Sexy Sadie

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.

huston-crawford_opt

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.

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14 Responses to “Sexy Sadie”

  1. You’re quite right about Joan underestimating herself. She’s a terrific Sadie. But I suspect she preferred the sexy secretary Flemchin she played in Grand Hotel to an all-out hooker here — no matter how complex Maugham makes her. Sadie’s too close to the bone for Joan.

    Milestone does indeed introduce her as if he were revealing a monster of some sort — which she is to Huston’s Reverend.

    And I am beginning to believe that long complex tracking sots are emblematic of the best of the 30s.

  2. They are — but so are snappy mosaics of short shots. The spirit of the age at its best is one of restless experimentation as seen in Mamoulian, and Milestone deserves to be mentioned right alongside.

  3. And Whale and Arzner.

  4. Robert Keser Says:

    The Raoul Walsh/Gloria Swanson SADIE was definitely great (and very entertaining, with Swanson seeming a lot more fun than Crawford), but I’ve never understood why RAIN has such a bad reputation. The NYT review (by “Abel”) knocks Crawford, describing her “getup” as “extremely bizarre. Pavement pounders don’t quite trick themselves up quite as fantastically as all that”. He also says “the dramatic significance of it all is beyond her range”, And worst of all, “Hays and the Code to the contrary–it’s really not so shocking, after all . . . And it’s all so talky”.

    To me, the “conversion” scene on the stairs at 63″ was the most inventive idea, one that Milestone pulled off quite well, though the rest of the post-conversion dialogue does not completely convince, while the very final scene falls seriously flat, especially in the absence of any real hint of Davidson forcing himself on Sadie. Still, it remains an interesting stab at the material.

    The opening two minutes, though, seem to be copying Joris Ivens’s very well-known 1929 short REGEN (RAIN) , and this section continues later as well.

  5. Fascinating — Milestone worked with Ivens in WWII on the documentary Our Russian Front and may have known him earlier.

    The Walsh version is really good, but not as experimental and exciting as cinema — how effective the drama was is hard to judge as the ending is missing, but what we can see is terrific. I wouldn’t knock it for being less visually innovative than Milestone’s — it’s possibly better, but I do find the Milestone more INTERESTING as craft.

    Tay Garnett is another guy whose early thirties work is dazzling. Hawks is dazzling in Scarface alone and then followed his own personality into a different mode.

  6. There are some amazing examples of early sound film technique here, but I had the impression that Milestone front-loaded the visual flair within his running time — I’m not sure if that was because he subsequently wanted the Huston/Crawford confrontation to come to the fore without any visual distractions (arguably reverting more to the material’s stage origins), or because he figured once he had your attention he didn’t need to keep looking for it. Or something else entirely.

  7. I also prefer the Walsh/Swanson version, but RAIN is so visually fresh and inventive that I can’t resist. But now I can’t remember which version has the camera track all the way around the outside of the building, I believe from a subjective viewpoint looking out into the rainy night? Or am I just dreaming that shot? RAIN also benefits from having Walter Huston in it, playing a rather different character than he did that same year in KONGO.

    David, I can’t find contact info for you on this website. Am I blind? If not, could you send me a message at fringefaan@yahoo.com? I’ve got an offer for you! It concerns a Borzage movie.

  8. Ivens and Milestone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2llMP3GrCrk

    Ivens obtained the footage, Milestone, a former editor who made Rin Tin Tin a star by his careful selections, helped structure it into a narrative.

  9. Pretty sure the track around the building is this version. Don’t have time right now to hunt though — maybe someone else can point it out.

    I don’t think Milestone abandons his visual tricks — he simplifies in the middle, maybe, but there’s some great stuff later, as in the leering way the camera swoops in on Sadie’s blinds as the laughing clarinet music blares through them.

  10. Maybe I phrased it a bit too much in binary terms — I guess I found that the most eye-catching bits of visual work came early on, though that’s not to say that what he did later lacked in skill or artistry, perhaps just that it didn’t catch the eye for the level of difficulty. Though as you say, applauding him just for attempting the difficult isn’t really the goal; the technical resources at the service of the dance scene really give it something extra, and certainly pretty unusual at the time.

  11. It’s eyebrow-raising to find quite erudite critical pieces, such as Philip Kemp’s excellent career overview of Milestone in John Wakeman’s World Film Directors Vol 1, dismissing Rain as a typically static, stilted early talkie. (I know you weren’t saying THAT.) Critics have historically not been as good at observing the filmmaking as they are at unpicking the meanings.

    I had a similar response to Scorsese’s Age of Innocence, which seemed to settle down stylistically after the dazzling first half hour or so — but it could be that one’s capacity to be amazed gets overloaded…

  12. The Age of Innocence is Marty at his most subtle. He’s treading in Visconti territory here and he knows it. He also evokes Dreyer’s Gertrud.

  13. David Boxwell Says:

    “Paht of the time I had a singin’ jawhb.” “Whaddya drivin’ at? Whaht do I hef to athahn fed?”

    After MGM’s diction coaches knocked the hillbilly outta her, she had to go back, reconstruct her native accent, and start dropping her g’s again!

  14. Robert Keser Says:

    For the record, that circular shot of the camera moving around the house is indeed in this Milestone version.

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