TIFF’s Joan Crawford retrospective shows how different studios treated her. This depended on a lot of factors other factors, but mostly her age. These are part of her vault, if we’re going with the retrospective’s title. Some of these have flaws but most of them are movies that audiences need to rediscover.
This is a trend in Crawford’s movies, her presence classing up any joint she walks into. In Autumn Leaves, Millicent Wetherby (Crawford) allows a younger man, Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson), in her life. The first day they meet, he picks her up and walk her home. Playing a character who breaks her routine, the mature Crawford does some interesting things here. But when Burt comes into Milly’s life she evokes a schoolgirl trapped in a woman’s body. Milly’s usually terse and sure of herself but Crawford slows her down or makes her ramble at will. And Crawford transforms into more versions of Milly as her and Burt’s relationship goes sour, as many relationships unfortunately do. It’s too bad that director Robert Aldrich makes the revelations here feel soapy.
Crawford originally turned Vincent Sherman’s Harriet Craig down. It’s a James Gunn adaptation of a George Kelly play. If you believe her stepdaughter’s constantly updated memoir, this is the most Crawford of all her roles. And it makes sense, again fitting with this retrospective’s title. One that implies the contradictory yet complimentary themes of mental illness and control. Performance wise, Crawford haunts the room even if she isn’t there. And when she is, she uses her voice to command those around her, doing so with regular volume. Her words are good enough to manipulate an an extended upper class household. One that include her husband’s (Wendell Corey) and her side of the family. But the movie, predictably, is about how she eventually loses that grip.
The titular character in Daisy Kenyon (Crawford) is a fashion illustrator who still loves a reluctant civil rights lawyer. He’s Dan O’ Mara (Dana Andrews), and she realizes that she can’t waste her time with him anymore. She marries a a jack of all trades man Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda). However, anything can happen and divorce is around the corner. It’s trite to say that this is another love triangle movie. But it’s a hurdle that the film’s cast and director Otto Preminger do their best to surpass.
David Hertz adapted Daisy Kenyon from an Elizabeth Janeway novel. And it shows that old adage that marriage is hard work. Dan and his wife Lucille (Ruth Warrick) have to deal with raising two precocious teenage girls. Daisy has to deal with Peter’s PTSD. She also has to fall out of love with a charismatic man in favor of someone more ‘home-y’. Preminger, doing his part, shows that he’s more genre versatile that audience give him credit for. He uses shadows and soft focus to show how these couples spend their occasionally sleepless nights.
Then there’s Strange Cargo, which is a mess of a film that Lesser Samuels wrote with three other screenwriters. There, director Frank Borzage tries to juggle Crawford’s story line with a few others. Her character, Julie, has to compete for screen time as the only woman in an island full of escaped convicts. The silver lining is that by the halfway point, Borzage starts killing some of these convicts off. Her cynicism wears off when she and the other convicts are around the Christ-like Cambreau (Ian Hunter). But she brings a hard edge that she had during her pre-code days. One that she holds on to, in ways, for the rest of her career.
A Woman Possessed: The Films of Joan Crawford is a retrospective at TIFF. It starts with Mildred Pierce on the night of October 7. It also goes throughout Noirvember. That’s for those of you who want Crawford as your femme fatale next month. Even though yes, she’s not always a femme fatale. Go here for showtimes and tickets.
- Genre: Drama, Romance
- Directed by: Frank Borzage, Otto Preminger, Robert Aldrich, Vincent Sherman
- Starring: Cliff Robertson, Dana Andrews, Ian Hunter, Joan Crawford, Wendell Corey
- Produced by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Otto Preminger, William Dozier, William Goetz
- Written by: David Hertz, James Gunn, Lesser Samuels, Robert Blees
- Studio: 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer