Archive for Joan Crawford

The Sunday Intertitle: An Extract of Aromas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 12, 2015 by dcairns


Colleen Moore’s reaction to a city slicker’s perfume — which he has just blasted himself with from a dispenser in the men’s room — is one of the highlights of WHY BE GOOD? (1929), the recently rediscovered and restored soundie star vehicle. Unfortunately, the snappy intertitles, along with Moore’s irrepressible style, have to carry the show, as what we have here is MGM Plot #1, which served Joan Crawford well for a number of pictures but doesn’t seem to work so well at Warner Bros and with Colleen as star.

MGM Plot #1 goes as follows: counter-hopper falls for boss’s son, is tempted to sleep with the rich millionaire but doesn’t, and thus eventually nabs her man. In the Joan Crawford vehicles this could be padded out with variants, by giving Joan a friend who DOES sleep with a rich man, and ends tragically, and so on. Maybe this worked better in the MGM flicks because Louis B. Mayer really believed what he was peddling, and maybe because with Joan Crawford there was always the distinct possibility that she might fall and, having fallen, tumble. The hope of that keeps you watching. Whereas we all know Colleen Moore’s a good girl. Lots of fun for a good girl, but still, inescapably virtuous.


This one has really protracted scenes of Colleen with her mum and leading man Neil Hamilton (not the disgraced former MP) with his dad, scenes devoid of drama because flowing with sympathy. “Beware of sympathy, it is the death of drama,” noted Alexander Mackendrick, and he was right. Characters must fail to understand each other at the very least or you don’t have a scene. This isn’t a call for a world of nastiness of the kind David Mamet always writes — scene after scene of bullies bullying — it’s just an accurate observation that characters being sympathetic to one another tamps down the emotion of a scene and must be used as a very sparing ingredient. It’s perhaps a good idea to suggest there’s far more sympathy in the world of your film than you’re allowing the audience to see, but they definitely won’t thank you for ladling on too much of it.

Of course I’m still overjoyed that the movie has been rescued from oblivion, and it certainly showcases Moore’s effervescent appeal, but she can’t shine as brightly as she does in SYNTHETIC SIN because there isn’t the dark backing to bring her glow out. Fortunately there are other Moore’s out there — we hope to soon view IRENE and ELLA CINDERS. We won’t be likely to see FLAMING YOUTH as that one’s tragically still lost. This is the only surviving footage ~

Another extract of aromas.

My earliest memories of Colleen are from Brownlow & Gill’s TV show Hollywood where the star, still spry and elfin at eighty-odd, reminisced about her frabjous career on the screen. And THIS clip from ELLA CINDERS lodged in my mind ~

Special effects were used, you’ll be reassured to know. This looks enticing, though, since Colleen as a stage-struck youth is also the premise of SYNTHETIC SIN.

Cine Dorado: Woman Devil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2014 by dcairns

After too long an absence, David Melville Wingrove returns with his alphabet of golden-age Mexican melodramas, which has reached the Big W…


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

W is for Woman Devil (Doña Diabla)

Perhaps I should point out that the letter ‘w’ does not really exist in Spanish, apart from the spelling of foreign names. Still, I can’t miss an excuse to write about Doña Diabla (1950), a film that won María Félix an Ariel for Best Actress – as a woman so spectacularly wicked that lightning flashes and thunder rolls virtually every time she appears on screen. Not that she’s ever off it for long. Doña Diabla is her vehicle from start to finish and she never once lets us forget it. Yet with all those booms and bangs and blinding flashes of light, we may start to feel that we’re watching some Gothic Expressionist monster movie – which, in a very real sense, we are.


The opening credits roll over a montage of María in a series of fabulous gowns. Distracting but only fair, perhaps, as her wardrobe (by the legendary Armando Valdéz Peza) does at least as much acting as she does. The director, Tito Davison, clothes her in virginal, all-white ensembles as an innocent young bride, just waiting to be corrupted. When her no-good husband pimps her to his sleazy boss, she wears a white skirt tainted with dark polka-dots and – just in case we miss the point – a slave bracelet clasped tightly round her neck. Once she’s become a deluxe hooker – as well as a gambler, drug trafficker, blackmailer and fashion tycoon – she favours stylish all-black outfits, apart from the clusters of diamonds at her wrists and a very fetching white streak in her jet-black hair.

The film proper starts with a passionate argument between two shadows. Doña Diabla and her daughter (Crox Alvarado) are fighting furiously over a man. “I’ll see you dead before I see you in his arms,” shouts María in the very best movie manner. Her shadow pulls out a pistol and fires it. Her daughter’s shadow (which is nowhere near as elegant) crumples over and falls as if dead. María runs out into the night, clad in a spectacular full-length mink coat, pearl necklace and mile-high Joan Crawford style fuck-me shoes – the better to be inconspicuous and evade detection. Hotly pursued by police sirens, she flees to a church and confesses the story (in flashbacks) to a priest.

It’s all a clear attempt to emulate Crawford’s Oscar-winning triumph in Mildred Pierce (1945) – also a torrid tale of mothers and daughters, firearms and flashbacks. But dare I say that Doña Diabla makes the barnstorming melodramatics of Mildred Pierce look rather pallid and restrained? This whole movie takes place in a fever of near-operatic excess. When María, a young bride, first comes to the big wicked city, her husband takes her to a nightclub where a man in black silk pyjamas and a girl in a spangled bikini do an act that’s midway between a dance and a live sex show. A platoon of lecherous old men line up to dance with her. The husband’s boss remarks, ominously: “A woman who is too beautiful cannot belong to just one man.”


A few scenes later, she’s at a party in Acapulco, staring out at a moonlit sea – and trying to fend off the advances of said boss. A gypsy singer serenades the guests a flamenco number, and then starts reading their futures in their palms. Once she comes to María, the gypsy can read no more. “I see the face of the Devil himself!” María wastes no time in proving her right. Horrified that her husband expects her to sleep her way to the top on his behalf, she agrees to become the boss’s mistress – provided he will ruin her husband for good. This he does, obligingly, with just one telephone call. She takes a year out to give birth to her daughter, and then comes back and makes good on her bargain.

Years pass and her daughter grows into a simpering, cosseted ingénue – raised in a convent to spare her all knowledge of her mother’s life. When María drops in for her annual visit, the girls are in the garden singing Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ in chorus. (Is that what passed for an education in the old days?) “Oh, mother,” enthuses the adoring child. “My great ambition is to be exactly like you!” María’s face clouds over and looks, momentarily, perturbed. Back in the city that night, we get a telling close-up of her hands at the roulette table, sparkling with diamonds and raking in a king’s ransom in chips. Her husband’s old boss (and her one-time sugar daddy) turns up and looks forlorn. He has ruined himself for Doña Diabla, as countless men have done since. She buys him a cigarette and splashes him with her car as she drives off.


By the time she meets a man who’s a match for her, the film is half-way over. Victor Junco plays a sexy lounge lizard who runs dope and deals in smuggled objets d’art. It is, of course, the most passionate love-hate at first sight. Doña Diabla opens a ritzy high fashion house as a front for his illicit activities. Judging from their lavish catwalk show, we may add crimes against haute couture to out heroine’s ever-growing list of misdeeds. She is, however, desperate to turn respectable…in time for that fateful day when her daughter comes out of the convent. (Wouldn’t it be easier to just persuade the girl to be a nun?) Alas, the daughter runs away from the convent and flees to Mexico City before mother has quite turned over her new leaf.


María announces to her lover that they must part. She is taking her daughter away, on an extended trip to Europe. Junco takes this rather badly – and shows up at the villa, the night before they leave, with a full mariachi band and a rogue’s gallery of people involved in Doña Diabla’s past scandals. One of them obligingly commits suicide in the guest bedroom. By the time María has been released from police questioning (have they never noticed her shenanigans before?) Junco has seduced the daughter and the two look set to run away together…I won’t give away the ending, but it involves an ‘action replay’ of the opening scene, with actors this time and not shadows. Let’s just say there is a twist, if not one that is wholly unexpected.

Doña Diabla opens and closes with an impassioned quotation by Sister Juana de la Cruz, the 17th century Mexican author and mystic. “You foolish men, who accuse women without grounds, do you not see that you are the cause of all you condemn?” That is, fortunately, the closest this movie ever comes to art. Doña Diabla triumphs (like a book by Sidney Sheldon) not by scaling any heights of artistic ambition, but through the sheer consummate perfection of its melodramatic excess. It glorifies María Félix in a way that technically better movies may not, because its strident emotionalism is perfectly calibrated to her uniquely florid style of performance. Cynics may claim that trash of this sort was the best that María Félix could do – but nobody else could ever do it with such flair.

David Melville

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.


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.


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