Magnificent Joan

womanposterJoan Crawford in This Woman Is Dangerous is the only crook I’ve seen who dresses like Mrs. Vanderbilt when carrying out a heist. My point of reference for female crooks is drabby Ma Barker, striding through small-town Depression America in her straight-off-the-rack glad rags, like a fourth Fury who’s missed out on the Oprah staff shopping spree. But here’s Joan dolled up in designer fashions and furs, plus diamonds—diamonds, my dears, simple pearls won’t do—and high-hatting it at a ritzy casino. She’s playing the tables as the set-up before her own staff appears, disguised as cops, to clean out the joint. They make off with $90,000, a lot of dough back in 1952 when this film was released. And all tax-free, as Harry Lime would point out. The heisters hie back to HQ to count their gains and plan their next job. And that’s when the real story begins.

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This is not a film about heisting. It’s not even a film about a dangerous woman, in spite of the title. It’s a Joan Crawford vehicle, so it’s all about Joan. And I’m all for that. As far as I’m concerned, Joan was one of the most watchable women in the universe, so she can sashay about in fabulous outfits and golf-ball-sized jewels for as long as the sun burns in the sky. And 1952 was a great year for fans of Joan’s fabulousness. It saw the release of her hit thriller and (another) career resurgence, Sudden Fear, in which, need I mention, Joan looked utterly gorgeous, draped in more furs and jewels than are seen at a red-carpet Oscar crawl. That same bonus year brought out This Woman is Dangerous, in which Joan again enthralled us with her poise, her fashions, her command of cinematic space, and her huge, focused eyes that seem to swallow up the whole screen world and reflect it back to us—with that sense you get of how, whenever Joan’s onscreen, she’s the only thing that matters, the one who becomes all of what we’re seeing.

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By which I mean that when we watch Joan Crawford, we tend to think of her by how we see her onscreen. More than any other star Joan seemed to define herself for us in her films, fusing with her roles into a magnificent chimera of fantasy, fact, and delirious wish-fulfillment. Where does Joan end and the role begin? Each movie seems another entry in the metaphorical Crawford bio. It’s not that Joan in real life ever took charge of a heist gang; it’s that, whether it was people, pictures, or Pepsi, Joan always took charge, period. Her onscreen image goes beyond acting, it seems to partake of her essence. As I once mentioned to a fellow blogger, has anyone ever thought of Joan as the auteur of her films? As the one who scripts their meaning? She wraps each cinematic production around herself as deftly and glamorously as she does one of her extravagant furs, breaking and reforming movie-making rules to suit her star power.

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You can see such scripted control in a scene in TWID in which Joan, at a doctor’s office, is asked her occupation by the receptionist signing her in. Joan hesitates a mini-second (answering “Lady Crime Boss” would, no doubt, raise some alarms), and then replies, calmly, “Housewife.” There she sits, slathered in fur and jewels up to the earlobes, looking like someone who’s never wifed a house in her life, and a smile nearly flutters her lips. I’ll bet Joan, when filming that scene, must have known what everyone in the audience would at that moment have been thinking—this woman is a housewife?—but I think Joan understood her effects, I think she knew what would then happen. Which is that we would all go along with it. We would accept her view, we would agree, yes, right now she is a housewife, the Ur-Housewife, the Platonic conception of Housewifery in its perfected form. She is what a housewife is meant to be. All other housewives, please take note.

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The above-mentioned doctor’s office plays a bigger role in the plot than does the heisting, because, as I noted, the film’s not a heist drama but Joan’s drama: her private agon of suffering and redemption on the way to a happy ending. She’s a heistmeister who also needs an operation for an eye problem. Things get complicated—things always get complicated in a Joan Crawford movie—and she’s forced to juggle her half-crazed heist-partner lover, the nice doctor performing the surgery, a snooping private dick, and even the FBI. The lover’s a jealous, murdering brute who makes Othello look like a mild case of pique; the doctor’s an amorous innocent with no idea of Joan’s past; the dick is—well, suffice to say he is one; and the FBI is just there, doggedly sniffing out Joan’s trail. There’s enough drama here for several washings of soap opera, but Joan holds and balances all these plot strands in her immaculately gloved fingers, with always the right touch, the right detail, down to how she’ll drape a stole round her shoulders with just the right, relaxed fall across the breastbone.

And of course there’s the drama itself: that celluloid agony and ecstasy of existence that Joan must seize, battle, subdue, and transform into personal victory for the rest of us. Oh, the problems she must get through. Will Joan recover her eyesight? Will she ditch her demon lover? Will she shake the Feds? Will she tell the doc the truth and yet keep his love? And as for the dick—no, we’ll leave the dick, Joan tells him off anyway, in a grand confrontation scene, in which, back straight, head up, and eyes ablaze, she flings open her hotel-room door and orders the bozo to blow. It’s the sort of gesture you’d think, apropos George Sanders, she’d be too short for, but Joan carries it off beautifully, throwing every hard-earned inch of height into it; she’s a veritable Everest of nobility.

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I notice a trend in Joan’s 1950s films, in that the more fabulous she was, the more she was surrounded by diminished male star power. Her screen partners were no longer the Gables, Tracys, and Montgomerys of yore; she may still have burned onscreen like the sun, but her satellite men now tended to shrivel from all that heat. TWID, for instance, has Dennis Morgan as the doctor, an all-around utility man (such a pretty fellow when younger, but looking a bit puffy-faced here), who’s amiable and pleasant, but is forgotten the moment he walks off the screen. David Brian has the more interesting role as Joan’s bonkers heistmate, one with a taste for whiskey and pistol whippings. Brian was a big tall slab of a man with silver hair, tiny, dull eyes and a face made of an immovable substance. He looks, and acts, like a middle-aged banker about to address a board meeting on the past year’s profits and losses, but his role requires him to go postal and beat up Phil Carey; he pounds Carey’s head into the carpet with all the fury of a banker who’s discovered the balance sheets don’t add up. Whose idea was it to cast Mr. Salaryman as Tommy Udo? It’s like Spring Byington having a go at Lady Macbeth; the temperaments don’t match.

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I think Joan could have done Lady Macbeth. Hell, I think she could have done Joan of Arc, if she’d a mind to. There’s no denying she had temperament; she meets and conquers every problem hurled at her, always impeccably coiffed and polished and dressed to the nines—good lord, to the tens—and always in charge. When, in TWID, her nasty boyfriend brandishes a pistol, Joan knocks it out of his hand. With her purse. While wrapped in fur. How can you not adore this woman?

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