Archive for Joan Crawford

Sexy Sadie

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2014 by dcairns

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.

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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.

First Blush

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2013 by dcairns

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The third in an informal trilogy (and really, everyone should make informal trilogies — they’re the best kind), following OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS and OUR MODERN MAIDENS, OUR BLUSHING BRIDES (1930) is the first full talkie in the sequence, and the earliest talkie I’d seen Joan Crawford in. (I’m now excited to see UNTAMED — as who wouldn’t be, with that title? — her very first speechifying role.)

Shaking up the familiar format of leggy girls and lush deco sets, the movie casts Joan and regular co-star/sacrificial lamb Anita Page as shopgirls, with Dorothy Sebastian completing the traditional trio. DS is really good in this, and it’s a shame she’s the one who slid into extra roles. The department store they work in (Crawford is a mannequin, her friends and flatmates sell perfumes and blankets respectively) is a relatively restrained, realist construction, so that we have to wait until the fashion show at the millionaire’s country retreat before we get any Cedric Gibbons elegance, but it’s worth the wait ~

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Uncredited director Harry Beaumont directs fluidly — there are some long “photographs of people talking” scenes, but also some propulsive tracking shots with overlapping crowd dialogue and a dynamic mix of synch and post-synch sound: an early lingerie pageant has a Greek chorus of female customers babbling over it, perhaps to fix the scene as a fashion show rather than a skin show in the censor’s mind. Whatever, it’s a pleasingly weird effect.

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Sociopolitically, we’re still in flux: the working girl stuff is quite Warner Bros, with sympathy for the gold-digging impulse (it’s what our current Glorious Leaders would call Social Mobility), but Joan is portrayed as the wisest of the three little pigs, the one who doesn’t trust men and won’t accept the advances of tiny-child-in-a-tux Robert Montgomery until he’s proved his intentions are honourable. Whereas Page and Sebastian both get royally taken by the predatory males they’re foolish enough to believe. This means we get to see Page’s shagging palace (above), a spectacular streamlined suite with leather-bound volumes just for show (“David says women shouldn’t ruin their minds with thinking,” gurgles Page), but the biggest treat is Montgomery’s tree-house –

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Yes. This is a tree-house. By Cedric Gibbons. What, no swimming pool?

You can buy the first two films in the series –

Our Dancing Daughters
Our Modern Maidens

Moderne Maidens

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 13, 2013 by dcairns

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OUR MODERN MAIDENS is the follow-up to OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS — it also stars Joan Crawford and Anita Page, just like its predecessor, and deals with the emotional travails of poor little rich girl jazz baby flappers — the problematic working class character has been eliminated so we can all relax and enjoy the minor emotional problems of the fabulously well-to-do with a clean conscience.

Like its predecessor, this is a soundie — recorded music and a few sound effects including applause, laughter and even the odd bit of offscreen dialogue. It’s a strange audio world where radios can talk but human beings have to use intertitles.

Joan is at her sexiest — still vaguely terrifying but her rangy physique, carnivorous grin, mad staring eyes and unfettered bosom do exert an allure. Anita of course is full of gooey, doughy, woman-behind-the-radiator perkiness, as ever.

The party! Cedric Gibbons gets a bigger budget to make his Grauman’s theater/cathedral mash-ups bigger and better — a zoom lens, of all the cockamamie things, has been procured from somewhere, to create a weird shrinking box effect around Joan and Doug Fairbanks Jnr. Either they borrowed the Paramount lens, or MGM got the use of Joseph Walker’s experimental zoom, which I have never otherwise seen used, though it’s been written about.

And then Doug Jnr does some impressions — really good ones. Alright, John Barrymore’s Mr Hyde is a fairly standard item in the caricaturist’s repertoire of the period, and I daresay it’s easy if you happen to have the right facial muscles to do it at all, but John Gilbert is someone I’ve never seen mimicked, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me that he was colourful enough to caricature. Fairbanks nails him. And then of course he does his dad…

OUR MODERN MAIDENS was followed by OUR BLUSHING BRIDES — will definitely be checking that one out. It’s 1930 so I presume it’s a full talkie — one of Joan’s earliest. Perhaps, at last, Cedric will get to make a church look like an art deco palace rather than the other way around.

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