TCM Pick of the Month: Pre-Code
Possessed (1931) is one of my favorite Joan Crawford films – and for someone who loves Joanie as much as I do, that’s saying something! This was the first Crawford pre-Code that I ever saw, and I’m delighted to select it as my TCM pre-Code pick of the month. It’s got so much to recommend it, from Clark Gable sans moustache, to Joan Crawford singing in German and French – and lots of pre-Code goodness in between! So tune in to TCM on November 18th. You’re going to love this one.
Marian Martin (Crawford) is unhappy. She works in a box factory, and although her boyfriend, Al (Wallace Ford) wants to marry her, she’s not willing to start out life “on the installment plan” and yearns to experience the world that exists outside of her small, dusty hometown. After a chance encounter with a playboy from New York, Marian throws caution to the winds and moves to the Big Apple, where she snags wealthy attorney Mark Whitney (Gable) and her life is transformed – in more ways than one.
There’s actually a scene about midway through the film that’s my real favorite, but I would have to give away too many plot points if I were to describe that one. So I’ll offer this substitution instead:
The scene begins as Marian approaches a train that’s slowing to a stop. As she gazes longingly, each passing window offers Marian a different glimpse into a world she’s never seen: stewards mixing cocktails in a silver shaker, a maid ironing a pair of silky step-ins, a lingerie-clad passenger checking a pair of hose for runs, a couple dancing across their (enormous) room. When the train stops, Marian is standing in front of Wallace Stewart (Skeets Gallagher), who is on a balcony of the train drinking champagne. Wallace offers her a drink, jokingly expressing dismay to learn that Marian is no shrinking violet: “This conversation just isn’t right. You should be timid and blushing, and I should be luring you – oh, like blazes – but it doesn’t seem to be working out right.”
“You don’t own me – nobody does. My life belongs to me.” Marian Martin (Joan Crawford)
“You’ve caught me at a sober moment – you’ll probably never see me sober again, so you better listen. There’s only one way for a girl to get along in this town and that’s with a man – a rich man – to help her. But you must keep a cool head. When you meet a man, never look into his eyes. Take a peek – at the pocketbook…. And one other thing (before you go) – find out all you can about them, and never tell them anything. Men like to think that they’re Christopher Columbus, discovering America.” Wallace Stewart (Skeets Gallagher)
Favorite pre-Code moment:
Mark is with Marian in her apartment bedroom as she gets ready to accompany him to a swanky party. The two reminisce about their relationship during the last three years, and then Mark gives Marian a passionate kiss. Mark drapes Marian’s fur coat over her shoulders, but then takes her into his arms again. The camera pans downward, where we see her coat fall to the floor. In the next shot, Marian and Mark arrive at their party – an hour late, they’re told by Wallace, who meets them at the door. Wallace tells Mark that his tie needs fixing, and after Marian hurriedly straightens it, she and Mark exchange brief, sheepish smiles. It’s pretty adorable.
Possessed was directed by Clarence Brown, who also helmed such first-rate features as A Free Soul (1931), Anna Karenina (1935), Wife Vs. Secretary (1936), and National Velvet (1944). He also directed Crawford in four other features, including another favorite of mine, Sadie McKee (1934).
Joan Crawford starred in another film called Possessed in 1947, in which she played a mentally unbalanced woman. For her performance in this film noir, she earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (she lost to Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter).
My favorite scene – the one that I didn’t describe – features a brief but memorable performance by an actress named Marjorie White. Sadly, she died in 1935 at the age of 31, from injuries she received in a car accident.
Possessed2 was the third of eight films in which Crawford starred with Gable. While filming Possessed, Crawford and Gable began a love affair that, according to some sources, lasted on and off, between each of their marriages to others, until Gable’s death in 1960.
Possessed was based on a play called The Mirage by Edgar Selwyn. After finding success as a playwright as well as an actor, Selwyn and his brother, Archibald, teamed up with producer Samuel Goldfish in 1916 to create the Goldwyn Pictures Corp. Goldfish liked the name so much that he adopted it as his own, becoming Samuel Goldwyn. A few years later, Goldwyn left the company to become an independent producer, and Goldwyn Pictures eventually merged with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions to become – you guessed it – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (or MGM)!
The Mirage was adapted into the screenplay for Possessed by prolific writer Lenore Coffee, who was under contract to MGM from 1929 to 1936. Of the studio system, Coffee was once quoted as saying, “They pick your brains, break your heart, ruin your digestion – and what do you get for it? Nothing but a lousy fortune.” (Nice work if you can get it.)
Possessed airs on TCM on November 18th. Don’t miss it!
You only . . . well, you know.