Sunday, November 18, 2012

Joan Crawford Triple-feature: Johnny Guitar, Mildred Pierce, and The Women

Johnny Guitar (1954)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, and Scott Brady.
This one-of-a-kind Western is dominated by two strong-willed, pistol-packing women: Crawford as a cynical saloon owner and McCambridge as a sexually-repressed cattle owner. The plot has been frequently described as an indictment of McCarthyism, with McCambridge inciting a “witch hunt” against Crawford’s progressively-minded businesswoman. However, the film’s classic status can be attributed to its rich characters, the over-the-top (but effective) performances, and Philip Yordan’s crackling, contemporary dialogue (one of Joan’s employees comments about his boss: “I’ve never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel that I’m not.”). With the exception of Crawford’s lovers (Hayden and Brady), the males are portrayed as weak and ineffectual: when it’s time to lynch Crawford, the men of the posse turn to McCambridge to play hangmen; Brady’s gang is indecisive and weak, consisting of a sick man, a hothead, and a wet-behind-the-ears punk. It’s fitting that the climatic confrontation is between the women. Watch for Hayden’s speech on the virtues of “a good smoke and a cup of coffee.” This picture and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, which stars Marlene Dietrich as an outlaw leader, would make a fine double-feature.

Mildred Pierce (1945)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, and Eve Arden.
Joan Crawford won an Oscar in the title role as a mother-turned-entrepreneur who dotes on her older daughter, ignores her younger one, and has little use for the men in her life. Unfortunately, older daughter Veda (Blyth) is thankless, materialistic, and focused only on herself—and blames her mother for everything (“It‘s your fault I’m the way I am!”). The film’s enduring popularity can be attributed to the fact that it works on several levels. It’s a first-rate soap-opera with strong female characters that dominate the film (in addition to Mildred and Veda, Eva Arden has a field day as Mildred’s wisecracking friend Ida). It’s part murder mystery; the film opens with Zachary Scott’s good-for-nothing playboy being shot four times in a shadow-filled beach house.  And, best of all, it features some psychological undercurrents worthy of in-depth discussion (e.g., what was the true motivation behind Mildred’s second marriage and what did she think was going to happen?). Crawford gives one of her most finely nuanced performances and gets strong supports from the rest of the cast. Carson, in a change-of-pace from his usual comedic roles, delivers the goods as a would-be wolf always interested in a quick buck.  Although Mildred Pierce earned six Oscar nominations, the highly versatile Curtiz was ignored.

Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and
Rosalind Russell.
The Women (1939) 
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, and Mary Boland.
Who needs men? Not this quintessential women’s picture about female friendships, feuds, and fashions among New York’s upper class. Based on Claire Booth Luce’s Broadway play, The Women features an all-female cast and a screenplay adapted by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. George Cukor, who was sometimes labeled a “women’s director”, made the only significant male contribution. (It’s important to note that Hollywood did not embrace female directors until a decade later when pioneers like Ida Lupino entered the ranks.) Norma Shearer headlines The Women as Mary Haines, whose seemingly ideal marriage takes a hit when she learns of her husband’s affair with ambitious sales clerk Joan Crawford. Mary’s mother tells her to forget her husband’s indiscretion if Mary still loves him. But others advise her that a Reno divorce is the proper response. While many individual scenes ring true emotionally (especially the ones between Mary and her young daughter), The Women simmers dramatically without reaching a full boil. Part of the blame can be attributed to the large cast and subplots that bloat the story. For example, during the first half-hour, it’s a chore just to learn all the characters and how they’re related. The success of the ending also depends on one’s perception of a character that’s never seen nor heard—Mary’s husband. I didn’t like the guy and, as a result, I didn’t care for the film’s resolution. Still, The Women is an ambitious, unique movie that was embraced by both critics and the public when originally released. In contrast, a 2008 remake starring Meg Ryan and Annette Bening, was universally panned by critics and ignored by moviegoers. 


  1. I like your use of the word "chore" in your review of "The Women" - that's how I feel about the film in general, except for Joan Crawford's performance, of course.

  2. Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell were at their best. I didn't care for Mary or her clueless husband but the rest of the characters were funny.
    This is one of my favorite movies.

  3. Joan is 3 different women in these roles, isn't she? The Women -- thin eyebrows, beautifully young, great as a catty homewrecker! Mildred Pierce -- sophisticated even as a homemaker, furs and jewels later, perfect makeup and hair, melodramatic performance, wonderful. Then we get to Johnny Guitar -- heavy brows, men's-type clothing, super melodrama, over-acting -- I guess you can tell that Johnny Guitar is not a favorite of mine!

    I really enjoyed this look at Joan in different eras of her career. Good one, Rick!

  4. I loved Joan Crawford's performance in Mildred Pierce. Haven't seen the other films though now I would like to see The Women.

  5. You didn't mention what you thought of the HBO miniseries remake of Mildred, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet. I thought it was amazing, and both the 1945 film and the remake sit side by side on my DVD shllves.