This is my contribution to the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please do visit and read the other postings, covering a great range of films.
In her mid-40s when The Damned Don’t Cry was made, Joan Crawford was just a little too old for the part of a gangster’s moll. Yet that’s just what makes this movie so compelling, as she pours herself one more time into the kind of working girl role she had made her own earlier in her career. Although the film is often described as a noir, in some ways it is a successor of pre-Codes like Baby Face. Just like Barbara Stanwyck’s character in that film, Crawford here has nothing but her looks and her wits, and uses them to climb from one man to another, taking revenge on a world which has wronged her.
At the start of the film, a gangster’s body is thrown out of a car. Police start to search for a missing socialite linked with the dead man, Lorna Hansen Forbes, only to discover that her name and her whole lifestyle appear to be fake. Where did she come from? As they try to find out, Lorna (Crawford) turns up at the poor shack where her parents live. Her mother greets her as “Ethel”, but her father coldly ignores her.
This posting is really a follow-up to the excellent John Garfield centenary blogathon. In the last few days I’ve been lucky enough to see one of Garfield’s rarer films, Saturday’s Children, and was surprised to realise just how many other versions of the same story have been made. The film was reviewed during the blogathon, but I can’t resist giving my own take on it too. Anyway, after talking about the film itself, I’ll then go on to mention the other versions which have been staged or filmed, ranging from the original Broadway stage play – starring a very young Humphrey Bogart! – right through to a stage revival in the last couple of years. I’ll also post some pictures of some of the other versions. Although I do like discussing endings, I’ve resisted the temptation on this occasion, so there are no serious spoilers in this posting – but, if you just want to know about the other versions, scroll down to the bottom!
The 1940 film starring Garfield, directed by Vincent Sherman, was the third screen adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play. It is often described as a romantic comedy – but perhaps a more accurate description is that it’s a tragicomedy. The way it moves from sweet early scenes to increasingly painful/bitter ones, and eventually lurches into near-melodrama, reminded me of one of my favourite James Cagney films, The Strawberry Blonde, made the following year,which I will be writing about soon for the forthcoming James Cagney blogathon. Both films have scripts by Casablanca writers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, reworked from stage plays, and both see Warner Brothers ‘tough guys’ cast somewhat against type, in roles which bring out their more vulnerable qualities.
Back to the pre-Code period – and back to John Barrymore. I’ve already written about one fine, though little-known, film where he plays a lawyer, State’s Attorney (1932).The following year he starred in this even better legal drama, which must be one of his finest talkies, and is available on DVD from Kino, though in region 1 only. Barrymore gives a restrained but moving performance as a workaholic lawyer, who spends much of the film having two or three phone conversations at once. Sadly there are no courtroom scenes this time – but it’s an utterly compelling film, which repays repeated viewings. Indeed, you’ll need them to catch all the quickfire dialogue, especially in the scenes with Isabel Jewell chattering away irrepressibly as switchboard operator Bessie.
Like many early 1930s films, this drama is based on a stage play, in this case by Elmer Rice. It does betray its stage origins in the way that it is entirely based in one setting, within the Simon and Tedesco suite of legal offices in the Empire State building. However, where some films set in just one location might drag at times, Counsellor at Law, an early success for great director William Wyler, moves at a breathless pace. Rice, who adapted his own play for the screen, had trained and worked as a lawyer, and the legal background feels very authentic as far as I can tell, tackling still-current issues such as insider trading and professional standards.
I wanted to see Mr Skeffington because it stars Bette Davis, who is one of my favourite actresses. However, I ended up feeling that Claude Rains gives by far the stronger performance in this movie, which saw them both receiving Oscar nominations.
Bette Davis and Claude Rains
I was also interested to see it because I’d read that it is one of Hollywood’s first films to tackle anti-Semitism, and I’ve recently seen a couple of other films which look at this – but there isn’t as much about this theme as I’d expected. There are some brief, painful scenes where the Jewish hero, Job Skeffington (Rains) is shown being cruelly snubbed by members of society – and towards the end of the film there is some limited suggestion of what the Nazis were doing in Europe, leading to a shocking climax. However, most of the movie in fact focuses on Mrs rather than Mr Skeffington and on her struggle to come to terms with growing old and losing her looks – something which is unfortunately portrayed by Bette Davis wearing unconvincing wigs and inch-thick make-up.