These bloody women they will not stop bothering you

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Irene prepares to get things Dunne.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone all misogynist on you. Just quoting Pete & Dud, while also gearing up to take a look at some of John Cromwell’s monster women.

Bette Davis (see yesterday) is probably the most awful, but she has some stiff competition. Hope Emerson in CAGED is practically a literal she-monster, and Cromwell’s noir outings featured the occasional femme fatale. But the trio of Laura Hope Crews (mother), Constance Cummings (lover) and Kay Francis (wife) have an unexpected amount in common.

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THE SILVER CORD (1933) seems to be the first Hollywood film to aim at that great American holy cow, motherhood, with Laura Hope Crews shrill and fluttering as the controlling, near-incestuous mother of Joel McCrea and Eric Linden. McCrea’s role is almost unplayable, since he has to appear blind to what kind of a family set-up he’s from, while retaining some measure of the audience’s respect — he gives it the old college try, though, and comes out better than he does in BANJO ON MY KNEE. Eric Linden was probably pre-code cinema’s pre-eminent pisspants, and is made to measure as the (even) more spineless son, easily manipulated into giving up the adorable and beauteous Frances Dee because she doesn’t live up to mama’s standards.

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A pensive, festive Linden.

It takes Irene Dunne (in one of several lead roles for Cromwell) to unmask mother, taking her down with surgical precision (Dunne is a biologist — she’s told in Scene One that she’s one of those women who CAN have a career and family, and this news is delivered by Gustav von Seyffertitz, so it is AUTHORITATIVE). McCrea STILL can’t see what’s staring him in the face until Mummy Pittypat flat-out confesses that she’s put all her romantic yearnings into motherhood, and she’s PROUD of it, goddamn it.

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Upon that same rear projection screen, KONG would roar!

The thing is a giant creaking play (by Sidney Howard), but Cromwell, working as was often the case from a script by Jane Murfin, applies long, fluid traveling shots (gliding crabwise  through those weird doorways that seem to have only half a door frame, to admit the camera crew) and takes advantage of RKO’s early facility with rear-projection for a dramatic accident on the ice. It’s not actually a Christmas film, but it’s one of several Cromwell’s suited to this time of year, with its snowy backdrops (see also MADE FOR EACH OTHER, IN NAME ONLY, and especially SINCE YOU WENT AWAY).

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THIS MAN IS MINE stars Dunne again (who doesn’t get enough credit as a great pre-code dame along with Stanwyck, Bette & Joan &c), battling the deliciously wicked Constance Cummings (above) who wants to steal away her husband, Ralph Bellamy (but WHY, for pity’s sake? Because he’s there, I suppose). Dunne has her delicate, piano-playing, landscape-painting hands full with all these Constance Cummings and goings.

Amusingly, this also has Sidney Blackmer, making it a kind of ROSEMARY’S BABY pre-party for Dr. Sapirstein and Roman Castavet.

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ALL OF THEM WITCHES! Dunne & Bellamy/Sapirstein, Blackmer/Castavet and Cummings.

The low-key melodrama is leavened with considerable humour, most of it from the beastly Constance’s more sensible sister, Kay Johnson (Mrs. Cromwell at the time). Describing CC as “a sort of cross between a tidal wave and a smallpox epidemic,” she keeps the whole, dignified thing from getting too self-serious. Slightly surprising third-act violence when Bellamy slugs Constance unconscious with a sock in the eye, and Dunne brains him in turn with a picture frame. Well, civilisation must be preserved.

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As in THE SILVER CORD, the villainess condemns herself out of her own mouth, destroying the illusion she’s built up, and the exact same thing happens a third time in the later IN NAME ONLY (1939). Kay Francis, at the tail-end of her career as leading lady, is hanging on to Cary Grant in a loveless marriage, because she wants not only his money but his dad’s (Charles Coburn, by some genetic prodigy of mutation). Grant meets and falls for widow Carole Lombard, lighting a nice fire under the whole scenario.

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This is the most satisfying of the three, though they’re all worth seeing. It’s like Grant and Lombard are trying to be their own dazzling movie star selves, and every bastard around them is trying to drag them down to ordinary unhappiness with the rest of humanity. Oddly, Grant shines brightest when sparring with catty Helen Vinson (another survivor of the pre-code era, with her sharp little teeth) as a subsidiary bitch. Memorable action involves the worst hotel in the history of cinema, and Francis condemning herself out of her own mouth exactly like her predecessors. A door shuts on her with awesome finality.

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Also: Peggy Ann Garner, Grady Sutton. (“Do you drink? How do you stand it?”)

 

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8 Responses to “These bloody women they will not stop bothering you”

  1. Thanks for these lively comments on three interesting films.

    I wonder what effect seeing This Man Is Mine would have on later viewings of The Awful Truth, in which the idea of Dunne and Bellamy as a couple is played for laughs.

    How strange that Cromwell should have cast McCrea twice in such unflattering roles. The use of Kay Francis, usually so sympathetic, as a heartless gold-digger is disconcerting, too: was she good?

  2. Oh yeah, Kay’s always good, isn’t she? She doesn’t overplay villainy, she just does exactly what she normally does, she’s coolly elegant.

    McCrea, generally, is great in unflattering roles: Sturges essentially cast him as a stuffed shirt, knowing the actor’s down-to-earth qualities would redeem the characters. He makes The Silver Cord work as well as anyone could.

    If viewing This Man is Mine with The Awful Truth, please pause TAT midway and run TMIM as a sort of dream sequence!

  3. ‘Coolly elegant’ sounds like the ideal approach for a Francis villain. It isn’t every romantic lead who can handle a role on the other side of the street, so to speak, and I’m pleased to hear that she was up to the task.

    I hadn’t thought of Sturges’s McCrea characters as stuffed shirts, but I see what you mean.

  4. I suspect most of the great stars could adapt what they did for villainous purposes. If Suspicion had the mythical original ending, Cary Grant’s charm would be perfect, and deadly.

    A challenge: is there a golden age Hollywood star we think could NOT have played a baddie?

  5. Alice Faye is a possibility, but I suppose one never can tell.

  6. She’s so sullen in Fallen Angel, I half expected her to turn mean at any moment…

  7. That’s true. She probably could have gone all the way if the script had cooperated.

  8. It was Joel McCrea who did not want to play the bad guy in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. According to the IMDb: “Joel McCrea was originally cast as Westrum and Randolph Scott was Judd. But early in the production each actor went to the producer on his own, dissatisfied and ready to quit, so the roles were reversed.”

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