Wednesday, April 16, 2003
A Joan Crawford Film
By Kevin John
It's no longer such a controversial conclusion that actors can be
considered auteurs, the authors of their films, just as decidedly as
directors. But in what precise ways can we call a film starring, say,
Joan Crawford (to choose my favorite example) a Joan Crawford film?
If from 1945 on Joan Crawford was consistently paired with
uncharismatic or downright wimpy actors (Barry Sullivan, John
Ireland, Sterling Hayden, Zachary Scott and the perfectly named
Wendell Corey), she was also paired with equally uncharismatic or
wimpy directors. Most of the directors she worked with in this era
have yet to be considered auteurs, and most likely never will. So
just as we can pick out various themes running throughout the oeuvre
of an auteur director camaraderie and professionalism in
Howard Hawks, luck and the common schmuck in Preston Sturges, fate in
Fritz Lang we can do the same with Joan Crawford's films,
particularly in the 1950s.
To tweak a phrase of Richard Dyer's in his seminal book "Stars,"
Crawford fits the category of actor-auteur. We observe, for instance,
that Crawford's films made with such blah directors as Joseph Pevney,
David Miller, Vincent Sherman, and even such auteur faves as Nicholas
Ray, Robert Aldrich and Michael Curtiz, are all very similar to each
other. They are also more like Crawford's other films than like films
by the same directors with different stars.
Some of Crawford's '50s films are so similar, in fact, that they can
be strung together to form a single narrative strand. Two such films
complement one another quite elegantly in this regard: "Harriet
Craig" (1950) and "Female on the Beach " (1955). At the end of
"Harriet Craig," Harriet (Crawford) learns that her husband Walter
(Wendell Corey), finally fed up with the pile of Harriet's
control-freak manipulations, is leaving her with the house and an
income in the divorce settlement. Harriet's walk up the grand
staircase alone in the film's last shot echoes the supposed sadness
of the more famous last shot from King Vidor's 1937 version of
"Stella Dallas." Stella's (Barbara Stanwyck) final and ultimate
sacrifice is that she must bear silent witness to her daughter's
wedding and walk away from it unnoticed.
But Patricia White, in her excellent book "Uninvited Classical
Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability," sees something else
besides sadness in the latter: "The last, memorable shot of Vidor's
'Stella Dallas' signifies an undepictable 'beyond,' as Stella strides
towards us, tears streaming down her face, her destiny unknown."
I interpret the final shot of "Harriet Craig " along similar lines.
Shed of not just husband but of the need to find employment, as well
as retaining her gorgeous home, Harriet faces a life of possibilities
unique to a 40-something woman in 1950, possibilities we never get to
see, since the film ends there. So "Female on the Beach" can be
posited as a sort of sequel to "Harriet Craig" in this respect. In my
next column I'll explain how.