Whatever Happened to Mary Jane?

In SUDDEN FEAR, Joan Crawford stars as Mary Jane Hudson, a name with odd resonances (she’d later play Blanche Hudson opposite Bette Davis as Baby Jane). This was made right before TORCH SONG but it’s in b&w and Joan looks much, much better, and mostly acts better.

The film suffers from an unnecessary first act — we really don’t NEED to see the lady playwright meet the dashing-yet-alarming actor (Jack Palance) and marry him. It’s like the redundant opening stuff grafted onto Cukor’s GASLIGHT, but that was rendered reasonably compelling because our heroine has to overcome some obstacles to her romance. This is just women’s weekly stuff, though it’s kind of fascinating to see two such mismatched scary intense people pitching woo. Only when we discover Palance’s dish on the side, Gloria Grahame, do we get real lusty fireworks.

The plotting from here on is intricate and suspenseful — Joan’s dictation machine inadvertently records Jack and Gloria plotting her murder — since they believe she’s about to change her will, they have a narrow window of homicidal opportunity. Much angst from Joan — it’s basically a huge long scene of her wandering around the room in torment as the recording replays mercilessly from the speakers. And then she wanders some more and tosses on the couch etc. as the recording re-replays in her head. At this point, for the only time in the film, Joan goes full self-parodic drag queen, but she soon recovers.

Now Joan, having frustratingly fumbled and smashed the record which was her only evidence, resorts to her playwright’s imagination to slay one enemy and stitch up the other with an elaborately planned scenario. It becomes clear that UNFAITHFULLY YOURS must have been an influence on Edna Sherry’s source novel — the home recording device, the elaborate killing and frame-up. And, of course, the plan goes awry, mainly because Joan isn’t evil enough to pull it off — but this makes her wholly innocent and so fate is permitted, by the Production Code, to take a hand and make sure things turn out okay after all, in an admittedly ironic and rather messy way.

The endearing nonsense is very capably directed by David Miller, otherwise best known for atrocities — the mostly-dire Marx Bros “romp” LOVE HAPPY and MGM’s pointless remake of THE WOMEN, THE OPPOSITE SEX (Now with the new miracle wonder-ingredient, Men! Esther Williams turned that one down flat, correctly declaring that the rewrite robbed the original of its all-female USP). I’ve been meaning to watch Miller and Dalton Trumbo’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, and this encourages me. The guy had talent, seen here mainly in artfully-framed studies of Joan’s martyred features, and dynamic use of the Palance physicality.

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11 Responses to “Whatever Happened to Mary Jane?”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    David Miller directed my all-time favourite version of BACK STREET – the 1961 camp extravaganza starring Susan Hayward and produced by the legendary Ross Hunter. The earlier ones are way too restrained and have misplaced pretensions to good taste, but this one goes all the way over the top!

  2. Oh, the John Stahl Backstreet is nice, as are many of his early films. A director underrated precisely because so many of his best films were worth remaking.

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    When you re-watch DIAL M FOR MURDER, you may be either struck or stricken by some UNFAITHFULLY YOURS resonances as well.

  4. You intrigue me. I guess both have an elaborately planned murder that goes wrong in reality. In the Hitch, a would-be murder is improvised into a frame-up, though… There’s more?

  5. chris schneider Says:

    Hitchcock didn’t write DIAL M FOR MURDER. It was written by a certain Frederick Knott, who also wrote the source play for WAIT UNTIL DARK — the latter directed on-stage by Arthur Penn and starring Lee Remick.

  6. Oh, I call it a Hitchcock film but I know he didn’t write anything (though he would have taken part in the adaptation, anyway).

    Certainly makes sense that two such intricately constructed (almost to a fault) works issued from the same man’s typewriter.

  7. david wingrove Says:

    WAIT UNTIL DARK or, as I call it, OH, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, JUST LOCK THE FUCKING DOOR!

  8. I can forgive that film its many trespasses against reality because it gives as Alan Arkin as a master-criminal bad guy, Mr. Harry Roat from Scarsdale.

  9. John Seal Says:

    Though much of Sudden Fear is over-egged, the final reel chase sequence is exceptional.

  10. Yes, that’s pretty exciting and very well shot. And I guess it’s good that they didn’t give Joan a consolation romantic interest, so she’s standing on her own two feet at the end.

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