Friday, May 07, 2010

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL: A WOMAN'S FACE (1941)—On-Stage Conversation With Illeana Douglas and Casey LaLonde

Conversing with several festival participants while waiting in line, it rapidly became clear to me that TCM fans are both knowledgeable and opinionated. "How TCM could hold a classic film festival without including even one Bette Davis film is beyond me," complained one fan and there were commensurate complaints that the only Joan Crawford film—the "essential" though, arguably, obscure A Woman's Face (1941)—was being screened in the festival's smallest venue: Mann's Chinese Theatre House 3. I set reservations aside to enjoy this freshly-struck print from the Warner Bros. vaults, introduced by Melvyn Douglas's granddaughter Illeana Douglas and Joan Crawford's grandson Casey LaLonde (who likewise shared his grandmother's home movies with participants in a Club TCM presentation; the tail end of which I likewise enjoyed).

As the TCM notes synopsize: "Often forgotten among the many lesser vehicles that Louis B. Mayer had her cast in during her last years at MGM, this 1941 romantic thriller contains one of Joan Crawford's personal favorite performances. Those sentiments are echoed by her grandson, Casey LaLonde, who not only chose this film for the Festival, but will be in attendance to present this screening. After seeing Ingrid Bergman in the 1938 Swedish version, Crawford persuaded Mayer to pick up the property for her, even though he thought the choice would end her career. He feared audiences would be disgusted by the role of a scarred female criminal whose character changes when plastic surgery turns her into a beauty. Crawford put her full trust in director George Cukor, who eradicated any hint of the MGM glamour queen from her performance. To get her to drop all artifice while telling how she got her scar, he made her recite multiplication tables before the take. Then he complemented her work with a vivid visual style bordering on Expressionism. The result was a triumph she hoped to follow by playing the mute servant in The Spiral Staircase, but Mayer was firm—'No more cripples or maimed women!' (Dorothy McGuire would star in The Spiral Staircase in 1946, but for another studio). Crawford always harbored a soft spot in her heart for A Woman's Face and later credited it with helping her win the Oscar® for Mildred Pierce (1945) by reminding Hollywood she was a very talented actress."

It's hard not to consider Joan Crawford's tutelage under Lon Chaney, Sr. in the silent classic The Unknown (1927) as a possible inspiration for her fierce lobbying for the role of Anna Holm in A Woman's Face. Undoubtedly it's true that the "Man With A Thousand Faces" shaped Crawford's belief that acting should not always be confined to glamorous roles and that now and again she should play a face that only a plastic surgeon could love. Crawford has been quoted as saying that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney work than from anything else in her career. "It was then", she said, "I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting."

As Crawford wrote in her autobiography A Portrait of Joan (Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York. 1962:126-127): "Poor Mr. Mayer. He had borne with me as the bitch in The Women, the bleak-looking woman in Strange Cargo, the mother of a subdeb in Susan, now he balked at my playing a scarred woman who hated the world. Luckily George Cukor took up the cudgels for me, and A Woman's Face scored my high point at MGM. I was extolled as the first lady Lon Chaney, for as Anna Holm, I wore from eye to mouth on the right side of my face a hideous mass of seared tissue created by
Jack Dawn. The studio released no publicity art. They were concerned that my mutilated face would keep people away from the theater. The scar didn't deter me, there are too many beautiful women in pictures anyway.

"What worried George Cukor was my emotionalism. He anticipated that wearing a scar would affect me as wearing a cape has been known to affect some actors. To offset the possibility, he rehearsed the very life out of me. Hours of drilling, with camera and lights lined up for the opening sequence in the courtroom, then Mr. Cukor had me recite the multiplication table by twos until all emotion was drained and I was totally exhausted, my voice dwindled to a tired monotone.

" 'Now,' Mr. Cukor said, 'Now, Anna ... tell us the story of your life.'

"I say a prayer for Mr. Cukor every time I think of what A Woman's Face did for my career. It fortified me with a measure of self-confidence I'd never had ... the greatest rave notices I'd ever had ... the succès d'estime I'd longed for ... what critics called 'the best picture to emerge from Hollywood in a long long time' ... and what others called the best picture, without question, of the year."

Variety, at the time, observed: "Miss Crawford takes a radical step as a screen glamour girl to allow the makeup necessary for facial disfiguration in the first half ... [Crawford] has a strongly dramatic and sympathetic role ... which she handles in top-notch fashion."

A Woman's Face joins Crawford's catalogue of entertaining—if not slightly coerced—melodramas. Her character Anna Holm is on trial for murder. The film is structured as a series of sequential flashbacks that impel the plot forward one character at a time, providing clues and perspectives to winnow out the conflicting motivations of this romantic thriller. The technique bears interest for prefiguring by a little under a decade Rashomon's soon-to-be-infamous relativity of perspective. A Woman's Face cries out for a screen capture assessment, especially because as each character tells their tale his or her face is held superimposed upon the beginning shot of their narrative. When it comes Crawford's turn to recount her involvement, her face is superimposed stunningly against a wintry landscape. This is a screen capture that could be aptly entitled "The Ice Queen." With Melvyn Douglas as love interest Dr. Gustasf Segert, Conrad Veidt as the oily foil Torsten Barring, Marjorie Main as the prudish Emma Kristiansdotter, and a cloyingly impish performance by child actor Richard Nichols as Lars-Erik, Crawford's turn from depravity to redemption clings fiercely to its narrative arc and succeeds by sheer force of will alone. Of incidental interest is Conrad Veidt's participation in this project, reminiscent of his own turn as the disfigured Gwynplaine in the 1928 classic The Man Who Laughs.

Two contemporary and particularly commendable commentaries can be found at Self-Styled Siren (
Farran Smith Nehme) and Cinepassion (Fernando Croce). Nehme writes: "What we have here is two-thirds of a good movie. A Woman's Face starts out wonderfully, continues well through the midpoint and just when you are thinking, 'Hooray! I love this!' Joan Crawford shows up at a dance in some kind of Swedish peasant dirndl-drag and it's all over." The film's final third Nehme categories as "hamfisted." Croce culls out some intriguing resemblances to the work of Hitchcock and Rossellini.

Several of Illeana Douglas's performances have captured my attention over the years, notably when Robert DeNiro bites her cheek off in Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991), her triumphant figure eights over the frozen corpse of Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995), and her channeling the spirit of singer-songwriter Carole King in Grace of My Heart (1996). Douglas was 15 or 16 at the time her grandfather Melvyn Douglas passed away so she has clear memories of him. "First of all," she began, "I just want to say thank you to TCM for showing this film. It's really a great film and I'm thrilled to be part of the TCM family. I've done some introductions for films of my grandfather. He was born in Macon, Georgia—a lot of people don't know that—and he was discovered by Gloria Swanson while he was doing a play called Tonight Or Never. The fun thing about that was that his understudy was Joseph Cotten so that—when he went to Hollywood with Gloria Swanson—Joseph Cotten took over for him and that's what started his career. He was at MGM for many years under contract and then in 1949 my grandmother ran against Richard Nixon for senate, she was defeated, and it caused a lot of problems." Illeana's grandmother Helen Gahagan Douglas, in fact, was the first to call Richard Nixon "Tricky Dick." Her grandparents lived in a lovely home in Hollywood, neighbors to Paul Douglas and Ronald Reagan; but, 1949 proved a difficult year in many ways for many people in the film industry. That's when Melvyn Douglas's career shifted from leading man to character actor.

"What's great about this movie for me," Douglas emphasized, "is that it's at the height of my grandfather's leading man career. He's the only actor, I believe, to have worked with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, Garbo, Marlene Deitrich, Norma Shearer, and Irene Dunn. A Woman's Face is at the height of his career during the golden days of MGM."

Douglas then recounted that Melvyn Douglas was a wonderful grandfather. She was allowed to be on his movie sets a couple of times (namely, Being There and A Ghost Story), which proved to be "a crazy experience" for her as a young girl. As he became a character actor later on, Douglas added, her grandfather bristled against the delimited view of character actors and insisted there was no such thing as "character acting". If you're a good actor, he said, it's all character acting.

Joan Crawford and Melvyn Douglas did three films together: The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), A Woman's Face, and They All Kissed the Bride (1942). Crawford spoke highly of him. As Illeana was growing up, she was obsessed with Crawford, and wanted to look like her because she was so beautiful, even in A Woman's Face, and—in her estimation—an actress whose performances in such films as Autumn Leaves (1956) have been highly underrated.

Casey LaMonde, Joan Crawford's grandson by way of Cathy LaMonde—one of Crawford's adopted fraternal twins born in 1947—contacted TCM as soon as he heard about the film festival and offered the heretofore unseen home movies. Accepting his offer, TCM then granted him the right to pick a Joan Crawford movie to show at the festival and his choice was A Woman's Face, first because he had never seen it on a big screen and second because it linked in temporally with the home movies. Recalling his grandmother, he admitted he was five when she passed away. "I would give just about anything to have had more time with her. She was in failing health when I knew her. We would visit her in New York City at least once or twice a month. She hadn't been out in public in quite a long time because she was not looking like Joan Crawford anymore. As a term of endearment—no 'grandma' for her, no 'granny', because she was Joan Crawford—she came up with a nickname. We called her Jojo. My mom referred to her as Jojo as well. So I have wonderful memories of going to the city, seeing her, days and weekends with her in her amazing apartment on the Upper East Side. We'd go eat lunch with her, run around her parquet floors, and just hang out with Jojo. To my mother and my Aunt Cindy who passed away about two years ago she was a loving supportive mom. None of the Christina stuff was ever discussed because it never happened to them at all. She was loving to her children and her grandchildren as well."

05/11/10 UPDATE: At TCM's Movie Morlocks, Moira Finnie considers A Woman's Face.

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