Good news, everybody! David Melville Wingrove is BACK, with another Forbidden Diva ~
“It would be unusual…but then great ladies can do unusual things.” ~ Franchot Tone to Joan Crawford, The Bride Wore Red
In 1938, Joan Crawford – one of the most perennially popular stars in the annals of Hollywood – suddenly found herself labelled Box Office Poison by a group of disgruntled exhibitors. Of all the famous names on the list, hers was by far the most unlikely. Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were movie legends but never won over a broad public. Mae West had seen her raunchy humour watered down by the Production Code. Greta Garbo was a mythical goddess in need of some modern-day reinventing. But Joan Crawford had long been the factory girl’s favourite, a proletarian star who embodied the needs and aspirations of working-class women. Joan and Louis B Mayer, her all-powerful boss at MGM, must have been speechless with shock. What, oh what, could possibly have gone wrong?
They may have remembered how – a year before the list came out – MGM had starred Joan in a truly catastrophic flop. The Bride Wore Red (1937) was a dark-hued romantic comedy by Dorothy Arzner, the only woman director in the Hollywood studio system. An open lesbian and a stalwart feminist, Arzner was known for films with challenging and unconventional female leads. Katharine Hepburn as the silver-clad aviatrix in Christopher Strong (1933) and Rosalind Russell as the domestic tyrant in Craig’s Wife (1936) were not the type of girl a man would ask out for an ice-cream soda once the movie was done. They would doubtless sneer at vanilla and might even insist on paying their half of the tab. Not that Joan’s character in The Bride Wore Red would have any such qualms about letting a gentleman pay. She was a hooker – one disguised as a socialite, with a luxuriant Adrian wardrobe to match – but always, and unmistakably, a hooker nonetheless.
Such casting was a step too far for Joan’s fans. Morally conservative and largely female, they would accept their idol as a showgirl or a shop girl, no problem. As a kept woman, perhaps, provided it was Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy who did the keeping. As a hooker, most definitely not! Joan had made that mistake once before in Rain (1932) with a smouldering portrayal of the South Sea island prostitute Sadie Thompson. No matter if it was by far the best of her early roles and she gave a performance to rival that of Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) – another hooker in another story by Somerset Maugham. The fans were horrified and Rain was a resounding flop. They had no idea the real Joan had been arrested repeatedly on ‘morals charges’ – back in the 20s, when she was still Lucille LeSueur. Or even that she had starred in hardcore pornographic ‘stag films’ before more legitimate movie roles came her way. All things considered, The Bride Wore Red was as close as a silver screen goddess could come to career suicide.
Nor can we accuse Joan or her director of doing it by half-measures. When she first appears, singing in a waterfront dive in Trieste, she looks downright sleazy. (Based on a play called The Girl from Trieste by Ferenc Molnár, the film takes place in a fantasy Mittel Europa that vanished with the Habsburg Empire.) Her hair, tumbling loose almost to her shoulders, plays up and sharpens the weird angularity of her face. Her tight black gown clings to her body like a skin, shiny yet obscurely unclean. Pinned to one shoulder is a clutch of tawdry white blossoms. Camellias, perhaps, but not the sort that Garbo would ever buy! An elderly roué named Count Armalia (George Zucco) summons her over to his table. It is clear that he has no sexual interest in her. Earlier on, we have seen him give a handsome, dark-haired waiter an unfeasibly large tip. He is a joker, an aesthete and a voyeur. All he wants to is to play her Fairy Godfather. To send her, all expenses paid, to a plush hotel in the Tyrolean Alps, where she may pass herself off as a lady.
Soon enough, Joan is installed at said hotel under the name of Anna Vivaldi, an aristocratic moniker she picked up from a beer advert. Her suite is decorated in those dazzling shades of white-on-white that only ever exist in movies. (One speck of cigarette ash would throw the colour scheme off entirely!) The hotel manager is Paul Porcasi, that most camp and irascible of Hollywood character actors. Alas, the chambermaid (Mary Phillips) turns out to be an old comrade-in-arms from the whorehouse in Trieste. But she is a real pal who keeps Joan’s secret and allows Arzner to work in some of her trademark female bonding. Naturally, this being a Crawford vehicle, there are also two men on hand. Robert Young plays an upper-class lounge lizard in a tuxedo, whom Joan wants to marry. Franchot Tone plays a hunky postman in lederhosen, who wants to marry her. When he is not delivering letters, Tone enjoys blowing on a long and impressively phallic Alpine flute. We may remember that his nickname in Hollywood was ‘Jawbreaker’.
Naturally, Joan found time for a spot of shopping before she caught the train to the Alps. Yet all the outfits she wears at the hotel are subtly (or not so subtly) ‘off’. For her entrance at dinner on the first night, she sports a ridiculous all-white bridal costume worthy of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. The gigantic daisy in her hair brings to mind the Bette Midler joke about walking around with a large fried egg on top of your head. Relaxing in her suite, she wears a shiny negligee with two enormous fuzzy puffed sleeves. She looks, honestly, as if she has shot and eviscerated two Muppets and is now wearing one of them on each arm. Yet her most outrageous fashion mistake is kept carefully in abeyance – hidden in her closet and seen only in short, subliminal glances like the monster in a Val Lewton movie. It is a sheer and shiny red evening gown, covered with sequins and oozing and dripping with sex. It is, in short, the perfect visual summation of who she actually is.
When our heroine dons her red gown in the final reel, she does not look cheap or nasty. She looks resplendent. Unusually for a Joan Crawford vehicle, we have had to wait an hour and a half to see the star in an outfit that actually suits her. (Is anybody still wondering why The Bride Wore Red was a flop?) Striding brazenly down the grand staircase and into the grand salon, Joan is the focus of all eyes. The pallid socialites around her see her and stare and fall silent. The effect is at least as stunning as Bette Davis’s entrance into the Olympus Ball in Jezebel (1938), also in a blazing red gown amid an anaemic sea of white. What is more, Joan’s entrance in red took place a full year before Bette’s, even if it was never rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. At moments like this one, Bette’s implacable lifelong animosity towards Joan may almost start to make sense.
With its metaphor of hiding the truth about yourself in a closet – only to one day take it out and wear it proudly, and tell the prudes and puritans around you to go hell – The Bride Wore Red is one of the great symbolic ‘coming out’ movies. It is part of a tradition of covertly gay cinema that ranges from Hollywood melodramas like Now, Voyager (1942) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) to camp Australian comedies like Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and The Dressmaker (2015). It is also, quite possibly, Joan Crawford’s truest and rawest and most touching performance of the 30s – one of a very few roles to demonstrate that she was a Great Actress as well as a Great Star. Does anyone really need to ask which of her two co-stars she winds up marrying? Here’s a clue…she married him in real life as well, only he drank and beat her up and the whole thing was a disaster and did not last. The nickname ‘Jawbreaker’ was all too horribly prophetic. Like most of the iconic stars, Joan was far happier on the screen than off. Perhaps it was safer that way.