Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
USA, 1931. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee, based on the play by Edgar Selwyn. Cinematography by Oliver T. Marsh. Produced by Clarence Brown. Music by Charles Maxwell. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by Adrian. Film Editing by William LeVanway.
Joan Crawford has at this point moved into talkies and adds to her strengths, that bewitchingly charismatic face now accompanied by a smart and dominating delivery of this film’s exceptionally good dialogue. She plays a factory girl in a nowhere town who wants more than her dull, cement-mixing boyfriend and a shanty house with her mother (Clara Blandick). An inspired sequence of her waiting for a slowing train to pass by while on her way home sees her staring into its private cars where people live the fine life, dining on fancy food and doing a waltz, until the vehicle stops and she chats with a millionaire who is enjoying far too many martinis on the train deck, and invites her to join. Next thing we know, she has brought herself to New York City and is looking this same kind stranger up, but all he has to offer her is the advice to go out and make it on her own; luckily, she meets his wealthy lawyer friend (Clark Gable) just as she is leaving, with whom she is immediately smitten and the feeling is returned. Years pass and now Crawford has learned French and German, plays piano and knows how to serve a fine dinner, enjoying a very modern unmarried relationship with Gable that is protected by her cover as the divorcee to a fictitious ex-husband whose alimony keeps her in finery (and is actually just Gable footing the bills). She longs for more than just an endless love affair but accepts the fact that Gable is anti-marriage, but when he begins to pursue a political career and she realizes that she could be a liability, she finds herself facing the fact that her fine life isn’t honest and that she loves him too much to risk him not achieving his potential. The Stella Dallas-esque sacrifice made in a world where women are always at the mercy of what men can do for them reads as ridiculous now, but the film’s main message, that love cannot exist without integrity, makes it so much more powerful than most of the social climbing melodramas that were popular in the day. It helps that Crawford herself, who often played ambitious girls looking to become sophisticated women, is perfect for the role, you can tell she’s had it hard but that she has a natural refinement, and it makes it easy to root for her the whole way.