What images come to mind when one hears the name “Joan Crawford”? Faye Dunaway in a close-up so close she goes a bit cross-eyed, screaming “No. Wire. Hangers. Ever!” Joan as Mildred Pierce, glamorous but heartbroken in furs because she’s cursed with a monstrously selfish daughter in a movie that seems designed to be parodied by Carol Burnett? Joan as the slightly less ghoulish of the two sisters in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, victim of an over-the-top Bette Davis as both scene-stealing actress and crazy character?
For me, it was “all of the above,” despite the fact that I happen to know Crawford gave some good-verging-on-great performances early in her career (she’s really charming among the starry ensemble in 1932’s Grand Hotel), in the middle (iconic as grasping gold-digger Crystal Allen in 1939’s all-female cast of The Women) and late (in the bizarre but entertaining Nicholas Ray-directed Western Johnny Guitar in 1954).
What I didn’t know was that during the 1930s - her most productive decade if we’re just talking about the number of films she made - she could be charming, dryly funny, kinda sexy, and almost always entertaining. Joan may not have had the greatest range as an actress, and a lot of her movies from this period fall into very predictable formulas, but her studio, MGM, knew how to build sturdy structures to support their Star, and to bring out the best in her.
In the Warner Archive DVD reissues Montana Moon, I Live My Life and The Bride Wore Red, you can see the assembly of the star-making - and star-maintaining - machinery at work. Moon (1930) is an early talkie, and while it’s nowhere near as bad as “The Dueling Cavalier” (the on-purpose-awful sound movie-within-the-movie in Singin’ in the Rain), it’s fairly primitive. Camera setups are mostly static medium two-shots, the pacing is deadly, and the comic relief is painful: fast-talking city-slicker/ethnic Jew Benny Rubin as a cowboy originally from the Bronx, with drawling, slow on the uptake Cliff Edwards as straight man. Edwards, also known as “Ukulele Ike,” does do a few musical numbers and he looks much more comfortable strumming his uke than setting up the awful jokes.
Joan plays a rich playgirl who, on a whim, marries a real-life cowboy. Shockingly, her “sophisticated” city friends think he’s a hick, albeit a handsome one; he thinks they’re a bunch of loose-living, amoral a-holes. Both groups are correct.
You can tell MGM is trying to get Joan known in talkies; her character’s name is Joan and the first scene has a lot of actors asking “Where’s Joan? When is Joan going to get here?” Joan had made a sensation in the silent Our Dancing Daughters and her studio wanted to make sure audiences knew her name and that she could indeed talk. She’s also listed above the title, even this early on.
MGM’s voice coaches were still en route from the East, so Joan’s voice is higher and less controlled than it later became, and her diction switches back and forth from highbrow to shopgirl, sometimes within the same sentence.
Five years (and many pictures) later, I Live My Life is a smoother and more pleasant experience. It’s the best of these three movies, in large part due to a script by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve) and well-paced, unfussy direction by W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man series and countless others). The plot, a quasi-screwball romantic comedy, is nearly identical to that of Montana Moon, but instead of cowboy John Mack Brown, Joan dallies with handsome archeologist Brian Aherne, meeting him on the Greek island of Naxos instead of out on the prairie.
For a person who grew up in really dreadful poverty, Joan played a lot of rich girls, and she did it surprisingly well - at least within the context of what it meant to portray a rich person during the 1930s (shallow, frivolous, selfish and not all that bright, when not actively evil). Joan has a nice rapport with her underrated, quite good-looking co-star, and some good scenes with a bumbling Frank Morgan (the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz) as her irresponsible dad. She is also very much The Star, and while you couldn’t say she was a sparkling comedienne, she gives her comedic lines a pleasant spin. She also gets to throw a room-wrecking tantrum that looks like it was a lot of fun to film.
The Bride Wore Red (1937) is a strange one, notable for being helmed by one of the few female directors of this era, Dorothy Arzner. Joan gets her Star Treatment from her very first shot in the movie. She’s a singer at a seedy cabaret, singing (or possibly lip-synching) “Who Wants Love?” in a head-and-shoulders medium shot with horizontal bars of darkness framing her face. Arzner holds this glamourizing pose for an entire verse before we see a full-length shot of Joan. Despite being a poor cabaret singer (code for tramp/prostitute), she is gowned by MGM’s master costume designer Adrian, so she looks fabulous, not frumpy or tacky.
In fact, Adrian is the common denominator in all these films, ensuring that whether she’s rich or poor, in love or heartbroken, she looks great. In Bride she’s poor but is passing as rich, spending two weeks at an Alpine resort on the whim of a rich drunk and determined to use the time to snare a rich husband (Robert Young), but instead falling for the poor but honest local postman. The postman is played by Crawford’s husband at the time, Franchot Tone; this was the last of several films they made together, and they divorced two years later (in real life, not in the movie).
Bride is also notable for having Billie Burke (Oz’s Glinda), usually a dimwitted snob, playing a shrewd, rather nasty snob. Unfortunately it’s rather slow and the local color (peasants in very clean lederhosen and dirndls singing their simple peasant tunes in absolutely perfect harmony) reminds you why Hollywood, a.k.a. the Dream Factory, was so ripe for parody, then and now. It does have a few good lines; my favorite, is “Waiters are notoriously better-mannered than the people they serve.”
Extras are minimal on these DVDs: Life and Bride include their theatrical trailers. The latter shows director Arzner looking very mannish in a suit. Crawford was notorious for flirting with (sometimes sleeping with) her directors to ensure she got the most flattering camera angles and the choicest moments; I’ll leave it to you to decide if she went bi-curious with lesbian Arzner to secure that ravishing introductory shot.