Otto Preminger’s 1947 masterpiece DAISY KENYON has just been released to DVD in the US in a package of films noir, but in fact one of the striking things about it (and there are several) is how outside of genreit is. While Otto shoots it in a somewhat more “cutty” variation of the style he deployed successfully in LAURA and FALLEN ANGEL (a Shadowplay favourite, most specially for Linda Darnell’s fabulous footsore entrance), there are no criminal activities front and centre (although one trial scene intrudes, reminding us that although Preminger trained as a lawyer, he’s quite willing to play fast and loose with courtroom etiquette) and we’re not dealing with a tale of corruption or madness or any of those noir subjects.
The natural pigeonhole of DK might be the women’s picture, given the title and the casting of Joan Crawford at the apex of the film’s love triangle. But (1) David Hertz’ adaptation of Elizabeth Janeway’s novel isn’t interested in conventional melodramatics, (2) Preminger tends to stifle big showstopping scenes in the interests of preserving a certain smoothness of pace, and (3) Joan Crawford is on remarkably restrained form. What the typical JC perf offers its audience is spectacle — the costumes, the grandstanding theatrics, the camp — which is one of the two main pleasures of the women’s picture genre. Here she seems like a person — a Crawford first. Otto doesn’t encourage intimate identification with the characters either, which would be the second pleasure of the WP: the pleasurably masochistic involvement with a suffering female lead. Here, everybody is equally tormented, but our engagement is with the characters as fellow humans, not as glamorous extensions of ourselves. For this to work, the people have to seem real and complex and surprising, and apart from some slightly overwritten dialogue, they really do.
It’s a truly uncommonly adult movie. Apart from distancing itself quietly from genre concerns, it opens up new terrain by presenting a group of characters with more or less likeable and dislikeable traits, and allowing us to form our own judgements — which are sometimes upset by the revelations of the advancing narrative. In this, it feels maybe more like a ’70s New Hollywood work, or our idealised idea of one. And such is the individual, and private nature of the film’s moral compass, that you can’t use the Production Code to figure out how it’s going to end. I can’t recall a ’40s Hollywood film that left me so uncertain as to how it would turn out. So many emotional issues are raised that, inevitably, a few are left hanging at the end, which also seems appropriate and rather ’70s.
The copy I watched was an off-air recording from a few years ago, ripped from VHS, so I still have the pleasure of a proper DVD copy to look forward to, the better to enjoy Leon Shamroy’s glowing visuals. Shamroy was the king of
Technicolor Gorgeous Lifelike Color by Deluxe at 20th Century Fox, but his monochrome work here, though less showy than the eye-searing hues of THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT or LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, already looks very fine.
Incidentally, I was curious as to how Preminger and Crawford got on together. Though Otto would sometimes claim to have entirely forgotten the movie, in his autobiography he recalls J.C. as professional and generous: “When the film was finished she gave me gold cuff links. I later discovered that she always gave her director cuff links at the conclusion of shooting. Once at a party there were four of us wearing identical sets.” La Crawford had fond memories of Otto too, crediting him with whatever success the picture had, though hinting that the success might be limited. They’re both wrong — like LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, this is a Hollywood picture that transcends genre in such a way that nobody working on it seems to have recognised how special it was.