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Afterwards, Milestone reluctantly allows the ecstatic fragments he’s assembled to join up and create a more cohesive space, where we can actually see where everyone is rather than just inferring it — the camera’s slight pull back relaxes the tension as Joan starts bantering with the boys.
Like the rain montage, this sequence of shots will be repeated later too, to stunning impact.
16:07 — someone puts a record on, and Milestone starts dancing the camera around the actors and the phonograph as if tied to the rotating disc by invisible wires. Long tracking shots are one thing, but this kind of move, rare right up until the invention and adoption of the steadicam, was unheard of. Probably there’s some earlier example, but I haven’t encountered it. I’m not even 100% sure HOW Milestone and cameraman Oliver T. Marsh (who already lensed this story once before for Walsh) are moving their great clunky sound camera — on tracks or on a crane or ceiling tracks maybe? The latter, which you don’t ever hear of anymore, might be it. You’ve then got the problem of concealing the crew, particularly the microphone, since the roving lens is going to take in 360º of the room.
Not that filmmakers should be applauded just for doing something difficult. What I like is that the effort is worthwhile, as it gives us initially a sense of free, gliding exuberance, literally lifting us off our feet with the music — and then when the camera stops as Mrs Mellow-Harsher starts sniping away about it being Sunday, after all, our mood turns earthbound again. Tip-top filmmaking.
By the way, the whole thing is about sex,as embodied and conjured up by Joan’s drag-queen sensuality. You should watch it, if you haven’t already. A year of film school in under 1hr 34.