Mannequin (1937)

FRANK BORZAGE

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.

USA, 1937. . Screenplay by , based on the story by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by . Academy Awards 1938.   

Joan Crawford is once again clawing her way out of the gutter, this time out of the noise of New York City’s Hester Street, where she lives with and supports her careworn mother and unemployed father and brother by working in a garment factory.  Tired of the endless nights of fighting and eating potatoes and sauerkraut, she convinces her childhood sweetheart to finally marry her, which he does, taking her to a nice new apartment and promising that his current gig managing a boxer will be something very lucrative someday.  When she catches the eye of a self-made millionaire shipping magnate (Spencer Tracy) who originally came from her neighbourhood, she keeps her distance thanks to her own self respect as a married woman, but Curtis, who is a lot shadier than he at first seemed, comes up with a get-rich quick scheme that ruins all her illusions:  he proposes that she divorce him, marry Tracy and then after a few months divorce him for a huge settlement.  From there continues a convoluted melodrama whose focus is never clear, whether it’s about the love triangle, or Crawford and Tracy specifically, or a story of her own development as a woman becoming awake to the manipulations of the people around her (or, as is the usual message in the thirties and its appeal to Depression-era audiences, the dissatisfying emptiness of wealth).  The actual modeling work that inspires the title is a very small part of the plot (though it does provide for a dazzling fashion show that would have really fed the imaginations of many watching it), but even if this film’s script isn’t always smoothly worked out, the characters are always genuine and affecting.  Director Frank Borzage showed us his skill for presenting the harsh realities of marriage with affection and sexy intensity in Bad Girl, and while he’s not supported by material equal to that here, he still elicits a sympathetic intimacy out of the stars (their only time working together) that makes the film affecting even if it is not overwhelming.

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